Far out west, a tempest in a teapot is brewing. Or more accurately, a coffee pot. Where the Pacific Ocean meets the Great White North, Haida Gwaii (better known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) has become an unusual battleground between the coffee empire known as Starbucks and the lesser-known Haida restaurant/coffee shop empire (if one location can be called an empire) called HaidaBucks. A small native-owned and -operated organization in Massett, BC (population 1,200), HaidaBucks opened in 1999 as a 60-seat restaurant. Co-owner Darin Swanson describes the restaurant as having a traditional West Coast longhouse facade and says it offers everything from quesadillas to seafood specials. And, yes, they do serve coffee, though one wonders if it rivals coffee competitor Seattle's Best.
"Seattle" by the way, is a legitimate aboriginal name, that of a great chief famous for his "We are all strands in the web of life" speech. He probably never drank coffee.
A few months back, Starbucks Coffee Company, in its efforts to "protect the public from confusion and deception," sent a cease and desist letter to HaidaBucks requesting that it stop using a confusing variation of the Starbucks name and trademark. "Under trademark law, we are required to take action against any individual or entity that is infringing our trademark rights. Trademark law does not permit us to be selective in protecting our rights; we must 'police' our mark, regardless of the infringer's size. We risk damaging and possibly losing our trademark rights if we fail to do so."
But Swanson argues that Starbucks is barking up the wrong West Coast rain forest tree. He maintains that the "bucks" part of his establishment's name refers to aboriginal culture, not coffee culture. "Aboriginal men were called bucks, and we're also Haidas, so HaidaBucks. That's how we came up with the name. Lots of men out here are called Haida bucks. It's kind of our pet name." In actuality, "buck" is often used as a pejorative term for adult males across North America. The Delaware Reserve in Moraviantown, near Chatham, Ontario, is colloquially referred to as Bucktown.
"Originally, four Haida guys owned the place, so we decided to call ourselves HaidaBucks. It has nothing to do with Starbucks," says Swanson. "When we were younger we had a basketball team called the Bucks. It only makes sense that we named our business after ourselves." Starbucks took its name from a character in the Herman Melville novel Moby Dick, which long ago passed into the public domain.
Since Canadians love a good underdog, HaidaBucks has been inundated with public support. Its new Web site (www.haidabuckscafe.com) has had almost 100,000 visitors. As a result of this outpouring, two significant events have given the aboriginal entrepreneurs a second wind. First of all, Starbucks blinked. The publicly traded global conglomerate offered to give the small café until the end of the year to change its name, and to "reimburse HaidaBucks for some portion of the reasonable costs associated with changing its trademark."Fat chance, according to Swanson. "We've been using the term 'bucks' in our nations far longer then Starbucks has."
Joseph Arvay, a lawyer with Arvay Finlay, Barristers, has offered to represent them. This is pulling out the major guns. Arvay represented Delgamuukw before the Supreme Court of Canada (the landmark 1997 case establishing the concept of aboriginal title) and is now counsel for the Haida Nation in its land claim.
David versus Goliath? White corporate America versus a small aboriginal business? When it comes to this brewhaha, let's just hope what they say is true: size doesn't matter.