IBAGUE, COLOMBIA — McDonald’s has the golden arches. Mac Dooglas has a golden “D.” Both restaurants sell hamburgers, fries and soft drinks that come in paper cups.
But Douglas Salazar, the proud owner of the family-run Mac Dooglas fast food chain, says that's where the similarities end.
“For starters we are called Dooglas, and they are called Donald,” said Salazar, whose first name is pronounced “Doo-glas” in Spanish. I nodded and bit into a super-sized charbroiled burger, as we had lunch at one of his restaurants. “We have lots of options on our menu that are different, including a shrimp burger and a veggie burger that is made with shredded lentil and soy,” the small business owner said.
But the similarities were too much for Ronald McDonald to take sitting down. And after a lengthy legal battle with the transnational giant, Colombia's highest court for commercial disputes sided with McDonald's, ordering Salazar to change the name on all three of his restaurants in Ibague, a town on the foothills of the Andes mountains. The court, based in Bogota, determined that the name Mac Dooglas damages the McDonald’s brand and can “confuse” customers.
McDonald’s, which has operated in Colombia since the mid '90s, had been fighting Mac Dooglas for six years. But in Ibague, where Mac Dooglas is a local favorite, many saw the court’s ruling as another case in which the government is siding with a powerful multinational to trample the rights of the little guy.
“It’s absurd,” said Eder Montilla, a government worker who visited Mac Dooglas after he read about the case.
“A business like Mac Dooglas can’t be a threat to McDonald’s, which spends millions on TV ads” added fellow customer Efrain Garcia.
McDonald’s told Fusion that it takes the protection of its intellectual property “very seriously” around the world, which is true if you look at their history. Since the 1990’s the fast food giant has filed at least half a dozen lawsuits around the world against companies that have tried to use the “mc” or “mac” prefix. And many times McDonalds wins.
In San Francisco, California McDonald’s managed to get McCoffee, a local coffee shop to change its name of 17 years. McCoffee’s owner, Elizabeth McCaughey, said she had picked her coffee shop's name because it was a play on her surname.
In the Philippines, McDonald’s took local fast food chain McJoy to court and also won, arguing that the Filipino company was illegally trying to profit from McDonald’s world renown Mc prefix.
But McDonalds’ has also lost some of its Mc-battles. In Malasia, the fast food giant failed to get a chicken curry joint called McCurry to change its name, after that country’s supreme court ruled that both businesses were significantly different. Malasia's supreme court also ruled that McDonald’s cannot aspire to own the “Mc” prefix in that country. In Denmark, McDonald’s was forced to pay court fines after it tried to sue a one-man hotdog stand that went by the name McAllan.
The McDonald's v. Mac Dooglas battle in Colombia was hard fought. In 2009, Mac Dooglas even managed to get its brand registered with Colombia's Ministry of Commerce, which determined that any “reasonable” customer would not be confused by the brands or logos. The commerce ministry also noted that several other brands in Colombia had already been successfully registered with a Mac prefix, including a large poultry producer called “Mac Pollo.”
Mac Dooglas thought all that would help their case.
“We argued that the government could not discriminate against Mac Dooglas,” said defense lawyer Efrain Londoño, who helped register the brand in 2009. “Another thing that we proved is that the mac prefix had already become a commonly used term.”
But McDonald’s appealed the ministry’s decision and took its case to Colombia’s highest court for commercial disputes.
The multinational company argued that Mac Dooglas was the only company in the restaurant category using a Mac prefix, and was therefore a direct competitor profiting from the multinational brand’s marketing efforts. McDonalds also argued that both names were phonetically similar, and said that by registering Mac Dooglas the Colombian government was violating statutes that protect globally recognized brands.
McDonald’s finally won its case last month, and now Douglas Salazar will have to change the name on all three of his restaurants. He says the rebranding will cost him up to $30,00 as he gets a new logo designed, changes the signage on all his restaurants, registers a new web domain and orders new menus and hamburger packaging.
It’s a considerable chunk of change for Mac Dooglas, which claims it's already struggling to pay a $200,000 loan on the third restaurant.
There's also the problem of what to do with all the old Mac Dooglas inventory. Salazar says he still has 32,000 hamburger containers, 50,000 straws, 22,000 napkins and 100,000 tray liners with the Mac Dooglas logo. All of that would presumably have to go in the trash if the government forces Salazar to make the branding change soon.
“I need time to adjust,” the Mac Dooglas owner said, as we finished our meal in a shopping mall food court. “I’d ask McDonald’s for help, but those guys are implacable.”
I asked Salazar if he ever regretted using the “mac” prefix.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Salazar replied. He said the name came up simply as a “joke” during a dinner party in which other names like “Big Douglas” and “Mr Douglas,” were thrown around. He stuck to Mac Dooglas cause “it had a good ring to it.”
Salazar says that his business will now register the “Dooglas” brand, and will continue to keep flipping the burgers. His restaurant will now try to stand out from the competition by offering fresh juices made from tropical fruits like guava, papaya and maracuya
“This business was not just built on the Mac,” Salazar said. “We have a spectacular menu…and now we have the motivation to be better than we were before.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.