The name “Cliff House” is trademarked by the owners of the restaurant who ran it until its 2020 closure, but the incoming new operator seems to want to use the name, and there could be a trademark fight.
We’ve known for a couple of years that the site of the picturesque dining destination the Cliff House would be getting a new restaurant there, after the Cliff House’s heartbreaking closure in late 2020. And about a month ago, we learned who would be running that new restaurant; local attorney Alexander Leff in a partnership with SF-based Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group.
But since the Hountalas family that owned the Cliff House since 1973 had trademarked the name “Cliff House,” one figured the new restaurant would not actually be called “Cliff House.” Though it might, or it might come down to a legal fight, as the Chronicle reports on a potential trademark dispute over the name Cliff House.
“That name is part of the heritage and birthright of every San Franciscan, and I do not believe that it should be the sole property of a single family,” the new owner Leff told the Chronicle. “It would be sad if the citizens of San Francisco were forced to call the building by some other name.”
That may sound like someone itching for a fight, but Leff also had diplomatic words. He added in remarks to the Chronicle that the Hountalases are “great and loyal San Franciscans who spent two generations welcoming locals and visitors to that iconic landmark,” and that “They know how important this icon is to San Francisco.”
And the Hountalases sound amenable to a deal, though likely one that pays them.
“The name needs to go back on that building,” former co-owner Mary Hountalas said to the Chron, though she added, “We are not in a position to give away the marks and feel they still have considerable value.”
There is no disputing the Hountalas family does indeed own the trademark, and they are still using it to sell branded coffee mugs, pint glasses, and other memorabilia. They even applied for another new trademark this year, in addition to the four trademarks they already own. Per the Chronicle, they’re also considering a food truck operation that may use the name and logo.
And apparently there have been “preliminary discussions,” in the Chronicle’s words, over a deal to use the name. Neither party acknowledged the price range being discussed.
But among intellectual property attorneys, there is a school of thought that a trademark would not apply to what’s become a historic name, as the term “Cliff House” as a name for the location dates back to the Gold Rush days.
“You can find pictures from 1910 and earlier that used the Cliff House for that place and building. It seems that predates whatever rights the family has,” intellectual property lawyer Michael Dergosits pointed out to the Chron.
This may all be a negotiating tactic, as the two parties both seem amenable to a deal, but testing the legal and financial boundaries of its potential framework. And consider that the Hountalas family is even still hanging on the famed old Cliff House sign letters (at a “secret location”), seemingly with the intention of selling them as part of the deal.
Mary Hountalas came right out and told the Chronicle, “Nothing would make us happier than to see that they go back up on that building, because that’s where they belong.”
Image: Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons