Food fight erupts over Pennsylvania 'Pierogi Festival' name

Pierogis cook on the flat top at Conley Pierogis at a food festival in Whiting, Ind., July 28, 2017. The suburban Chicago food festival says it's justified in threatening a trademark infringement lawsuit over a Pennsylvania group's use of the name "Pierogi Festival." (Jim Karczewski/Chicago Tribune via AP)
Workers at Kasia's Pierogi cook potato pancakes along with their famous Pierogi at a food festival in Whiting, Ind., July 28, 2017. The suburban Chicago food festival says it's justified in threatening a trademark infringement lawsuit over a Pennsylvania group's use of the name "Pierogi Festival." (Jim Karczewski/Chicago Tribune via AP)

Like a pot of pierogies left on the stove too long, a trademark dispute involving the name of the popular Polish delicacy is threatening to boil over.

Four years ago, civic-minded residents of Edwardsville, Pennsylvania, launched a festival tied to the pierogi, the potato-filled dumpling that's ubiquitous in a region whose coal mines drew waves of Polish immigrants more than a century ago.

The Edwardsville Pierogi Festival has been a rousing success — so much so that it's caught the attention of a chamber of commerce in suburban Chicago, which runs a highly popular "Pierogi Fest" and says the Pennsylvania upstarts are infringing on its trademark. Lawyers for Pierogi Fest recently sent a letter demanding the Edwardsville organizers either stop using the name or pay a licensing fee.

In Edwardsville, population 4,700, the threats have gone over as well as undercooked kielbasa. The town is located in Luzerne County, the only county in the United States where Polish is the most common ancestry.

"People are beside themselves. It's ridiculous," said Jackie Kubish Moran, president of the Edwardsville Hometown Committee, which runs the Pennsylvania event. "There's a lot of pride in this area when it comes to people and their heritage. They're going to protect that."

The food fight has landed in federal court, where lawyers for the Pennsylvania group filed a lawsuit Monday against the organizers of the event 700 miles away in Whiting, Indiana, which has been around since 1995 and draws some 300,000 people a year from around the country.

"No person on planet Earth is going to confuse the Edwardsville Pierogi Festival with a suburban Chicago 'Pierogi Fest,'" said Jim Haggerty, the lawyer for the Edwardsville group. "We don't think they're acting in good faith and we think they're bullies."

The Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce registered Pierogi Fest as a trademark in 2007. The chamber's lawyers say the Edwardsville Pierogi Festival is "likely to cause consumer confusion," and are threatening to sue not only the event organizers, but its sponsors, too.

Pierogi Fest Chairman Tom Dabertin said Tuesday that his group has licensed the name to similar ethnic food festivals around the country, and is willing to talk with the Edwardsville group about a similar arrangement.

He said the chamber, which runs the festival, is justified in defending its trademark.

"Disney does it. Coca-Cola does it. Kleenex does it. If you have a trademark, you have to protect it," he said.

Debbie Konefal, the third-generation owner of an Edwardsville restaurant that serves Polish and American cuisine, called the notion that people would confuse a pair of pierogi festivals 700 miles apart "a little silly." Like others in Edwardsville, she was flabbergasted by the Whiting chamber's stance.

"There is no way we could possibly in competition with them," said Konefal, whose restaurant uses the pierogi recipe of her great aunt.

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This story has been corrected to show Whiting has held its Pierogi Fest for 23 years, not 143 years.

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