No Square Deal
Side Dishes: Small resto wrangles with the state
Chef Matt Birong
This January, Chef Matthew Birong was startled to see a newspaper ad for 3Squares VT — the supplemental nutrition program that used to be called “food stamps.” Birong is the owner of 3 Squares Café, a downtown Vergennes eatery that serves daily breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Although he’d heard from an inside source that the program’s new title was “floated around in December,” Birong believed that having registered his trade name several years ago would protect him. “I thought they would have kept that name for me,” he says. “I called my attorney.”
He also called Renée Richardson, the program’s director. “She didn’t seem surprised to hear from me,” Birong says. “I made the point that I respected the program — I think they do a great thing — I was just hoping they could find another cute name for it. She said the secretary of state thought the name was different enough.”
Next, Birong’s lawyer sent along a cease-and-desist letter, to no avail. Birong is considering a lawsuit, though he hopes to avoid that recourse. “I have several contract attorneys who are customers,” he says. “I asked, ‘Do I have a leg to stand on?’ One of them said, ‘You have two.’”
The chef is curious about the timing of the name’s approval — on Christmas Eve. His source, he claims, told him the Department for Children and Families tried numerous variations on the name 3 Squares “until something stuck.” Birong wonders if, “because it was the day before everybody goes on break, and they needed to launch the program in early January, somebody just got sick of looking at it and rubber-stamped it.”
For now, a Google search on “3 Squares Vermont” brings up links to Birong’s restaurant — which he says is doing well despite the economy. As information about the new state program spreads, that could change.
Is Birong overreacting? “I think you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant that wouldn’t be upset having their name tossed around,” he says. “I think it’s confusing to the public.” About 20 of his customers have commented on the similarity.
“Everybody is in disbelief over it,” Birong avers. “I paid [the state] to protect my name, and they turned a blind eye to that when they wanted it for their own needs.”