The news story characterized Michael Lane as a “saucy, outspoken South Philly man.”
He had reason to speak out, since Lane, the owner of three Philadelphia-area restaurants called Steak’Em Up, was on the receiving end of a lawsuit. Why? Because the name of his restaurant was deemed too similar to the renowned—if not exactly revered--Steak-umm brand of thin-sliced sandwich meat.
Lane told the Philadelphia Inquirer he thought it was a gag when he received a cease-and-desist letter three years ago from lawyers representing Quaker Maid Meats, the owners of Steak-umm. According to the newspaper, the letter accused him of trying to capitalize on Steak-umm’s brand and threatened him with a trademark-infringement suit if he didn’t change the name of his restaurants within 24 hours.
It was an offer he could—and did—refuse.
“I thought it was a joke, because being from South Philly, the last thing I wanted to be was associated with Steak-umm,” Lane told the paper.
Now, if this case were merely about some plaintiff and some defendant fighting it out in court over a branding squabble, none of us would care. But Steak-umm is not only an iconic brand with a more than 40-year history in the marketplace—regardless of your opinion of its quality, it’s been a bona fide success story—it was created by one of the industry’s iconic entrepreneurs, Gene Gagliardi.
Now in his 80s, Gagliardi is justly famous for a string of innovative creations over the years, including the equally celebrated—and criticized—popcorn chicken. As the tale has been told, he developed Steak-umm back in the late 1960s because at the time, the meat typically used in steak sandwiches wasn’t all that palatable.
“You couldn’t serve it to children,” he said. “The meat was so tough you’d drag it out of the sandwich and choke on it. This was definitely a safety feature.”
Many a food product has been marketed on far less of a benefit statement.
South Philly fanatic
Lane, meanwhile, has a persona of his own, with a thick Philadelphia accent, slicked-backed hair, flashy silver watch and a Steak’ Em Up tattoo on his forearm. A self-described admirer of South Philly’s “gangster culture,” he created a logo showing a hit man holding a hoagie like a machine gun. Ads featuring his restaurants run on the video screens at Phillies baseball games and Flyers hockey games.