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Restaurant founded by Duke’s mayo creator is accused of ripping off the iconic label

Duke Foods is a sandwich shop-turned-packaged food brand in South Carolina that credits Eugenia Duke — the savvy 20th century businesswoman behind the Duke’s mayonnaise recipe — with its founding.

Therein lies a problem, according to Sauer Brands Inc., the owners of Duke’s mayonnaise.

In a federal lawsuit filed Friday in Charlotte, Sauer accused the Greenville company of confusing customers with a new “look-alike” logo for mayonnaise-based spreads that “free rides” on Duke’s “goodwill and popularity” as a southern staple.

“Defendants heavily promote this limited shared origin story, even though it has been over 95 years since defendants’ sandwich shop (even assuming their claim of a continuous connection is accurate) could in any way claim it was connected to what Duke’s would build into the famous Duke’s Marks,” the complaint states.

A spokesperson for Duke Foods told McClatchy news group in a statement Tuesday the company was “blindsided” by the allegations.

John Boyanoski said the great uncle of Duke Foods’ current CEO was Eugenia’s bookkeeper, Alan Hart, and the family is the “custodians” of her original sandwich and salad recipes.

“We continue to ask the question of why now,” Boyanoski said in a separate statement. “Sauer did not object when Duke Foods expanded into retail grocery more than a decade ago and Sauer then partnered with us on the 2017 celebration of the 100th anniversary of Eugenia Duke founding her company.”

According to the Duke Brands website, Duke Sandwich Company products were offered in regional grocery store chains starting in 2006.

“Our company and Duke’s Mayonnaise have a shared history in pioneer entrepreneur Eugenia Duke, who sold both businesses in the 1920s,” Boyanoski said in the statement. “Both our companies and their respective brands have coexisted until the recent sale of the C.F. Sauer Company.”

The Charlotte-based private equity firm Falfurrias Capital Partners bought Sauer this summer, according to a press release announcing the deal in June.

Sauer says Eugenia Duke sold her mayonnaise recipe and associated trademarks to the Sauer family in 1929 and stayed on as chief salesperson.

“The only asset not transferred to Duke’s was Mrs. Duke’s local South Carolina sandwich business, which she had previously sold,” the complaint states.

Duke’s subsequently became a household name “synonymous with authentic Southern food,” Sauer said.

Meanwhile, the sandwich business continued as a restaurant in South Carolina owned by her bookkeeper, Alan Hart, and his successors, according to Sauer.

“Thus, while Duke’s was expanding and growing its Duke’s Marks into a famous, nationwide brand, upon information and belief, Mr. Hart and his successors in interest kept the sandwich business local and within the confines of South Carolina,” the complaint states.

That is until recently, when Sauer said Duke Sandwich Company began expanding its product offerings and availability in regional and national grocery store chains.

Duke Sandwich mentions that growth on its website, saying the company opted to expand into “new product categories” such as ready-to-eat spreads, dips and salsas under the new name Duke Food Productions in 2014.

Duke also created a new logo in 2018 that mirrors Duke’s with “a similar cursive script” and the same black, red and yellow color scheme, Sauer said.

“Defendants’ entire purpose in changing their logo was to deceive consumers – i.e. with the hope that consumers would purchase defendants’ goods and services based on a mistaken belief that they were made of or affiliated with Duke’s mayonnaise,” the complaint states.

Sauer pointed to at least six instances in which consumers confused the products, including a reporter’s story in a South Carolina newspaper.

It’s suing for trademark infringement, unfair competition and false designation of origin, trademark dilution, deceptive trade practices and unfair competition.

But Boyanoski with Duke Foods said the company won’t give up easily.

“We plan to fight to keep our name and our brand,” he said.

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Hayley is a Real Time reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking news and trending stories in the Carolinas. She also created the Observer’s unofficial bird beat (est. 2015) with a summer full of ornithological-related content, including a story about Barred Owls in love.