The parent company of fast-food chain Panda Express is suing Gilbert, Arizona, restaurant Panda Libre after a months-long dispute over the name and logo of the East Valley business.
In a complaint filed on Feb. 19, Panda Restaurant Group alleges Panda Libre is trying to “pass off and confuse the public” into believing Panda Libre’s services are affiliated with Panda Restaurant Group.
Panda Libre owner Paul Fan expressed his dismay on Facebook and in Instagram posts.
“We are gonna hold on as long as we can, but this news is not good and has put a heavy burden on my family and myself,” Fan wrote. “I can not tell you the amount of stress which this has caused us.”
The Arizona Republic reached out to the attorneys at Greenberg Traurig, an international law firm, who represent Panda Restaurant Group: Pamela M. Overton, Masahiro Noda and Daniel I. Schloss. Overton said they are not authorized to comment on the case.
Are Panda Libre and Panda Express similar?
Panda Libre is a locally owned, fast-casual restaurant serving Mexican and Asian fusion food, including burritos and tacos filled with orange chicken, sweet and tangy shrimp, bulgogi beef and teriyaki chicken, among other options.
The logo for Panda Libre depicts a grinning, cartoon panda wearing a green and red lucha libre costume. The panda luchador is performing a flying kick.
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The company suing the restaurant, Panda Restaurant Group, owns numerous federally registered marks for restaurant services, including Panda Express, Panda Inn, Panda Cafe, Panda Kitchen and Panda Tea Bar.
Panda Express, the company’s most well-known concept, is an international, cafeteria-style chain serving American Chinese fast food. Orange chicken is one of the restaurant’s most popular menu items and in 2017, Panda Express began offering orange chicken burritos in a few select locations in California.
“I have never had one single person come in and say, ‘Oh, I thought you were Panda Express or I thought you were a spin-off of Panda Express,'” Fan told the USA TODAY Network’s Arizona Republic in January, after he went public with his dispute.
Here’s what led up to the lawsuit
Fan and his wife Nicole both work at the restaurant. He chose the name Panda Libre because of the words’ association with Asian and Mexican cultures. It’s also a nod to Panda Cafe, a Chinese restaurant his parents opened in 1983 in Springville, Utah.
In 1983, the Cherng family also opened the first Panda Express in a mall in Glendale, California, according to the Panda Express website. In 2001, Panda Restaurant Group trademarked “Panda” for Chinese fast-food restaurant and take-out services.
In early 2019, Fan opened Panda Libre in Gilbert. He registered the “Panda Libre” mark on May 7, 2019, according to records from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Records also show on May 31, 2019, Panda Restaurant Group filed for the “Panda” mark for restaurant services in general, not just for Chinese fast food.
A few months later on Aug. 5, 2019, Fan received a cease-and-desist letter from Panda Restaurant Group, asking him to stop using the Panda Libre name and logo.
Fan refused because his restaurant had already been open for most of the year as Panda Libre, and he had already spent time and money on the restaurant’s signs and materials. He also argued his restaurant’s concept and logo are different enough from Panda Express that he’s met no one who’s confused his restaurant for the other, he said.
“We’re just a small mom-and-pop place, just one restaurant, barely open a year,” Fan said. “To just continuously having to fight this is really frustrating.”
What’s next for Panda Libre
On Feb. 19 Panda Restaurant Group sued Panda Libre for four violations: trademark infringement, false designation of origin, trademark dilution and unfair competition. The company asks Panda Libre to destroy all materials, including social media posts, that bear the “Panda” marks or “any confusingly similar variations.”
The lawsuit also demands that Panda Libre pay “their profits and cumulative damages” to Panda Restaurant Group, and that “the amount of recovery be increased as provided by law, up to three times.”
The Republic reached out to Fan and Panda Restaurant Group on Monday but was unable to get a response from either of them at the time of writing.
“We have put our hearts and soul into this business and have tried to always do the right thing for our wonderful community,” Fan wrote on a social media post. “We (ask) you for prayers, strength, and give us a shining light in our darkest moment.”
Follow Arizona Republic reporter Priscilla Totiyapungprasert on Twitter @priscillatotiya.