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‘Bully boy tactics’ leave popular Preston burger restaurant just the latest to be smashed out

Posted on - 15th June, 2024 - 7:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Business, Preston City Centre, Preston News
A sign in the closed down Smashed site at Miller Arcade (since removed). Credit: Blog Preston
A sign in the closed down Smashed site at Miller Arcade (since removed). Credit: Blog Preston

In a flat above his new Preston unit, Michael Evans makes a coffee from a sachet.

It’s April 2024 and his burger eatery and bar, Smashed, in Preston, has closed with very little notice. As with most things he does on social media, it’s done mischievously – he announced the closure on 1 April. 

It was then a whirlwind week that saw Evans decamp from his usual home into the flat above a new location where he worked flat out. The new site is called All Hopes No Promises – a name which hopefully won’t lead to further stress, expense or legal threats.

Read more: Troubled micropub reopens with ‘new management’ two weeks after landlord seized property

It was in October 2022 that Denver-based burger chain Smashburger, now with seven outlets in the UK, first wrote to Evans. 

“We actually just thought it was a joke,” he tells Blog Preston. “We got a letter about our name, saying we need to change it. We just didn’t take it seriously. 

“We did respond with a bit of social media. They responded but deleted it pretty quickly.

“We then had a massive file come to us, with customers on social media, customers outside, saying we’ve replicated their business.” 

Smashburger was unhappy that there were allegedly similarities between their brand and Smashed. That’s something Evans, unsurprisingly, rejects.

“Smashed does not look like a posh McDonald’s – and that’s what they are.

“They’re saying our logo looks like theirs, but their logo looks like Home f***ing Bargains.

“Eventually, I’ve been communicating with them saying I’m trying to get legal advice. I went to one solicitor and they want a lot of money. It’s not affordable.

Very few independent hospitality businesses would claim to be blessed with money in 2024. It’s estimated that eight hospitality sites closed every day in the UK in 2023. Evans, unable to afford legal advice, has been relying on ChatGPT to help form his emails.  Our investigation began in April and threat of legal action continues at the time of publication.

“We wrote them an email saying we’ve closed Smashed Preston down. And I don’t know what they want to gain now.

“The harassment, the bullying. Turning up at my home and at my business. It’s caused a lot of mental health problems, anxiety and depression. 

“They’ve not targeted my limited business, they’ve targeted me personally. If I go to court, and they win, I’d be screwed.”

The new All Hopes No Promises in St Wiflrids Street, Preston. Credit: Blog Preston
The new All Hopes No Promises in St Wiflrids Street, Preston. Credit: Blog Preston

If that sounds dramatic to you, it’s likely because you’ve not heard the story of Imran Husain – over 300 miles away in London. 

In June 2021, Imran Husain opened Smash Patties, a takeaway offering both classic and smash burgers from an industrial park in Wembley. 

Husain and his business partner had planned to open in 2020, only to be pushed back by lockdown. They initially opened a takeaway in Kettering but moved to the Wembley shop very soon after as his business partner was unhappy commuting so far.

But it was only around two months after opening when the first correspondence arrived from Smashburger’s legal team. Like when dealing with Smashed in Preston, the firm demanded large sums of money, claiming the shop had benefited from using a name similar to its own trademarked one.

He told Blog Preston: “They sent a letter asking for thousands. They said to change the name but you also owe us all this money. I replied saying the name’s completely different, your toppings are completely different, the only similarity is the method of cooking so there’s not gonna be any confusion.”

Husain tried to challenge Smashburger’s legal threats, first with the help of solicitors and later representing himself when he could no longer afford professional help. He applied to trademark a “Smash Patties” logo in 2021 but Smashburger successfully challenged that.

Some two years after it was submitted, the hearing officer ruling on the application noted that the “average consumer is not likely to mistake one [logo] for the other” but refused to grant the trademark. As a result, she ordered Smash Patties to pay the US giant £1,850 in costs.

The 53-year-old says his evidence fell down because “I stupidly didn’t include the date” but remains adamant the decision was unfair. He also continues to argue no-one would ever have confused the two businesses.

Smash Patties closed its doors within months of first opening, with Husain and his business partner each losing £20,000 they had invested to set up. Having moved away from London and shut down the business, Husain hoped his dealings with the US giant would be over. 

The Smashburger logo side by side with the Smash Patties logo
The Smashburger logo side by side with the Smash Patties logo

Friends advised him the debt would die with the business, for which he was the only registered director, but he continues to be pursued for around £30,000.

“I’ve closed down Smash Patties, I’ve closed the company and they’re still after money. They sent a letter to mum’s address and she is elderly so she was quite scared by it. They sent a letter last week saying unless I paid them, they’ll send the bailiffs.

