Friday, November 06, 2009

Spy Story

It is the early 1990's. The Cold War has come to an end; the Berlin Wall is no more. But espionage still lurks at a most unlikely place - a buffet!

This is an old story - not recent news by any means, but I just came across it. It is unusual and will be of interest to you all. Back in the early 1990's, a couple in Spokane, Washington decided to go into the buffet business. They wanted to guarantee their success so they infiltrated Old Country Buffet. They went into this big time. They found an unscrupulous secretary who worked for the chain and paid the secretary to transcribe all of the Old Country Buffet recipes. Recipes in a restaurant are considered trade secrets. In a successful restaurant those recipes are the heart of the restaurant's business. These recipes had been developed and tested by Old Country Buffet's founders. Fifty two recipes were taken.

Now it did not end there. The couple had a son. They sent this son to apply for and receive a job in Old Country Buffet management. They were going all out to get every secret possible. It was his job to work "undercover" and report back all of Old Country Buffet's unique management procedures - also developed by the Old Country Buffet founders.

The new buffet restaurant opened as Granny's Buffets in Washington state. Eventually a chain of Granny's Buffets developed and were located in Washington state, Montana, and Idaho. And with OCB's recipes and management processes in place.

Eventually, this was all discovered. It had to be obvious to anyone who dined at this new restaurant. Buffets, Inc., the owner of Old Country Buffet, brought legal proceedings against Granny's Buffets in 1992 to shut the location down and to stop a second location from opening. They also sought compensation in taking all of Granny's Buffets' profits of $3.8 million in the first year of operation. The court battle went on for two years and in 1994 a Federal Court judge rules AGAINST Buffets, Inc. stating that recipes as "lists of ingredients" cannot be copyrighted - different from a published cookbook where the recipes published in the cookbook are held under the book's copyright. It was also found that Buffets, Inc. and Old Country Buffet did not take the legal steps necessary to protect themselves by having employees sign confidentiality agreements, printing their recipes in a book with clear copyright notices on each recipe, and issuing management materials on a "need to know" basis only.

So Buffets, Inc. and Old Country Buffet lost the fight. BUT, in the end they had the last laugh. In December 1999, Buffets, Inc. bought out all of the six Granny's Buffet locations. Some were closed when the bankruptcy occurred a few years back. Some remain - some have had there name changed to Granny's Old Country Buffet. Searching for a current review or comment on a Granny's I find nothing more recent than 2008. I can only assume they are still out there - there is no mention of Granny's on the Buffets, Inc. website.

James Bond at the buffet... quietly in and out with the secrets!

1 comment:

Sid Khullar said...

One way or another, i love buffets. Pity there aren't many big or interesting ones around here - the ones which are so, are *way* too expensive for frequent visits. Maybe that's good. ;-)