Who didn’t see this one coming? Wolfgang Puck is suing Wolfgang Zwiener, the restaurateur who just opened WOLFGANG’S STEAKHOUSE BY WOLFGANG ZWIENER on Canon — located 2 1/2 blocks away from Wolfgang Puck’s flagship restaurant, Spago, also on Canon, and 6 1/2 blocks from Wolfgang Puck’s steakhouse, Cut.
According to the release announcing the lawsuit:
By also prominently featuring the name “Wolfgang’s STEAKHOUSE,” and minimizing the tag-line “BY WOLFGANG ZWIENER” the lawsuit alleges that the owners and operators of “WOLFGANG’S STEAKHOUSE BY WOLFGANG ZWIENER” (one of whom is affiliated with a company whose license to use the Spago trademark in Japan ended in 2005 and Wolfgang Puck chose not to renew) are brazenly seeking to take unfair advantage of the reputation and enormous good will developed over the last 32 years by Wolfgang Puck and the Wolfgang Puck brand. In addition, the suit alleges that Mr. Zwiener has violated a 2007 agreement whereby it was agreed that if Zwiener opened a restaurant outside of Manhattan he would use his full name “Wolfgang Zwiener” in a manner which would eliminate confusion regarding any affiliation between “WOLFGANG’S STEAKHOUSE” and Wolfgang Puck.
It then goes on to say how, by running 17 fine-dining restaurants across the country, overseeing three corporations, doing TV and writing cookbooks, Wolfgang Puck is basically the essence of Wolfgang-ness and this Wolfgang wannabe is going to get sued so hard he’ll wish he opened a McDonald’s instead.
"Why not use the whole name if he’s so self confident?" Puck said this morning. "Sooner or later, people find out it’s not us. People go (to WOLFGANG’S STEAKHOUSE) and tell me, ‘I asked for you and they say you’re not in.’ They don’t tell them it’s not my place."
A little background here: Wolfgang Zwiener is no Kobe carpetbagger. He spent more than 40 years as waiter/headwaiter at venerable NYC steakhouse Peter Luger. And before he opened WOLFGANG’S STEAKHOUSE BY WOLFGANG ZWIENER on Canon, he opened WOLFGANG’S STEAKHOUSE in NYC.
When I called the WZ steakhouse on Canon this morning, I was referred to Peter Zwiener, Wolfgang Z’s son, who said he’d just found out about the lawsuit and wasn’t prepared to comment. (For what it’s worth, the hostess answered the phone as "Wolfgang Zwiener Steakhouse Beverly Hills.")
Full disclosure: I haven’t been to WOLFGANG’S STEAKHOUSE BY WOLFGANG ZWIENER and it isn’t on my short list. The ubiquity of the steakhouse trend threatens to make me a vegan.
And if it weren’t for the name, it doesn’t sound like the sort of place that Puck would even notice. From a John Mariani review of the "original" WOLFGANG’S STEAKHOUSE in New York:
The place is blastingly noisy after 6 p.m. and there’s a big raucous bar crowd of guys who seem either headed for a Knicks game or on their way to a strip club…. Is there anything new or noteworthy about Wolfgang’s? Perhaps not but it is a fine addition to an already overcrowded steakhouse field. Go, you’ll have a good time, but it’s going to be loud and it’s not going to be leisurely.
So play lawyer: On the one side you have the Wolfgang Puck brand; on the other you have a steakhouse vet, also named Wolfgang, who opened an eponymous place in New York and wants to do the same in LA. Who will win?
(Let’s leave aside the likelihood that WOLFGANG’S STEAKHOUSE BY WOLFGANG ZWIENER doesn’t have a chance in hell. Forget the lawyers; the restaurant industry will kill it first. The steakhouse thing has really run its course and even Puck got in just under the wire.)
My answer: Whether or not WOLFGANG’S STEAKHOUSE BY WOLFGANG ZWIENER hopes to capitalize on Puck’s "reputation and enormous good will," I will suggest Zwiener was a fool to give his restaurant that name. Not because "Wolfgang Puck" is a global conglomerate bent on world domination (although it is), or because Wolfgang Puck is the world’s most successful chef (he’s that, too), or even because, in LA, Wolfgang Puck himself is only slightly less ubiquitous than the Hollywood sign.
The real issue is Wolfgang Puck has legions of rich, powerful and loyal customers who don’t view Puck as a celebrity chef so much as a beloved Los Angeles landmark. These are the people who eat $40 steaks in LA and my guess is they’ll be as receptive to WOLFGANG’S STEAKHOUSE BY WOLFGANG ZWIENER as they would to, say, a lunatic who buys one of those phony Oscars on Hollywood Boulevard and then tries to tell you that he got to thank the Academy.