September 2, 2006
Frankly, Just Who Is Swanky?
Thomas McDonald for The New York Times
By JOSEPH BERGER
A hot dog by any other name should taste as good, right? Well, if you believe that, then you haven't heard of the food fight rattling Connecticut with insults as pungent as mustard and sauerkraut.
For 18 years, Robert Manere operated a tumbledown hot dog shack off Interstate 95 in Norwalk with the catchy name Swanky Frank's. Paul Newman and Martha Stewart noshed there. The place, which Mr. Manere rented, became so popular that he was able to open branches in Westport, Milford, Newtown and, for complicated reasons, Tahlequah, Okla. Not only had his business turned into something of a national franchise, but his garlic-laced franks and fresh-cut fries were mentioned prominently in Jane and Michael Stern's "Roadfood" books, the Baedekers to highway heartburn.
Then, last September, the owner of the Swanky Frank's site here, Alexander Renzuella, who had run the shack from 1951 to 1982, decided to give the property to his grandson. He also filed a lawsuit to stop Mr. Manere from using the Swanky Frank's name at other locations.
The name originated with Frank Christiano in the late 1940's, an era when "swanky" was the "tony" of its day. But Mr. Manere registered the name in 1999 under federal trademark laws and so countersued in April, charging Mr. Renzuella and his grandson Drew Satterfield with infringement.
"I'm the real Swanky Frank, not them," Mr. Manere said as he prepared for a weekend crowd at his newest branch in Newtown.
A rather small-time dispute has wound up in the maw of the courts and left everyone involved with a case of indigestion. On the surface, the conflict raises questions of who owns the name of a business -- the owners of the property on which it sits or the person who most recently gave it its cachet?
Beyond metaphysics, though, there is a heartfelt drama worthy of O'Neill, involving bloodlines, wounded pride and the meaning of a handshake. Mr. Renzuella and his family, who want another generation to succeed on home turf, argue that the 30 years the family spent building the business demand recognition. Mr. Manere contends that his confidence has been betrayed by Mr. Renzuella.
Mr. Manere, 46, is not just another mustard-slathering stiff. He grew up in Weston, studied in culinary schools and ran the food department at the Pontiac Silverdome when it was home to the Detroit Lions. In 1987, Mr. Manere's father called him with a business opportunity back home.
"Remember that hot dog stand by your grandmother's house?" his father asked. "Well, he's selling it."
Mr. Manere takes pride in his hot dogs, personally slapping on coleslaw for a visitor. But he also took pride in his relationship with Mr. Renzuella, who often dropped by to tell tales of fish caught in Florida.
"Al was like a surrogate uncle to me," Mr. Manere said. "I'd always call him Uncle Al."
Now he is accusing his surrogate uncle of pretending that he just wanted the property and stealing his business by not paying him for the value of the restaurant.
"We could have avoided the whole thing if they had come to me and said, 'We want this business for my grandson,' Mr. Manere said. "I would have taught him everything he needed to know to run a business, because I'm the best at it. What he wanted to do was take over the business I built up over 18 years. Just because you own the property doesn't mean it's your business."
But according to the Renzuella family's lawsuit, Mr. Manere signed a lease in 1988 agreeing to surrender the Swanky Frank's name once the lease expired. Mr. Manere remembers the clause as boilerplate, and he says Mr. Renzuella never objected after he continued to use the name without a lease after 1992 or even after he trademarked the name.
Mr. Satterfield, Mr. Renzuella's grandson, who gave up a manager's job at Merrill Lynch in Atlanta for the chance to work at a sauna-like grill, has his own story. Stepping outside for some air, he said his family never considered Mr. Manere anything but a tenant, and a bad one who had let the shack run down.
"It was breaking my grandfather's heart to see what this was being turned into," Mr. Satterfield said. "It was a dump."
Mr. Satterfield has given the shack new doors, windows and a paint job. And the hot dogs -- available deep-fried or grilled -- are being cooked according to his grandfather's instructions, though he admitted that, like Mr. Manere, he uses Hummel Brothers franks.
"We don't make things his way," Mr. Satterfield said of Mr. Manere. "We do it my grandfather's way."
For his part, Mr. Manere no longer has any desire to help Mr. Satterfield.
"That won't happen," he said, "because it became ugly overnight." E-mail: email@example.com
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company