A legal spat between sibling rival restaurateurs in Chicago’s north suburbs has been sliced after a Cook County judge tossed a lawsuit brought by the owner of Evanston’s Sarkis Café against her brother for allegedly improperly mimicking her restaurant’s menu at his newer restaurant in Highland Park.
In September, Cook County Associate Judge Neil H. Cohen dismissed the litigation brought by Sarkis owner Marla Cramin against her brother, Scott Jaffe, and his wife, Debra, who own and operate Uptown Diner, about 11 miles north.
Cohen formally dismissed the case in an order issued Sept. 15, making official his findings Cramin had no legal leg on which to stand to bring the case against her relatives.
“Sarkis has failed to allege a single misrepresentation by defendants creating consumer confusion,” Cohen wrote in an opinion issued Sept. 1. “The complaint does not allege that defendants have used Sarkis’ name or in any way suggested to customers that Uptown Diner is connected with Sarkis.
“Sarkis has alleged only that defendants have used Sarkis’ alleged trade secrets, which, in fact, do not qualify as trade secrets.”
Cramin had filed suit May 6 against the Jaffes and Uptown Diner, alleging they “decided to copy Sarkis’ menu items, down to the exact ingredients and price, including the sandwiches created by Marla’s son and deceased husband, and prepare and serve them in the same method as Sarkis.” She alleged five counts against the Jaffes and Uptown, including consumer fraud and deceptive business practices and violations of the Illinois Trade Secrets Act.
Cramin asked for an injunction preventing the Jaffes and Uptown from serving the food and using any language “that is confusingly similar to the Sarkis name” or menu.
Cramin’s lawsuit came just months after she and her brother settled a lawsuit she had brought against her brother and sister-in-law in late 2014, as the Jaffes prepared to open their new restaurant.
Cramin and her husband, Jeff, in 2000 bought Sarkis, a popular breakfast and lunch diner which had operated near New Trier High School in Evanston for almost five decades under original owner Sarkis Tashjian. Following Jeff’s death in 2002, Scott Jaffe had helped his sister continue to run the restaurant for about 10 years.
In 2012, Cramin fired her brother after she discovered her brother had allegedly mismanaged the restaurant’s finances.
When the Jaffes opened their new restaurant in 2014, Cramin sued them, alleging at that time the Jaffes were improperly implying an affiliation with Sarkis. That lawsuit was settled with an agreement barring the Jaffes from using Sarkis’ name, or the names of its various specialty sandwiches.
Cramin alleged in her most recent complaint her brother had violated that agreement and had unfairly copied Sarkis’ menu.
In his opinion dismissing the lawsuit, however, Cohen said Cramin’s allegations were half-baked. He noted Cramin has merely accused her brother of serving food items with similar common ingredients, often served on similar bread and on similarly-sized dishes. And none of that rises to the level of wrongdoing Cramin asserted, Cohen said.
“Sarkis does not allege that defendants have stolen any secret recipes or secret processes from Sarkis,” Cohen said. “Sarkis alleges nothing more than the fact that Uptown Diner serves certain menu items, using common ingredients which are listed on Sarkis’ menu, which are very similar to menu items served at restaurants throughout the Chicago area … Something cannot constitute a trade secret if anyone can sell the item.”
Sarkis was represented in the action by the firm of O’Halloran Kosoff Geitner, of Northbrook.
The Jaffes and Uptown Diner were represented by attorney Marshall N. Dickler, of Dickler, Kahn, Slowikowski & Zavell, of Arlington Heights.