The Reason Applebee's Sued Stouffer's

In a litigious society like the U.S., lawsuits are as American as apple pie. While often involving spats between individuals or a person suing a company or place of employment for some perceived harm or negligence, there have also been instances when two corporate titans duke it out in the courtroom. There are many reasons why a company might choose to do this, including the prickly business of naming rights.

That exact situation unfolded in 2003 when Kansas-based restaurant group Applebee's sued Nestlé, the parent company of the frozen food empire Stouffer's, accusing them of trademark infringement (via Mental Floss). The stage was set for an epic legal battle in which attorneys for Applebee's and Nestlé legally sparred over the right to be awarded ownership of the coveted phrase "Skillet Sensations." When it comes to marketing under capitalism, every word counts. So how'd it all shake out, and what's in a name, anyway?

A skillet showdown

In one corner was Applebee's, a pugnacious national chain with a neighborhood feel, which claimed that it had been using the moniker Skillet Sensations since November 1996 to identify its menu of steaming platter entrees served in the fashion of fajitas, as noted by The Business Journals. They further stated that the company had applied for a trademark on the term on June 13, 1997. Glowering on the other side was Stouffer's, who declared that they started using the Skillet Sensations phrase in 1997 to characterize a line of frozen dinners "consisting of meat, vegetables, and potatoes with rice or pasta," later applying for a trademark on June 2, 1997 (via Progressive Grocer).

The trademark infringement fight was a protracted one that dragged on for several years before a decision was finally reached, with the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal board siding with Applebee's. To the victor went the naming spoils, with the body ruling that Applebee's had prior trademark rights to "Skillet Sensations." They cited that Stouffer's continuing to use the same name could lead to potential public confusion about a relationship between the companies' two products.

As part of a settlement (as reported by Law360), Nestlé eventually agreed to stop using the phrase Skillet Sensations in marketing its frozen food product line, ultimately renaming it Stouffer's Skillets in 2005 (per Mental Floss).