Call it tasty. Call it messy. Call it habit-forming. Just don’t call Garrett Popcorn Shops’ mix of caramel- and cheese-flavored popcorn the Chicago Mix.

Candyland Inc., a St. Paul, Minn.-based company, last month filed federal trademark infringement lawsuits against three companies, including the owner of Garrett Popcorn Shops, alleging that the three have wrongly branded their popcorn confections Chicago Mix.

The four-store Candyland chain received a trademark for Chicago Mix in September 1992, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The other companies named as defendants in suits are Waukegan-based Cornfields Inc., which markets bagged popcorn under the G.H. Cretors trademark and Snyder's-Lance Inc., which packages its Chicago Mix under the O-Ke-Doke brand.

Unlike the three defendants' recipes, which pair caramel corn and cheese corn, Candyland's recipe also includes its seasoned popcorn in its Chicago Mix.

The recipe isn’t the point, according to Brenda Lamb, who with her husband, Doug, bought the business in 1981. Brenda Lamb came up with the concoction in 1988, and four years later applied for and received the federal trademark.

“We've been policing our trademark since we took it out,” she said. “It's not over how much money you have. It's what you did legally to protect the name of your product.”

Why name it Chicago Mix?

"If I would have put Minneapolis Mix or St. Paul Mix, would it be popular in another state?” Lamb said. “A big-city name usually draws attention to a product. It took off incredibly fast.”

Chicago Mix remains the best seller for the company, whose annual revenue totals less than $5 million. Very much a small business, Lamb on Tuesday had to delay an interview with the Tribune for a few minutes while she stirred a batch of caramel popcorn.

This isn't the first time Candyland has tussled with CaramelCrisp LLC, which does business as Garrett Popcorn Shops.

In 2008, while in Chicago for a trade show, Lamb noticed that Garrett was using the name and promptly sent the company a friendly letter asking them to remove it. It complied, according to Lamb, but a while later, the Lambs noticed that the Chicago Mix name had returned to use.

“We’ve been back and forth with Garrett’s for years,” Lamb said. “We’re trying to be friendly colleagues of the business, and I think we were successful at being that way. It wasn’t that we were spitting venom at each other.”

Lamb said settlement talks were underway with Garrett, and though the suit was filed, it was never officially served on the company.

A spokesman for Garrett declined to comment Tuesday on whether there were any negotiations underway with Candyland, and said its combination of caramel and cheese popcorn was being rebranded for different reasons.

“Garrett Popcorn Shops is expanding into new markets and proactively started transitioning away from calling its world famous CheeseCorn and CaramelCrisp flavor 'Chicago Mix' to the more ownable 'Garrett Mix,'" spokesman Grant Deady wrote in an email.

“And this transition began prior to any lawsuit due to countless brands now using the Chicago Mix name on what Garrett Popcorn Shops feels is a product vastly inferior to ours. These are mostly pre-packed brands found in supermarkets and drug stores," he said. "No matter the name, no one in the world delivers handcrafted happiness the way we do.”

The Chicago Mix name is missing from Garrett’s website, replaced instead with Garrett Mix, a name that the company received a trademark for in 2009, according to records. But Chicago Mix was still prominently displayed Tuesday on the menus inside and outside the store just off of North Michigan Avenue.

Clarendon Hills resident Mary Thorne, stopping for a free sample of Garrett Mix while walking along North Michigan Avenue on Tuesday, said she didn’t know what the combination was called and she really didn’t care.

“I love it,” Thorne said. “Garrett's always has the best. Everybody wants to go to Garrett.”

A spokeswoman for Cornfields declined to comment on the lawsuit and Snyder’s-Lance did not respond to a request for comment. Cornfields has until Sept. 12 to respond to the lawsuit and Snyder’s-Lance until Sept. 16.

mepodmolik@tribune.com
Twitter @chibreakingbiz