It’s often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, for food industry entrepreneurs, recipes are created without protection — making original ideas free game for anyone willing to commit culinary piracy and repurpose adopted concepts for personal and monetary gains.
Recently, the topic of culinary piracy, specifically within the Orange County, Calif. food scene, became the focal point of discussion on FOODBEAST’s weekly podcast, The Katchup. Hosted by FOODBEAST Co-Founders Elie Ayrouth and Geoff Kutnick, The Katchup featured special guest, chef, and food personality, Josh Elkin.
If social media has provided anything, it has become a utility — a metaphorical looking glass into the world of food, if you will — that we can use at our disposal to find new and interesting trends.
With that said, now, perhaps more than ever, social media is providing tangible evidence that culinary piracy is thriving within a vibrant O.C. food scene.
Instagram has become a haven of food plagiarism, spawning a new breed of culinary copycats eager to emulate the next trend — without fear of legal repercussion and void of originality.
‘Pros And Cons’
The Loop, a well-known handcrafted churro spot in Westminster, which opened in 2016, is just one OC-based spot being affected by this blatant example of what Ayrouth has dubbed as “swagger jacking.”
Churroholic, which opened in June, has striking similarities to The Loop — from the actual shape of their product, all the way down to website aesthetics. Although, it seems doubtful that Churroholic is innocently trying to gain inspiration from their O.C. predecessor, considering their branding is almost identical.
Although, Churroholic doesn’t seem like the only business “swagger jacking”oval-shaped churros. In fact, there’s a place in Kuwait literally called The Loop Cafe, with no official affiliation to either of these Orange County brands.
In some cases, copying someone’s concept for profit is illegal. Just ask Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg. But, when it comes to food, there are few laws preventing businesses from “swagger jacking” their competition.
Shrimp Daddy, a purveyor of Hawaiian-inspired pineapple shrimp bowls, and a regular vendor at Smorgasburg LA, has become an inspiration for the trendy poke chain The Low-Key Poke Joint.
An online debate broke out on The Low-Key Poke Joint’s Instagram page after several users began commenting about the resemblance to Shrimp Daddy’s pineapple bowl.
Though this all might seem like a back alley reproduction of someone’s intellectual property, it can be argued that Instagram has made food ideation and creation extremely territorial.
Kutnick explained that Orange County is in a unique place in the food world, essentially because craft dining is just recently becoming a trend in the area, which might be contributing to the exponential occurrence of copycatting.
“Orange County is in this weird place, because everywhere craft dining is becoming a thing. That’s why there’s so much copycatting here, it’s because there’s this entrepreneurial mindset that’s almost like, ‘I’m an entrepreneur and that’s better than a chef.'” — Geoffrey Kutnick, Co-Founder of FOODBEAST
Perhaps that’s why OC-based bubble tea maker Main Squeeze decided to replicate Dominique Ansel’s What-a-Melon Soft Serve. How would the Cronut-creating genius feel about having a recipe snaked about a month after it debuted at his West Village bakery? Someone should tweet him.
As the “swagger jacking” continues, Birthdae Cake, a small ice cream shop located in Fountain Valley is evidently also a fan of Ansel. Birthdae Cake’s recent posts show off a new s’more creation, that looks exactly like one of Ansel’s Frozen S’mores.
Yet, similarly to the other instances of culinary piracy there is no mention of the S’mores creator. However, Birthdae Cake did manage to photograph their product from the same angle.
It seems like creative ideas must remain locked in a kitchen vault or they are poached and sold for profit. Let’s not forget egregious acts of culinary piracy on the corporate level as well. Burger King swiped the Vulgar Chef’s Mac N’ Cheetos concept and there was nothing he could do.
But, Burger King has no face in the community. The businesses in this article are all a part of a tight-knit foodie community within Orange County — which makes it seem much more deceitful.
Being an entrepreneur is not easy, but there should be ethical standard when it comes to directly repurposing someone else’s idea.
Ayrouth further explains, “A big part about being an entrepreneur is noticing something and capitalizing on it. So, just because you’re not first to do something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try — or do it better — there’s a lot of things you can innovate and do better.”
Business owners can do as they please. Still, creating culinary doppelgangers for the sake of Instagram fame is only inviting ethical dilemmas for the offending copycats.