Lawsuit over S. Jersey ‘restaurant week’

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Participants in the 2007 South Jersey Hot Chefs' Restaurant Week pose for a picture. (File)

The term restaurant week again has led to boiling tempers.

The South Jersey Independent Restaurant Association, a business group also known as SJ Hot Chefs, sued two restaurateurs in U.S. District Court in Camden, claiming trademark infringement and unfair competition because their restaurant-week promotions are confusingly similar to the Hot Chefs' own week.

The group asked Judge Joseph E. Irenas to put an end to the restaurant weeks advertised by Nunzio Patruno of Nunzio's Ristorante Rustico in Collingswood and Joe Palombo of Mirabella Cafe in Cherry Hill, neither of whom paid to be part of the promotion. Both were served papers last Friday and were ordered to appear Monday before Irenas.

On Tuesday, Irenas denied the Hot Chefs' request for a restraining order but ordered Palombo to remove the words SJ Restaurant Week from his Web site. The Hot Chefs have trademarked the term South Jersey Restaurant Week.

Though dealt a setback, "the case is still alive," said J. Philip Kirchner, a Hot Chefs attorney.

Kirchner said Patruno and Palumbo were "confusing the public" because their specials - running concurrently to the Hot Chefs' week - "use the same name and offer the exact same deal."

That is, four-course dinners for $35. The promotions end today.

Of about 60 restaurants participating in South Jersey Restaurant week, about 20 are not members and are paying a premium of $550 to be included, the suit says.

Patruno said he had no need for the Hot Chefs. "What's a 'hot chef,' anyway?" he asked, playfully parsing the nickname.

"Instead of cooking, he's talking to me," said Stephen J. DeFeo, Patruno's attorney.

The suit identifies Palombo as a former member of the Hot Chefs executive committee who "slandered" members of the board in an announcement that he was leaving the Hot Chefs. Palombo did not comment.

Restaurant weeks have become popular marketing tools. In 2003, Philadelphia's Center City District created the region's first. The Hot Chefs jumped in two years later. Both promotions run twice a year.

The Hot Chefs themselves were sued in 2007 by the Center City District, which claimed that the Hot Chefs' display advertising was confusingly similar. The case was settled.

Back then, the Hot Chefs' spokesman was Palombo.

The Center City District has seen "piggybacking" restaurants, but they're mainly operating outside of the district, said Michelle Shannon, the district's vice president of marketing and communications.

"While we are not happy about other restaurants that are not participants using restaurant week, we realize that success breeds competition," she said, adding that she doesn't think it's "professional" for nonaffiliated restaurants to hop aboard."

Contact staff writer Michael Klein at 215-854-5514 or mklein@phillynews.com.