Detroit Bold Coffee battling for Detroit-branded brew

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

A local company’s Detroit-branded java doesn’t jive with an East Coast entity that claims it was the early bird in the Motor City joe business.

But the target of the complaint insists the Dec. 22 lawsuit filed by New York-based Detroit Coffee Co. is nothing more than a shakedown.

“This is a Wall Street-versus-Woodward type of mentality,” said A.J. O’Neil, owner of Hazel Park-based Detroit Bold Coffee Co. “They think the little guy will fold.”

Detroit Coffee Co., a Michigan LLC with a New York City address, filed a complaint alleging trademark infringement against Detroit Bold. It demands a jury trial in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Detroit Coffee seeks to have O’Neil’s Detroit Bold brand name and any merchandise, logos and internet sites bearing the company’s name destroyed or handed over. Detroit Coffee is also seeking payment of up to $100,000 for damages and attorney fees.

“This shocked me to say the least,” O’Neil said. He started bagging and selling his coffee in 2009. Before that, he sold the custom brew at his cafe in Ferndale.

Detroit Coffee Co. and an attorney representing the company declined to comment on the case.

O’Neil and his attorney have filed a counter complaint against Detroit Coffee for trademark infringement after attempting to resolve the issue out of court. If Detroit Coffee cannot prove it has been using the “Detroit Coffee” trademarks to actively sell branded merchandise that the trademark was granted to protect, then the infringement claims won’t have ground to stand on and Detroit Bold should win, according to O’Neil.

But if the complaint goes to trial, O’Neil said he’s unsure what might happen to his company, which he expects will have made $400,000 in the last year.

“It’s not like I have all this extra income to hire a big legal team and go (to New York) to fight this,” he said. “Those folks in New York are conjuring up something that at best has no merit.”

O’Neil roasts his coffee at Becharas Brothers Coffee Co., roasters and suppliers of coffee in Highland Park. He calls Detroit Bold a “grassroots” company. He has five employees, two of whom are his brothers. He hires Detroiters to help him sell coffee at Eastern Market every weekend, he said. His brown-bagged Bold coffee is sold at Kroger, Meijer, Westborn Market and Ferndale Foods.

O’Neil delivers his coffee himself every week to Ferndale Foods, the first grocery store to sell it. He’s used portions of his sales to pump some money into Detroit neighborhoods.

According to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records, Detroit Coffee in early 2016 renewed trademark registrations to brand beverages, brewed coffees and teas as well as apparel with “Detroit Coffee.”

But O’Neil told The News he and his attorney, Mark Schneider, haven’t seen any evidence that Detroit Coffee actually sells any coffee under the Detroit Coffee name, or has ever sold coffee or other merchandise branded with that name. The trademarks the company pulled in the early 2000s were dead at the time Detroit Bold registered new logos bearing “Detroit Bold Coffee Co.” in early 2016, according to trademark office records.

The Detroit Coffee website, detroitcoffee.com, does have a page where visitors can purchase coffee and merchandise online through PayPal. The website reads: “Whether Motown or the Motor City, Detroit has always moved us with music and muscle cars. We founded the Detroit Coffee Company in the same spirit. Like a great song or a fast ride, our coffee fuels you throughout the day and into the night.”

William R. Samuels, the New York-based attorney representing Detroit Coffee, declined to answer any questions related to the complaint when reached by The News. Samuels did not respond to emailed questions.

Detroit Coffee renewed trademarks on the “Detroit Coffee” name for use on brewed coffees, teas and beverages on April 14, 2016, roughly two months after O’Neil registered two logos bearing the words “Detroit Bold Coffee Company.”

O’Neil had trademarked “Detroit Bold,” without the word “coffee,” roughly two years ago when his company began to pick up steam, he said.

“I will not ever give up that name,” O’Neil said. “It is ours, we earned it through a lot of hard work. I’ll do whatever I have to do.”

ithibodeau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau