Food Fight

It's not in the league of John Belushi popping his potato-packed cheeks in Animal House, but a little-noticed food fight breaking out in a Boston courthouse has become almost as messy. The question on the table: Who owns the rights to the famous Ken's Steak House salad dressing, first served 60 years ago in a small family-owned restaurant in Framingham and now the nation's third most popular brand (behind Kraft and Wish-Bone) – the family that wrote the recipe and serves it at its restaurants or the side business called Ken's Foods that the family started and later sold to peddle the dressing separately? It's a landmark case expected to go to trial next January, pitting two sides against each other after half a century of teaming up to build a giant in the salad industry.

“I'm glad my parents didn't live to see the day their salad dressing company sued their restaurant,” says Tim Hanna, son of the couple who opened Ken's Steak House in 1941. “If you knew them, you would understand. The whole situation is sad.”

Tony Starr, a lawyer for Ken's Foods, says Hanna is unfairly portraying the case as David versus Goliath. He says Ken's Foods just wants to make sure Ken's Steak House isn't taking credit for making the salad dressing. Because it doesn't make it; Ken's Foods does, and it sued only after Ken's Steak House started selling the dressing on its Web site. Starr says the dressing is made privately, without Hanna, and the restaurant has to buy it like everyone else. “Maybe this generation [of Hannas] is second-guessing what their parents did,” Starr says.

Both sides agree on one thing: the dressing's history, which goes back to when Ken and Florence Hanna opened Ken's Steak House on Route 9 in Framingham. Their homemade Italian dressing was so good customers encouraged them to bottle it, which they did, letting two of their regulars, Frank and Louise Crowley, establish Ken's Foods in 1958 and make the dressing with the name Ken's Steak House on the bottles.

“The understanding was that Frank would take the project on exclusively, and the fruits of any enterprise would be split 50-50” with Ken Hanna, Louise Crowley said in her deposition. She recalled how her husband spent time in the restaurant's kitchen, “notepad in hand, trying to estimate quantities and ingredients,” then returned to their kitchen to re-create it.

Apparently, he succeeded. Ken's Foods exploded into a retail empire, with plants around the country producing 400 varieties of dressings and sauces that last year made more than $100 million in annual sales. Ken Hanna, who was president of both the restaurant and the retail business, eventually gave Ken's Foods a revocable license to use the Ken's Steak House name for salad dressing. That's where the trouble began.

When Tim Hanna, who is now the owner of Ken's Steak House and holder of 20 percent of Ken's Foods, referred to the salad dressing in a radio interview using the word “we,” the people at Ken's Foods considered it a misrepresentation and filed suit in U.S. District Court. The lawsuit accuses Ken's Steak House of misleading people about its relationship with Ken's Foods on the Internet, in advertisements, and on signs and menus. Ken's Foods, in one of its advertisements, says: “At Ken's Steak House in Framingham, it didn't take long for our salad dressing to become this steak house's signature.”

Language like that prompted Ken's Steak House to countersue. The restaurant says Ken's Foods wants the restaurant to get no credit for the salad dressing but also wants to continue mentioning its own historic beginnings at that restaurant. “I want the court to explain to Ken's Foods that it uses the Ken's Steak House name with the restaurant's permission,” Hanna says. “My father was from the old school. A handshake was as good as a contract. If the world was filled with people from his generation, there would be a lot fewer lawsuits.”