People with roots in Southern California started getting excited before the white and red food cart at the corner of Southwest 9th Avenue and Taylor Street even opened its shingle. One ran into Miss Dish's office moaning, as if on poppers, "It's Tommy's. They're here! They're here!"
Miss Dish had heard of Tommy's. Started in 1946 by Tommy Koulax in Los Angeles, the chain is now 23-strong, family-owned and focused tightly in the SoCal area. The signature dish is a burger with a healthy dollop of a sweet meat-only chili, cheese, onions, pickle, tomato and mustard, and the chain artfully displays the blueprint of its masterpiece with a poster titled "Anatomy of an Original Tommy's Burger." Expats pine for their Tommy's fix as much as Krispy Kreme heads, Pat's Steak fans and Katz's Deli addicts jones for their much-missed delights.
Miss D grabbed super-intern James and headed out to give the Tommy's down the street a try. Just like the L.A. Tommy's, this cart had the "Anatomy of an Original Tommy's Burger" image displayed. As the man and woman in the cart made her burger, Miss D. asked them if they were connected to the California Tommy's. "We're from California," the man in the Grateful Dead baseball cap replied, adding, "I knew Tommy." The woman held up Miss D.'s just-completed burger, oozing with chili, and said, "Doesn't it look the same?" A bumper sticker on the side of the truck read, "Tommy's--Yes it is."
But is it?
A bit of research showed no affiliation with what's officially named "Original Tommy's" in SoCal. Miss D. spoke with Brent Maire, president of the family-owned chain, and he confirmed that there are no Original Tommy's offshoots in Oregon, although he's heard of the wannabe in Portland. Maire says that impersonators are a constant headache for the company. "Over the years we've become one of the most-imitated chains in the country," he said. "We've seen Tommy spelled a lot of different ways--Tommie, Tohmmy, Tomy, you name it."
One of the reasons Original Tommy's gets nicked so often is that the company's plans for expansion are limited. People in Portland have no access to the real Original Tommy's, and an imitator provides a service normally out of reach for City of Roses fans.
Miss D. headed back to our Tommy's with press card in hat to find out more about the burger doppelgängers. The owner, who said his name is Bob Ray (Miss Dish was unable to find this name linked to Tommy's registration in Oregon, although she did come up with both a Ronald Rains and an Aaron Rains tied to the entity), said his Tommy's has no connection to Original Tommy's. "We ask the customer to be the judge," he said, adding, "I registered my name here in Portland--they're in California." Ray used to run Tommy's out of a brick-and-mortar building at Southwest 20th Avenue and Morrison Street but switched to the cart after recently closing the restaurant.
A few hours later, Ray came calling for Miss D. at her office in order to clarify himself. He told Miss D. that his attorney had assured him his Tommy's is protected by registering as Tommy's Place and doing business in a different state. Ray says, "I want to be my own deal. We don't want to be a totally Tommy's thing, but if it said we were Bob's, we wouldn't get noticed." He notes that his cart serves pastrami and Gardenburgers, unlike his Cali counterpart.
Miss Dish checked in with Duane Bosworth, an intellectual-property lawyer with local firm Davis Wright Tremaine, to find out more. Bosworth says that even though Original Tommy's doesn't seem to have a federal trademark, the issue here is more about intent. "It seems he has a specific intention to confuse consumers and to associate his product with the original Tommy's. If that's the case, then it's illegal," Bosworth says. "A guy named Tommy can certainly name his restaurant after himself if he has innocent intent."
Do average, law-abiding citizens seem to care about the intent of their burger? A highly unscientific poll leads Miss Dish to believe they don't. Ian Jaquiss, brother of WW gotcha reporter Nigel Jaquiss, used to live in Los Angeles, and back then he gobbled as many Original Tommy's burgers as possible. Ian accompanied Miss D. on a taste test and reports that the Portland Tommy's comes close enough.
But what about the moral implications of creative thievery? For Ian, this is a moot point. "It doesn't bother me," he says. "If it were a sub-par chili cheeseburger, then I'd be up in arms."
A chili cheeseburger at Portland Tommy's costs $2.50.
The real deal: www.original-tommys.com .