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Who robbed the Madison area of its best bar name, Chicken Lips?

It’s now “Chicken Licks,” thanks to a puzzling legal dispute.

It’s now “Chicken Licks,” thanks to a puzzling legal dispute.

Head down County Highway N, the stretch between downtown Sun Prairie and I-94, and amid the farms you’ll spot a sign for a bar called Chicken Lips. It’s a straightforward place: Cheap beer specials, good wings available with both buffalo sauce and a house-made dry rub, an unvarnished but friendly atmosphere. Just the kind of bar you’d hope to find on a country road in Wisconsin.

Trouble is, Chicken Lips isn’t Chicken Lips anymore. At some point in the new year, the bar quietly changed its name to Chicken Licks. Chicken Lips fans understandably found this upsetting: “I am distraught,” one frequent patron told me in a DM exchange. The old Chicken Lips road sign is still up, across the parking lot from a new sign reading “Chicken Lips,” and the menu cards inside the bar still sport the Chicken Lips name.

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In a Facebook Messenger conversation, someone running the Chicken Licks Facebook page told me: “We had a legal issue with the name. No big deal, it happens. Still here doing our thing.” They declined to offer further details, and at one point asked, “Why is this of interest?” A staff member at the bar this week told Tone Madison that another business with a menu item called “Chicken Lips” sent a cease-and-desist letter. Chicken Licks just wants to carry on doing what it does well without making too much of a stink about losing the name it has used since 2010. When pressed for further comment, the Chicken Licks Facebook page simply responded, “Come on man… this is over.”

Indeed, it’s time to make peace with our new reality and trudge onward (and order some wings—they really are very good). Still, why would it be worth someone’s time to pick on a humble bar in exurban Madison? Who else has a stake in the name “Chicken Lips”?

The United States Patent and Trademark Office’s online Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) database brings up three active trademark filings using the phrase. One is Chicken Lips Farm in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia, and is the home of Screech Owl Brewing. Two filings are from Tanner’s Bar and Grill, a Kansas-based chain—with one location in Middleton!—that has a signature menu item called “chicken lips,” and certainly sounds like the culprit the Chicken Licks staff member described.

Beyond those who’ve gone to the federal government to make their claim to call things and places “chicken lips,” there is also a UK-based dance music act called Chicken Lips, a California folk-art business called Chicken Lips, and a Chicken Lips Farm in Alaska. Additionally, an IBM ad campaign from 2010 fused chicken and lips with a visual trick that’s just plain upsetting.

A staff member at Screech Owl Brewing in West Virginia, who did not give their name, confirmed that Screech Owl and Chicken Lips are “one and the same,” but claimed the business did not go after Chicken Lips in Madison. David Everett of the folk-art company Chicken Lips says he has “nothing to do with their legal issues.” Tracy Terry of Chicken Lips Farm in Alaska also denied involvement, saying in an email, “I was actually shocked how many people had the name already, briefly thought about changing it to Chicken Sh++++++!! Farm!” (The plus signs are Terry’s.)

The manager of Tanner’s Middleton location, Justin Heinkel, says that he didn’t know whether Tanner’s corporate leadership had anything to do with it, and that he found out about the name change when an aggrieved Chicken Lips patron posted on the Tanner’s Middleton Facebook page, apparently placing the blame on Tanner’s. (I wasn’t able to find this post.) I also spoke with Heinkel’s counterpart at Tanner’s Lenexa, Kansas location, Cassie Montgomery, who is not only a manager but a partner in the Tanner’s chain. Montgomery said she hadn’t heard of anyone at Tanner’s raising concerns over other business’ use of the phrase “chicken lips.”

“We do call our chicken fingers ‘chicken lips.’ We have for 34 years,” Montgomery says. “However….I have not heard of anybody challenging that or suing anyone for that.” Montgomery referred further questions to a senior partner at Tanner’s, who has not replied to a request for comment.

Chicken Lips the electronic group has also not yet returned Tone Madison‘s inquiries. We’ll update this story if we hear more.

The whole thing is ridiculous on a few levels, and I kind of have to applaud the bar for just accepting it and moving on. There are only a handful of things in the world called Chicken Lips, apparently, but it’s unlikely that a reasonable person would confuse any one of those things for something else called Chicken Lips. It reminds me of a trademark dispute in 2015 that forced central Wisconsin brewery O’So to change the name of its Night Train porter. No one’s going to get this exceptional dark beer mixed up with a horrific brand of fortified wine, but O’so made the best of a bad situation, re-naming the porter “Night Rain” and adding train tracks to the label. Similarly, Chicken Lips/Licks made a minor change that doesn’t seem to have disrupted its essence.

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