‘No more Popeye’: Fish’n’chip shop forced to drop name by fast food giant

By Matthew Dallas of Stuff

A fish and chip shop called Popeyes Takeaways has had to change its name now that Popeyes - an American fried chicken show - has opened in Auckland.

Bill Cao and May Zhou have owned Popeye’s Takeaways since 2008, but the name has been a fixture in the neighborhood for decades.

A neighborhood fish’n’chip shop, trading as Popeye’s for at least 30 years, has bowed to the legal threats of a fried chicken chain, forsaking its name.

Signs were being pulled down and rubbed out at the enduring takeaways shop in Manawatū this week, just as fast food lovers in Auckland were clamoring for their first taste of Popeyes’ fried chicken.

The US fast food giant, which has more than 3700 restaurants in more than 30 countries, opened its first New Zealand outlet in Takanini on Monday, and has plans for at least another 29 throughout the country.

It was not a brand known to Bill Cao and May Zhou, who have owned and operated Popeye’s Takeaways on North Street in Feilding since 2008, until they were served with a cease and desist request from its lawyers in late April, claiming unauthorized use of a registered trademark.

The letter from AJ Park, which has been sighted by Manawatū Standard, expressed concern consumers would mistake the two businesses as being connected as they offered “identical” products and services.

It ordered the owners of Popeye’s Takeaways to stop using and displaying its name, which had been registered in New Zealand by its client in 2022, and to provide a written declaration they would never seek to register it themselves.

Failure to comply would lead to further action, such as seeking damages and even the shop’s profits.

Zhou and Cao were stunned. The shop had been Popeye’s when they bought it, and customers we spoke with remembered the name being around for at least a decade before that.

A fish and chip shop called Popeyes Takeaways has had to change its name now that Popeyes - an American fried chicken show - has opened in Auckland.

The signs are down at Popeye’s Takeaways as they wait for a signwriter to emblazon the storefront with its new identity.

It was named after Popeye the Sailor, the spinach-munching comic strip character.

Patrons expressed annoyance that a long-established identity in the community could be rubbed out by a multinational corporation operating in New Zealand for less than a week, and scoffed at the notion anyone would confuse the businesses.

Popeye’s Takeaways did not even sell fried chicken.

The couple had never thought to register the name. Theirs was the quintessential Kiwi fish’n’chip shop, from the giant menu board above the counter to the rackety screen door and obligatory New Zealand Seafood poster.

Any ambitions for “market reach” extended only a few streets in each direction. Of far greater importance was Popeye’s close proximity to the town’s high school and its hungry students’ walk home.

Their shock and anger at the ultimatum soon gave way to resignation.

When asked if they had sought legal advice and considered fighting to keep the name, Zhou sighed and threw open her arms.

There was a feeling they could fight it, and win, but at what financial burden, and how long might it drag on?

“They are bigger, so no worries.”

A fish and chip shop called Popeyes Takeaways has had to change its name now that Popeyes - an American fried chicken show - has opened in Auckland.

The Popeye’s menu board has a chicken burger, chicken and cashews, and sweet and sour chicken, but no fried chicken.

New menus had already been printed bearing a new name, North Street Takeaways, and they were trying to find a signwriter at short notice to spruce-up the storefront.

Cao, who was routinely greeted as “Mr Popeye” at the supermarket, had taken to correct people’s salutations: “I say to them, no more Popeye.”

The couple, who settled in Palmerston North after emigrating from China in 2005, had until Thursday to comply with the lawyers’ demands.

They were awaiting approval from Google to amend the shop’s online profile. It had been set up by a previous owner and they did not have access to it.

The Standard sought comment from Popeyes NZ general manager James McLauchlan, but he was yet to respond.

We asked if the fish’n’chip shop’s online presence was the company’s primary concern, and, while recognizing the US company’s legal right to the trademark, whether it was fair to deny the moniker from a business that had used it for so long.

We also asked if Popeyes would consider assisting the small business with the cost of its rebranding, and whether a fried chicken outlet in Feilding or Palmerston North was among its plans.

Massey University professor of marketing analytics Bodo Lang said it was very unlikely patrons of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen would confuse it for the Feilding takeaways, but the American outfit was trying to protect its brand, primarily from any risk of future scandal.

Were a food-related business with a similar name to have issues with, for example, food hygiene, there could be major ramifications.

“There is potential of brand damage for the bigger brand. And because they’re big, they stand to lose a lot.”

Long noted the precedent of Burger King being forced to trade as Hungry Jack’s when it entered the Australian market in 1971 as the name was already trademarked by a restaurant chain.

“In this case, obviously, they didn’t have the trademark, and the new entrant has a lot to lose, they’re defending their brand with everything they’ve got, which basically means (against) any business that is similar sounding and, unluckily for this couple, broadly in the same market, ie fast food.”

Lang said if there was a positive take-away for the Feilding fish’n’chip shop it was that all brands needed a regular refresh, and this dilemma may provide them with that opportunity.

But locals would “absolutely” still call the shop Popeye’s and address Cao as “Mr Popeye” for many years to come.

“These things take on their own dynamics.”

The cease and desist request did not extend to the graphic use of Popeye the Sailor.

Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, which was founded in 1972, was named after Popeye Boyle, the gruff narcotics cop at the center of The French Connection, a hit movie released the year before.

This story was originally published by Stuff.