Chicago Brewhouse received a Cease and Desist letter to remove Lem’s name from its menu
By Erick Johnson
On August 19, a customer was dining at the Chicago Brewhouse on Chicago’s Riverwalk. It was a Sunday afternoon and a late summer weekend was winding down on the Riverwalk, a hip 1.25-mile strip of restaurants, bars and sidewalk cafes along the Chicago River. The customer picked up Chicago Brewhouse’s menu and saw something attractive: Chatham rib tips with Lem’s famous barbeque sauce.
The customer called Carmen Lemons, the owner of the iconic Lem’s Barbeque, located at 311 E 75th St. Lemons and her attorney discovered that for 30 days, the successful brand name and trademarked product that her father worked hard to build, sat on the restaurant’s menu without her knowledge or permission.
With little information about the sales or profits from Chicago Brewhouse, Lemons would not be able to stake a claim in profits from Kevin Vaughn, a successful businessman who claims that he was too busy to ask or obtain permission from Lem’s Barbeque before using their name and placing its product on the menu. But when Lemons got word of what happened, things began to sizzle. Her lawyer fired off a Cease and Desist letter and the Lem’s name and product was immediately taken off the menu. Vaughan has moved on from the incident without sharing any profits or paying any penalties, but his actions have left Lem’s feeling burned.
It’s a story that involves two successful business owners who run restaurants on the opposite ends of Chicago. On the South Side is Lem’s, a 64-year-old, iconic rib joint with a one-of-a-kind barbeque sauce on juicy, tender ribs. On the North Side is Chicago Brewhouse, a new restaurant that built its success on the Riverwalk, a waterfront mecca that provides breathtaking views of the Chicago River slicing through a forest of glistening skyscrapers. Over the years, the Riverwalk has proven to be a moneymaker for restaurants and a new destination for sunbathers.
What Mayor Richard M. Daley started in 2011, his successor Rahm Emanuel finished this May, with a $100 million makeover that has attracted more restaurants and inspired a $10 million plan to expand the Riverwalk east to Lake Shore Drive.
One of the newest kids on the block, Chicago Brewhouse, is at 318 N. Wabash. The restaurant sits next to the Wabash Bridge with an impressive view of the Trump International Hotel & Tower to the east. The freedom of American capitalism that made its namesake owner, President Donald Trump wealthy, also lies in the veins of Vaughan, the owner of Chicago Brewhouse.
But Vaughan’s latest problem has Lem’s questioning his values, in a way similar to Trump’s.
He owns the Vaughan Hospitality Group, a chain of six restaurants in Chicago and outlying suburbs. Chicago Brewhouse is his seventh eatery, but it’s different from his six Irish restaurants that have operated for 10 years. The restaurant aims to “celebrate” Chicago’s diversity by offering foods from various ethnic neighborhoods. For moderate prices, one can order the Chinatown Crab Wontons, or the Chicago Pizza Flatbread or the Lincoln Square Jumbo Pretzel. The big problem on the menu was its $12 Chatham Rib Tips with Lem’s Barbeque Sauce. The brand is the trademark name that exclusively belongs to Lem’s barbeque. It was the only branded trademark name among the 13 entrees.
When the South Side pastor (who remains anonymous) saw the Lem’s barbeque sauce on the menu August 19, he called Lemons and not only texted her the menu, but a picture of the dishes as well.
“He said, ‘I didn’t know y’all sold Lem’s on the Riverfront.’ I said we didn’t (sell them there),” recalls Lemons.
Lemons would learn that Chicago Brewhouse never asked or received permission to use Lem’s name or product to sell to its customers on the North Side.
A Crusader reporter consumed Chicago Brewhouse rib tips and its “Lem’s barbeque sauce.” While the rib tips were tough and fewer in quantity, the sauce was saltier, thicker and did not taste anything like Lem’s vinegary, tangy recipe. And for $12.25, Lem’s customers get more pieces of rib tips than what was served at Chicago Brewhouse.
For Lemons, the bigger concern was how Chicago Brewhouse’s rib tips and barbeque sauce threatened to damage the reputation of Lem’s in the eyes of food lovers who had never heard of the 64-year-old iconic rib joint that her late father, Myles Lemons co-founded in 1954 along with his brother, Bruce. Since then, customers from all ethnic backgrounds have trekked to Lem’s to gulp down its beloved rib tips smothered in its famous sauce. Among them was Aretha Franklin, who famously traveled to Lem’s after her concerts in Chicago.
Two days after being notified of its name being used by Chicago Brewhouse, Lem’s attorney Mark Cohen sent the restaurant a Cease and Desist letter. It ordered the restaurant to remove Lem’s name and product off the menu, citing trademark and copyright infringement. A copy of the letter was obtained by the Chicago Crusader.
“That’s a clear violation of our trademark…I thought I would send this quick note and suggest you immediately cease using any reference to Lem’s barbeque sauce or anything that’s an invasion of our rights,” the letter reads.
More than two weeks after the letter was issued the Crusader visited the Chicago Brewhouse, on September 6. By that time, Lem’s name and product was off its menu. Rib tips are still on the menu, but under the name “Chatham Rib Tips with Tangy Sauce.”
But the question remains, why would a successful restaurant owner use a trademarked name and sell its product without obtaining Lem’s permission?
“I don’t know,” said Lemons. “But they thought they weren’t going to get caught.”
In an email to the Crusader Vaughan, the owner of the Chicago Brewhouse, said “With all of the many moving parts in getting place open (sic) it was an oversight on my part for which I regret and apologize. But, once contacted we stopped using their product and removed their name from the menu.”
During a telephone conversation, Vaughan said with a “crazy opening,” he was too busy to get permission from Lem’s to use their name and product on their menu. But Vaughan couldn’t explain why Lem’s name was still on the menu one month after the restaurant’s July 22 opening.
And although the Brewhouse menu item did not taste like the real deal, Vaughan insisted that he was using Lem’s barbeque sauce. He said his cook traveled to the restaurant in July before his restaurant opening and purchased a batch of Lem’s barbeque sauce with cash. He texted the Crusader a picture of a half empty jug, but he didn’t have any receipts to prove the purchase. And if there was a purchase, why Chicago Brewhouse’s cook get permission from Lem’s staff or owner when he visited the South Side eatery to purchase Lem’s Barbeque sauce.
“I don’t know,” said Vaughan. “Our goal was to highlight neighborhoods outside of downtown. When we were developing our menu, we really wanted to demonstrate to tourists that there are many interesting neighborhoods outside of downtown.”
Vaughan has apologized but Carmen Lemons, Lem’s owner, remains skeptical.
“He should have known better,” she said. “Why would Lem’s need to be promoted by some startup. We’ve been around for a long time. Everyone knows us. He used us to benefit himself.”
Vaughan said the rib tips and barbeque weren’t big sellers anyway. He did not disclose the sales figures or profit margins from the product. But at Lem’s the real deal has been a big seller for more than six decades.
Because Vaughan complied with the Cease and Desist letter, Lemons cannot sue the restaurant. And with the Chicago Brewhouse being in business for nearly two months, there is little hope of filing a lawsuit or collecting any compensatory damages.