So here was my idea; create a name that visitors associate with Oahu and create beautiful packaging that anyone would automatically recognize as being uniquely from Hawaii. I live in Kailua, which includes Lanikai Beach. Lanikai is a very recognizable name among tourists. So I figured visitors would be drawn to this name.
Now for the coffee itself. I looked into buying beans and roasting them myself. I talked to several manufacturers of coffee roasters. I learned that for about 30K I could purchase a commercial roaster that would churn out small batches of my own special roast. The problem was I needed a commercial space to house this roaster, permits for the smoke, board of health certificates, and a way to print packaging and then bag it all. Right away I realized the money was to be made in selling and distributing it, not making it.
I called Lion Coffee. Turns out, they have a whole business of creating private label packaging and roasting. You just give them your design and tell them the roast you want. You pick the beans you want to use. I learned I could do all this for about $5 per bag. (please remember, this was over 7 years ago, I have no idea what they charge now). This was perfect, because I saw the ideal price point at $9.99 a bag. I figured if I could do all the distribution the idea might work.
My next step was to trademark my name. I used one of those trademark sites and was able to purchase the name “Lanikai Coffee Company.” According to the website, no one else owned the name. In fact nothing was even close. I was so excited. It cost about $600 for the registration service. I figured it was worth that much just to try the idea out.
Now, I could have started ordering bags of coffee, but I thought I needed to first be sure there was a market. My idea was to sell the coffee both locally at gift shops and through a website I would create. I figured I should at least talk to some of the local gift places to see what they thought. They loved it! They all said, “Wow, that’s a great name! Can we try the coffee?” When I told them Lion Coffee was brewing it for me, they were even more excited. That meant it wouldn’t be terrible. I could see how associating myself with a reputable business lent credibility to my idea. It was sort of piggy-backing. The best part was, I was testing my idea without spending a dime. I had not, at this point, ordered anything from Lion.
So felt needed to work on the packaging design. I wanted something simple. Hawaii has lots of old plantation style buildings with a light green color. It's sort of a tradition in Hawaii. I thought I would use that same color and then have Lanikai Coffee Company written in a plantation style print. I even contemplated writing up a fictitious history of the Lanikai Coffee Company that would be easily recognized as a spoof. In fact, I showed this to one gift shop owner in Kailua and they laughed and laughed.
|This is the color I wanted to match|
I really thought I was on to something! Then I received a call that changed everything. A lawyer representing the Icee company wanted to talk to the owner of the Lanikai Coffee Company. “What can I do for you?” I asked. He explained to me, in a very succinct 10 minutes, how the Icee corporation, a subsidiary of J&J Snack foods owned the name “Lanikai Coolers” a non-alcoholic drink mix. I had never heard of this. I tried to assure him that my name was for a coffee company and not a drink company. Just bagged coffee. He laughed. He explained something I have had said to me more than once by an attorney. His client, the Icee corporation, had “very deep pockets”. They would “rigorously defend their trademark”. They would not rest until I was “broken.” Now, I consider myself a fighter. I never give up, not ever. Except when lawyers call me out of the blue and use words like ‘rigorous’ and ‘deep pockets.’ When I heard those words, I knew I was not going to be producing coffee. I sighed. He sensed my defeat, and was very gracious about it. He said, “Listen, if you promise not to use the name, I will give you some free advice.” I had no choice. I promised. He then spoke to me for another half hour. He explained that it is never a good idea to trademark the name of a place, especially a famous place. Too many large companies with deep pockets already own all the good place names. He said it's much smarter and easier to trademark a unique name. He said, “Use a Hawaiian language name, or make up a name. That’s your best bet!” I thanked him for his time.
I remember when I took that phone call I was in between clients at the clinic I had recently purchased in Hawaii. I was so beaten down, that this new defeat just seemed par for the course. Then I was kind of happy. I just pissed off a major brand and lived to tell about it. Then I remembered who Icee was, they make Slushie! I, Doug Weiss, just got defeated by the originator of the frozen coke drink I loved as a kid. It's still kind of funny when I think of it.