“I’ve lost so much money. I don’t have the money to give them.”

Husain said the experience has affected all aspects of his life, placing strain on his marriage and, at times, left him feeling suicidal as he faced up to financial burden.

“I think it just brings you down. It’s all I think about, how am I going to survive. It’s not just the £30,000, it’s what I put into the initial business in London. It’s just been a nightmare.” 

US companies are known for being particularly sensitive about what they believe to be their intellectual property, one expert tells us. 

Elizabeth Ward, founder of Virtuoso Legal who specialise in Intellectual Property – and who represented Smash Patties until their pot of money proved to be smaller than Smashburger’s – told Blog Preston: “We often see smaller companies try and bring these kinds of US brands to the UK market and the problem is that few of them ever look at the trade mark registry or do a search of what is already taken before they launch their brand. 

“Then they get drawn into legal disputes which can be time consuming, costly and complex. The message is to get expert brand advice before launch – this is a job for a legal specialist which we are of course. We live in a global market and ideas move to other countries faster than ever before. 

“However, US corporations are notoriously sensitive about their brands being used without consent, so look before you leap should be the motto.”

The idea that any of these businesses were deliberately trying to impersonate Smashburger feels unlikely – but not as unlikely as an independent business going up against a US corporation who, Ward tells us, can likely “throw resources at the case.”

What’s crystal clear is that the idea of a burger cooked in the smash style was not invented by the Denver-chain which opened its first chain in 2007. The idea of using a flat metal surface to smash down the meat to create a crispy outside and juicy inside either dates back to Kentucky around 50 years ago or Indiana in 1932 depending on where you read about it. 

What may have started as a quirk in the US at an imprecise point in time has since evolved into a method of cooking that people in the UK are unlikely to associate with a fledgling brand with seven outlets in the country – irrespective of the financial backing they may have. 

A glance around JustEat, Deliveroo or UberEats even in Preston shows how ubiquitous the term ‘smash’ or ‘smashed’ is in relation toe burgers.

While Evans may have given up the Smashed name in Preston, ultimately even a cursory glance into Google sees dozens of burger outlets with Smash in their name and even more offering smash burgers. 

Simon Carlo is a food blogger and the writer behind the MeatandOneVeg reviews and accompanying podcast. He describes what’s happening as ‘typical bully boy tactics’ from a chain. 

He told Blog Preston: “The irony that Smashburger are pressing their competitors as thinly as possible by using a combination of heat and weight is not lost on me. 

“It’s typical bully boy tactics from a chain with big pockets and has nothing to do with the name. 

“This is about claiming ownership of a style of cooking which existed 90 years before them, one that is now trendy and they want the association and SEO from. 

“It’s pathetic and it’s strangling the very independents that we should be fighting to keep alive right now.”

Mark Laurie, director of the Nationwide Caterers Association, told Blog Preston: “The process of ‘smashing’ the beef chuck patty onto an iron griddle with a heavy skillet is certainly not new, you push down on the patty, squeezing it down until its thin – hence the smash. 

“It’s been a mainstay of the burger revolution led by the street food and food truck sector in the UK for well over a decade; most likely brought here by the meat wagon in the mid to late 2000’s. It’s definitely how you want your burger cooked as you get a more intense beef taste. 

“I can see why businesses want to protect their brands but to claim to own a cooking technique or dish that you haven’t created, because it’s a part of your brand seems a bit of a leap. There was a similar situation a few years back over ‘Pho’, the national dish of Vietnam. I believe the lawyers backed down on that occasion.”

But while the law, we’re told, has ‘many variables’ and the IPO only has a registered mark for takeaway food – likely because of how ubiquitous the phrase has become – competing with a US corporation simply isn’t worth the risk for many. 

Howey's Smashed Burgers, Plymouth
Howey’s Smashed Burgers, Plymouth

From Preston to Plymouth, that was certainly the case for Howey’s Smashed Burgers at the Colebrook Inn back in 2020.

Much like Evans, Rob Naylor, then manager at the pub, received his cease and desist letter and an order not to use the word ‘smashed’. 

He said at the time: “It’s frustrating because I’m not a global chain, [I’m] just trying to make a living and provide the local community with something different and keep staff employed.

“A smashed burger is a process of cooking, not a brand.”

Naylor, ultimately, drew the same conclusion as Evans. He couldn’t afford a solicitor and backed down as a result. The renamed Howey’s Burgers, much like Smashed and Smash Patties before it, is no longer trading. 

Blog Preston presented information about the concerns of the businesses affected and the impact this has had on individuals behind those businesses to Smashburger. They declined to comment, citing ongoing legal proceedings.

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