Chipotle Mexican Grill and Sweetgreen are facing off in what could be an epic trademark dispute involving rival chicken burrito bowls.
It’s probably no surprise this comes just in time for National Burrito Day on Thursday.
Chipotle on Tuesday filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court charging rival fast-casual chain Sweetgreen with trademark violations related to the launch of Sweetgreen’s new Chipotle Chicken Burrito Bowl on March 30.
The LTO by Sweetgreen was part of an ongoing strategy to bring “heartier” and more protein-heavy bowls to the menu that would be more applicable for the dinner daypart. At the time, Sweetgreen co-founder and Chief Concept Officer Nicolas Jammet said the bowl was created in part in response to customer feedback.
Chipotle, however, wasn’t having it.
In the lawsuit, Chipotle argued that Sweetgreen is using “its famous CHIPOTLE trademark” to sell a product that is very similar and directly competitive to Chipotle’s chicken burrito bowl, one of its most popular menu items and often made by customers with similar ingredients.
Chipotle is seeking an injunction to force Sweetgreen to use a different name for the menu item, and the lawsuit also seeks unspecified damages.
Sweetgreen officials on Wednesday said they were aware of the lawsuit and do not comment on pending litigation.
But the company in a statement said, “Sweetgreen’s mission is to connect people to craveable, healthy food that is responsibly sourced from farmers and suppliers we trust. We are excited about our new warm bowl featuring a thoughtfully-sourced chipotle powder that provides the perfect slightly spicy, smokey bite.”
Chipotle doesn't claim to own rights to the word chipotle, but instead points to similarities in the way its trademark "CHIPOTLE" is used in Sweetgreen's references to its new LTO.
According to court documents, Chipotle contends that Sweetgreen in marketing materials uses “CHIPOTLE” in a font that is “nearly identical” to Chipotle’s stylized mark. Chipotle also notes Sweetgreen’s use of a red color, identified as Adobo Red, which is similar to the background used by Chipotle, and that marketing materials don’t always identify a source for the product.
The lawsuit cites a Restaurant Business article noting Sweetgreen’s move into Chipotle’s menu territory and other positioning similarities, like Sweetgreen’s emphasis on “real food” that is accessible to all. Chipotle has also long focused marketing on using “real” ingredients.
Attorneys for Chipotle also pointed to a Sweetgreen Instagram post introducing the new bowl. The first comment states, “Chipotle who?!” Sweetgreen responds with, “You said it, not us,” followed by a zipped-lip emoji. Other Instagram users tagged Chipotle with news of the Sweetgreen LTO, indicating that diners saw similarities, the lawsuit said.
Sweetgreen is also charged with trying to move in on this week’s National Burrito Day, a longtime promotion for Chipotle, the lawsuit contends, though many other restaurant chains also offer promotions.
Chipotle, for example, reportedly started the promotion a day early by offering free burritos on Grubhub, with orders of at least $20 while supplies last through April 8. On Thursday, Chipotle will give more free burritos away by posting codes on Twitter.
Sweetgreen on Thursday is offering its Chipotle Chicken Burrito Bowl for 50% off to 20,000 customers who use the promo code “SGBURRITOBOWL.”
Chipotle sent a demand that Sweetgreen cease using the trademark and rename the product, suggesting use of the word “chipotle” in all lowercase letters, or calling it a “chicken bowl with chipotle.”
According to court documents, Sweetgreen did not respond to that suggestion.
In a statement Wednesday, Chipotle’s Chief Corporate Affairs Officer Laurie Schalow also said the chain doesn’t typically comment on litigation. But she did say, “We’re committed to protecting our valuable trademarks and intellectual property. Consistent with that, we will take appropriate actions whenever necessary to protect our rights and our brand.”
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