Chicago Small Business Attorney: Muffin-Gate Makes Headlines

It's been dubbed "Muffin-Gate."

It involves a Chicago contract dispute and the issue of trade secrets and intellectual property at a small - but famous - bakery in Evanston.

Our Chicago small business attorneys have taken a keen interest in this case because it gets to the heart of what so many small business owners grapple with when it comes to their employees: trust.

That's not to say that employees of small businesses in Chicago are untrustworthy. Rather, owners of smaller operations are more apt to place an enormous amount of trust in their workers. In many cases, employees are treated more like family, in a way you won't necessarily find at a larger firm.

This can be a good thing in many ways: It fosters good work ethic, loyalty and a sense of pride and ownership in the work done.

However, it can be a rude awakening for employers when you trust your workers like family - and you learn the hard way that it's all just business.

In this case, it was a small bakery held in high esteem. In fact, The New York Times had spotlighted the bakery. It's specialty - the cinnamon bomb - was also featured as one of the top 100 things to taste in Chicago last year.

Now, however, the bakery is garnering headlines for a much different reason.

The owner is suing a former chef, who allegedly left with two notebooks packed with recipes - including the one for the cinnamon bomb. The owner claims that these were recipes that were developed over the last several years, with the owner, the chef and other staff collaborating. She says that the chef had signed a non-disclosure agreement.

But when the chef left - presumably on bad terms - she returned to the bakery and took the recipes, saying the owner would have to sue to get them back. And she has.

The chef says, however, that she plans to return the recipes, but noted that most were adapted from various Web sites and cookbooks. She said it would not be difficult for anyone to reproduce them.

And this is what gets to the issue of trade secrets when it comes to recipes. Secret recipes for sauces and other savory eats can prove trickier to protect than other ideas. Like any original idea or invention, they can be patented, but it depends on a myriad of factors. (The recipe for Coca Cola recently made headlines when it was moved from a bank vault in downtown Atlanta, where it had been securely stored since 1925).

When it comes to food, you can patent either the composition of the matter - that is, the actual ingredients - or the process for making it, that is, the way in which you combine all those ingredients. First, it has to be edible and for the use of human nutrition (as opposed to medical), and then it has to be something novel. For example, let's say you invented a new hot cocoa recipe that involves water, cocoa and sugar. It might be yummy, but there's really not much new about it, unless there is some novel way you mix it that produces different or unexpected results, you aren't likely to secure a patent.

But this is where a Chicago small business attorney can help you. The goal is to protect your creations and, ultimately, your livelihood.

Jeremy A. Gibson & Associates is a law firm dedicated to business litigation in Chicago and elsewhere in Illinois. Call 877-452-4529 for a free consultation.

Additional Resources:
Missing Recipes Become The Ultimate Small Business Nightmare, By Micheline Maynard, Forbes Magazine