A 102-year-old brand with South Carolina roots is front and center in a federal food fight.
Earlier this year, Falfurrias Capital Partners, a Charlotte-based private equity firm founded by former Bank of America chairman and CEO Hugh McColl Jr. and two other investors, acquired The C.F. Sauer Company of Richmond, Va., a condiments manufacturer that produces Duke’s Mayonnaise.
C.F. Sauer is now demanding that three Greenville area businesses stop their alleged infringement of the “Duke’s” brand name.
In a lawsuit filed Oct. 4 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Sauer alleges that Duke Sandwich Productions, DFP Sandwich Shops, and Duke Brands – three successor firms to a smaller one begun by mayonnaise maven Eugenia Duke in 1917 –have engaged in trademark infringement, unfair competition, and deceptive trade practices under federal and state law.
Eugenia Duke began selling popular sandwiches made with her pimento cheese, chicken salad and egg salad recipe to drug stores, textile mills, and doughboys during World War I.
The lawsuit states that she and her husband then sold the Duke’s brand and business to C.F. Sauer in 1929.
“The only asset not transferred to Duke’s was Mrs. Duke’s local South Carolina sandwich business, which she had previously sold,” the lawsuit argues.
The defendants have “recently begun a campaign to capitalize on the reputation and brand recognition” of Duke’s that was “built by Duke’s” and have adopted a look-alike logo for use on mayonnaise-based spreads, the suit alleges. The defendants have also begun selling those spreads and related products in grocery stores throughout the southern United States, C.F. Sauer asserts.
The lawsuit is accompanied by exhibits of the defendants’ products on shelves at Bi-Lo and Ingles stores in Western North Carolina. Photos of both the “genuine” and “infringing” products are embedded within the text of the lawsuit.
The Smart family, current owners of the Greenville area companies being sued, issued a statement saying they were “blindsided” by the claims.
“Our company and Duke’s Mayonnaise have a shared history in pioneer entrepreneur Eugenia Duke, who sold both businesses in the 1920s. Both of our companies and their respective brands have coexisted until the recent sale of the C.F. Sauer Company, which was the long-time parent company of Duke’s Mayonnaise, this summer to Falfurrias Capital Partners,” the family said.
In 2017, the Smart family opened a corporate headquarters at 600 South Main Street in Greenville and celebrated the original product’s centennial anniversary with new brand identities and a new parent company, Duke Brands. According to the family’s statement, Duke Brands and Duke Foods – whose production is based in Easley – employ more than 300 people in South Carolina, North Carolina, and the Caribbean.
The company’s Greenville sandwich shops are located on Congaree Road, Poinsett Highway, and Augusta Road.
Duke Brands’ production facility is the country’s largest producer of pimento cheese and a nationally-ranked producer of chicken salad.
According to Sauer’s lawsuit, the Greenville-based company is opening a manufacturing facility in North Carolina.
That facility will encompass 95,000 square feet and will create both branded and private-label products, confirmed company spokesman John Boyanoski, adding that the Monroe, N.C. plant will employ between 200 and 300 people over the next five years.
“We plan to fight to keep our name and our brand,” the company’s statement said.
As the parties launch their federal food fight, each points to the rich tradition of a historic brand name and its following.
“The name ‘Duke’ is more than the name of our company and its products, it is our history and our people,” the Greenville statement reads.
“In fact, the DUKE’s brand and marks are so popular that they have become synonymous with authentic Southern food,” C.F. Sauer says.
Sauer is asking for a jury trial, which likely will have the panel focused not only on the intricacies of trademark law but also on brand awareness and personal shopping habits.
No trial date has been set.