Food & Drink

The Secret Weapon Behind Dominique Ansel's Cronut®? Attorney Candice Cook.

Published On 03/02/2017 Published On 03/02/2017
candice cook
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

In food-craze years, the Cronut® is ancient. SoHo's Dominique Ansel Bakery debuted its croissant-donut hybrid in May 2013 to immediate lines around the block, tourist pilgrimages, and mockery. A black market for Cronut® scalpers sprung up. Three and a half years later, the lines and infatuation persist.

Cronut® mania is not just a product of Ansel's small SoHo bakery -- although the baker definitely has a way with flour, butter, and sugar. The legal lockdown on the Cronut® is a huge part of Ansel's success, and it's as vigorous today as ever. Ansel and his lawyer, Candice Cook, filed an application to register the name "Cronut" on May 19, 2013 -- nine days after the item's launch -- in order to protect his much-hyped pastry from copycats.

Cook is brilliant and no-nonsense; she's the managing partner of her Manhattan firm, The Cook Law Group PLLC, where she handles intellectual property and legal and business strategy, and has been Ansel's legal counsel since before they decided to register the Cronut® trademark. She went to prestigious schools -- the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt Law School, then Stanford University's Graduate School of Business -- serves on a long list of boards, has been profiled in Elle and O Magazine, and has appeared on the TODAY Show. If Ansel is the brains behind the Cronut®, Cook is the brawn. "We consider the uniqueness of the product and the originality of the product -- trademarking was an appropriate strategy at that moment in time," Cook says of the Cronut®. Her legal prowess is what secured the Cronut®'s spot in the food-trend limelight.

Lest trademarking a croissant/donut seem absurd, there is ample precedent. Chefs, or more often, big food companies, can protect the names of their unique products -- think Boardwalk Fries, or Coca-Cola, or Big Mac. Recipes or lists of ingredients cannot be trademarked, nor can traditional dishes, like a hamburger or ramen. Still, "The Cronut® is a little bit of an unusual case," says Julian Cordero, attorney and managing member at Cordero Law LLC in New York City -- a rare, ballsy legal move, as it's usually a major corporation that takes this step, not a small, single bakery. "It's not necessarily the fact that it's a food, it's the name you provide that is important for a trademark," Cordero explains.

Which means you are entirely free to market and sell your own donut/croissant, so long as you don't call it a Cronut®. Many have -- the Croissant Donut from Dunkin' Donuts was introduced in 2014, and you can get a "dossant" or a "doissant" from enterprising spots in DC, Sacramento, and as far as Australia. But the Cronut® name is sacred, and those who have tread on it have been swiftly blocked. Cook issued a cease & desist to a Santa Monica bakery that dared sell a "Kronut," with a "K," and one to Reno's Rounds Bakery, which was offering a "croissant donut." At Gertrude's, the upscale restaurant in the Baltimore Museum of Art, pastry chef Doug Wetzel re-imagined the pastry as a donut "hole" and served it with whipped cream and lemon curd. He called his creation the "croi-nut." He received a cease & desist from Cook, too. (Dunkin's pastry had a non-Cronut®-enough name to deem it not confusing to customers, and therefore safe from legal action.) "Changing the spelling of the word 'Cronut'® when the resulting change is phonetically similar to the DA Bakery's trademark is a deceptive attempt to usurp the DA Bakery's intellectual property rights and is punishable under federal law," the letter to Gertrude's read.

Not every potential Cronut® faker gets the same treatment, however. It comes down to intent -- a baker ignorant of the law will get a slap on the wrist, while a company intentionally seeking to violate the trademark and profit from the Cronut® name had better watch out. "A malice infringer has to be handled in a more aggressive way," Candice says. Those offenders "may be responsible for damages, or any profits they received from the name, and they'll be required to stop using it immediately," according to Cordero. In other words: Don't mess with the Cronut®. "I am not a believer that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery when it comes to intellectual property," says Cook. Cook and her team are always on the lookout for Cronut® frauds. "Intellectual property law requires constant vigilance," she says.

Trademarking a product has two purposes. The first is to protect the customer -- if you shell out your hard-earned cash and an hour of your life waiting in line for a Cronut®, you know you are indeed getting the real deal, and not a knockoff. The second is to foster and reward innovation. Without the protection of ideas, businesses and individuals wouldn't reap the full benefits -- credit, profits -- of their inventions. "It's not just about pastry," Cook argues. "It's about art and the creation of new works across the world, a society where creation and imagination is properly rewarded. We are obligated to set a precedent to other creatives that their work is valuable."

Businesses that neglect getting a trademark may pay for it in the long run. Take Sriracha, the endlessly popular chili sauce. Because it's not trademarked, "anyone can say they have Sriracha on their menu and may have nothing to do with the Sriracha customers are thinking of," Cordero says. Plus, the original brand doesn't get any royalties when other companies use the word "Sriracha."

Thanks to Cook, that will never happen with the Cronut®. Ansel's decision to trademark his work was driven by business savvy, not ego, Cook maintains. "I honestly have never met a more passionate, hard-working, and less ego-driven professional in any industry," she says of Ansel. "People break their necks and work incredibly hard. If they are creating something we love, the reward for that is respect."

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Hannah Howard is a food writer who lives in Brooklyn. Her memoir, Feast: True Love In and Out of the Kitchen, is coming out in 2018. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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