Major Restaurant Fight

Restaurant name fight triggers a lawsuit: One of Houston's top chefs charges an upstart with copycat

Restaurant name fight triggers a lawsuit: Houston chef charges copycat

Hugo's logo
Hugo's court filing cites the similarity between the restaurant's script logo and that of Hugo Caliente's. Hugo's/Facebook
Hugo Caliente logo
According to Hugo's, Hugo Caliente uses a similar font for its logo. Hugo Caliente/Facebook
Hugo's logo
Hugo Caliente logo

What's in a name? Shakespeare may not have thought that names are very important, but one of Houston's most high-profile chefs is going to court to protect his.

Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught, the husband and wife owners of the upscale Mexican restaurant Hugo's in Montrose, have filed suit in federal court against Chris Smith, owner of Hugo Caliente restaurant in Town & Country. Vaught and Ortega contend that the name of Smith's restaurant trades on the reputation that they have spent more than a decade building.

According to Smith, who spent many years in the Pappas organization prior to opening his own concept, Hugo Caliente's name stems from the ovens he uses that make the restaurant's enchiladas "hot from the first bite to the last." The idea of "you go hot" became Hugo Caliente.

"We even say it wrong: 'Hugh-go' instead of 'Ooh-go," he tells CultureMap.

 He describes Smith as a "Johnny-come-lately" who's trying to profit from the work Vaught and Ortega have done building Hugo's.   

Vaught's attorney David Cabello tells CultureMap that his client wants Smith to change the name of his restaurant from Hugo or any phonetic equivalents to protect the "substantial value" that Vaught and Ortega have built over the years at Hugo's. Cabello notes that the federal statute governing trademarks allows Hugo's, in its position as the "senior user" of the service mark "Hugo's," to enjoin a newcomer just based on the likelihood of confusion between the two brands.

Citing posts to the Memorial Area Eats! Facebook group where users sometimes shorten "Hugo Caliente" to "Hugo's" in his petition, Cabello argues that "actual confusion" about the connection between Hugo's and Hugo Caliente already exists in the marketplace.  

Vaught provided the following statement to Eater about the company's decision to go to sue:

Recently, we became aware that a restaurant had opened in Town & Country, operating under the name Hugo Caliente. The problem is that this restaurant’s use of the Hugo Caliente name has caused significant confusion and has created the mistaken belief that this is a new extension and new location related to Hugo’s and Chef Hugo Ortega in West Houston. This is simply not the case – Hugo’s has not opened a causal location out in Town and Country. Hugo’s remains at its single location at 1600 Westheimer.  By Hugo Caliente’s frequent shorthand reference to itself as "Hugo’s," and inclusion of "Hugo" themed menu items and other "Hugo" or "Hugo’s" references, the confusion has spread.

Hugo Caliente’s use of the words "Hugo’s", "Hugo" and their name, "Hugo Caliente" is hurting the brand that we’ve worked so hard to build over the past 12 years. We have attempted to work with the owner of Hugo Caliente at an acceptable resolution to this matter, without resorting to litigation, but we were unsuccessful in our efforts.

After meeting with Vaught and her attorney, Smith complied with requests to change the name of menu items like "Hugo's shrimp." Just when he thought that the situation was drawing to a close, Smith says he received a phone call from TV station KTRK informing him that he had been sued.

"I was blindsided by this. I thought we were working on something together," Smith says. 

Cabello disputes Smith's account. "We felt we were not making progress," Cabello says. "It turns out in these matters time is of the essence . . . The more you sit on your rights the more the courts look on it with disfavor." They chose to file in order to resolve the matter "quickly, efficiently and with due dispatch."

Smith says that, while he's been to Hugo's before and enjoyed the food, it never occurred to him that anyone would confuse his 2,200-square foot restaurant on the Sam Houston Toll Road feeder with a new concept from James Beard finalist Ortega. "I don't want to be confused with them either. It's a totally different concept," he says. "I think the consumer is smart enough to know the difference."

For example, Smith cites the difference between the amount of publicity Caracol, Vaught and Ortega's coastal Mexican restaurant, received when it opened at the end of 2013 compared to the coverage his own restaurant garnered. "It's like Pappas. They can't keep a restaurant a secret," he says. 

While it's tempting to portray this dispute as underdog upstart being picked on by a prosperous, established restaurant, Cabello paints a different picture. "I've been watching social media. The people who understand the issue are other restaurant owners who know what Tracy and Hugo have built . . .  (they've) worked long and hard to establishing that reputation."

He describes Smith as a "Johnny-come-lately" who's trying to profit from the work Vaught and Ortega have done building Hugo's into a nationally recognized institution. 

Smith concedes he may be "naive" about the situation but strikes an optimistic tone that the matter will come to a swift resolution. "I'm just trying to stay focused on work. I'm sure we'll be able to work something out."