Indie cafe in Brixton takes on hedge fund-backed coffee chain over name

Family-run Blank Coffee in south London launches legal challenge saying US Blank Street Coffee is trying to copy its ‘vibe’

A family-run vegan cafe in Brixton has launched a legal challenge against the London expansion of a big US coffee chain seeking to rival Starbucks, claiming its “highly similar” brand was causing reputational damage to its “indie vibe”.

The David and Goliath trademark dispute sets south London’s Blank Coffee, owned by Warner Newman, 34, and Samantha McKinson, 32, and their popular plant-based cinnamon buns, against Blank Street, a New York brand whose owners are funding their expansion plans with the help of venture capital.

Blank Street Coffee moved into the UK last year, saying it wanted to acquire 25 locations to add to its 50-plus stores in the US, as part of a global expansion funded by $60m (£50m) raised in 2021.

Last summer, the New York Times wrote that the chain, whose business model is built around high-volume automated espresso systems, had become “suddenly inescapable”. The company wants to make London its “second city” after New York.

The founders of Blank Street Coffee, Vinay Menda and Issam Freiha, say they wish to challenge Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. The US company has, however, run into a legal row with Blank Coffee. The independent cafe in south London, founded in 2015 by Newman and McKinson as a cart catering to City workers, expanded into a cafe in Brixton in 2018, with a popular plant-based menu.

The owners are formally opposing the registration of the Blank Street Coffee trademark in the UK, claiming it would “amount to a misrepresentation likely to lead to confusion as to the origin of their goods”.

A Blank Street Coffee shop in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
A Blank Street Coffee shop in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York. Photograph: Robert K Chin/Storefronts/Alamy

The couple’s statement of grounds for their opposition to the trademark registration, claims the 11 Blank Street cafes in London are already “causing actual confusion and are damaging the opponent, in that customers are querying the inferiority of the Blank Street product and, assuming the opponent has sold out, complaining about it”.

They add of recent press reviews: “Blank Street coffee has been reported as being insipid and weak.”

In a separate legal letter, Newman and McKinson said they believed the US coffee chain, established in 2020, had in effect copied their name and their cafe’s “distinctive mint green/white/black livery, simple lettering … and were endeavouring to copy the indie vibe”. The US firm denied this.

Blank Street denied claims of copying and said the couple’s lawyers had been guilty of “huge inaccuracies” in their correspondence. They said: “Blank Street Coffee was founded in May 2020 in New York and we’re proud of the brand we’ve built and grateful to the customers we’ve served. Blank Brixton has made numerous false claims that we strongly refute. We hope to find a resolution to the intellectual property dispute soon.”

Blank Street Coffee, Charlotte Street, London.
Blank Street Coffee in Charlotte Street, London. The US firm is hoping to make London its ‘second city’ after New York. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

The case highlights the renewed post-pandemic demand in the UK for coffee shops – whose sales have grown 11.9% in the past 12 months – and the clash between the independent artisanal stores and the dominant chains.

McKinson, who was a baker before setting up business with her partner, said she had become aware of the US company’s impact on her business when regular customers congratulated her on their expansion.

She said: “One of our really loyal customers came in and said, ‘Oh, I’m really happy’’. I just said, ‘Ehm, we don’t know anything about this’. As soon as she said that a lot more came in saying, ‘Congratulations’.”

After raising the problem of the similarity of the brands, McKinson received a message on Instagram from the company’s managing director, Ignacio Llado, saying there was “absolutely no mal intent from our side … and the similarities are a very unfortunate coincidence”.

Newman added: “They put a stat on their Instagram that showed their most successful store was in London. You know why? Because the brands are really known here. That’s why – and the most successful stores were Clapham, near us.”

Newman and McKinson named their cafe Blank Coffee after their daughter Summer, 14, quipped that they had “drawn a blank” during a brainstorming session over a name.

Newman said he had spent “thousands” on legal fees. “I’m selling, my car, anything I have, to keep it going. They know that. It’s got millions and millions of pounds.”

Blank Street have until 19 April to respond to Blank Coffee’s opposition to the trademark registration.


Daniel Boffey

The GuardianTramp

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