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Burger King Has Been Forever Banned From Operating In This Town

There's only room for one King in this small Midwestern town.

If you're a major fast-food company, and your selling point is and always has been ubiquity, being banned from setting up shop in any American town is a tough pill to swallow. This is exactly the fate that befell Burger King. Due to a trademark dispute with a small local restaurant in Mattoon, Ill., the chain found itself banned from operating anywhere near the Midwestern town.

It all started with an ice-cream stand. Local couple Gene and Betty Hoots had purchased the "Frigid Queen," a successful Mattoon ice-cream business, in 1952. Hoping to expand beyond dessert, they added a hamburger restaurant to the ice-cream operation and fitted an old two-car garage with a grill and a dining counter for customers. When it came time to name the new place, a carpenter working for the Hoots suggested "The Hot Dames"—a reference to the ice-cream stand's name. It was a bit risqué for Mattoon, Ill., the Hoots thought, but they did like the concept of playing off of "Frigid Queen." Reasoning that "every queen needs a king," they eventually settled on "Burger King."

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Coincidentally, Burger King the chain came into existence the same year, 1954, in Miami. It was known at the time as "Insta-Burger-King," and no one could foresee that the case of parallel thinking would eventually set the two Burger Kings up for a legal battle. The Hoots registered the name of their restaurant as a trademark in Illinois in 1959 and that had become a problem for the Florida-based chain which had grown to include over fifty franchised locations in Illinois by the 1960s.

Perhaps sensing that offense was the best defense, the Hoots sued Burger King Inc. in 1968, demanding that the company open no further locations in their home state. At Burger King's instigation, the lawsuit was referred to the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. The litigation—at which even the president of Burger King was present–was, in a way, no contest. The Hoots were represented by a local Mattoon lawyer, Harlan Heller, while Burger King had a team of six attorneys at its disposal.

Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of Burger King Inc., deciding that the company had the right to continue operating its locations in Illinois. But, acknowledging the legitimacy and priority of the Hoots' Illinois trademark, the court granted them the exclusive use of the "Burger King" name within a 20-mile radius of their Mattoon location—effectively barring Burger King Inc. from the site.

Burger King, apparently, did not take the ruling well. It attempted to buy the right to operate in Mattoon from the Hoots for $10,000, which the couple ended up refusing, according to The Illinois Times.

So while you can always get it your way at Burger King, Burger King can't always get its way. As for the "original" small-town restaurant, the case put it on the map as a local attraction—and helped it thrive ever since.

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Owen Duff
Owen Duff is a freelance journalist based in Vermont, home of Ben & Jerry’s. Read more about Owen