What's In A McName?

Mother Jones Magazine
January 15, 1987

Big Mac has clashed with macrobiotics in the California coastal town of Santa Cruz, and the result is a case of corporate heartburn. The story starts at a laid-back vegetarian restaurant in Santa Cruz called McDharma's Natural Fast foods. Beyond the filial Gaelic prefix and an ability to whip out sandwiches in the blink of an eye, McDharma's seems to have little in common with McDonald's. But the world's biggest burger chain, which did not return phone calls for this story, still has accused the one-outlet McDharma's of infringing on its trademark.

At first glance it seems like a McMismatch. McDonald's which generated $3.7 billion in revenues last year from 8,901 restaurants in 41 countries, has sold so many hamburgers (more than 50 billion) that it gave up keeping a running count for the public a few years ago. McDharma's on the other hand, boasts about having prepared more than 100,000 Brahma Burgers, which are made of beans, nuts, seeds, grains, and soy product. Its 15 employees helped grind out over $300,000 in sales last year, according to co-owner Bernie Shapiro.

McDonald's, headquartered in Oak Brook, Illinois, had been blithely unaware of the funky Santa Cruz eatery until 1984, when McDharma's, then three years old, sought its own trademark protection in Washington, D.C. A war of verbal and legal maneuvers ensued, and the reports in the local media of a vegetarian David confronting a corporate Goliath have brought crowds of the curious as well as the hungry to McDharma's doors.

The place appears to live up to all the cliches a California-hater can muster: diners munch soy dogs, imitation chicken patties, and Nuclear Subs while lounging on a patio shielded from a busy street by a stand of bamboo. Cashiers wear T-shirts, shorts, and sandals. There are no golden arches, but McDharma's makes an equally strong architectural statement in what could be described as New Age Quonset Hut.

the dispute has brought in queries about leases too, and franchises soon many be sprouting up around northern California, leaving the McDonald's anti-McDharma's strategy to blow up in the company's face. "It's such a joke," says Shapiro, "and they're the only ones taking it seriously."