Philly snackfood history: The legal drama behind Chickie’s & Pete’s Crabfries

Who knew seasoned potatoes could incite so many lawsuits?

"Phils fans love their Crabfries."

"Phils fans love their Crabfries."

Chris Pesotski/Flickr Creative Commons

Philadelphia has been home to some of the most revolutionary products in American history. The lightning rod was has been followed by the Slinky, streetlights, Monopoly, revolving doors, odometers, toilet paper rolls — and crab fries.

Wait, make that Crabfries®.

When the new proprietors of a longstanding tavern on Robbins Avenue in Mayfair — which they would rename Chickie’s & Pete’s — first “invented” the combo of seasoned crinkle-cut potatoes with a white cheddar dipping sauce, the name was definitely the former. Two words, no registered trademark symbol.

The story begins in the late 1970s, per company lore. A young Pete Ciarrocchi, working at his parents’ bar, was looking for something to do with the Old Bay-style spices left over from the summer crab haul, so he dreamed up the idea to use them on fries. After two years of testing sides, he hit upon the cheese sauce, and in 1979 the snackfood was unleashed on the world.

Eventually, Ciarrocchi’s “crab fries” made their way from the Northeast to South Philly and the stadiums — and from there, to sports arenas around the nation.

They’ve also landed in court multiple times.

Ciarrocchi has been willing to go to great lengths to maintain his multimillion dollar reign as Lord of the Crabfries. Here’s a recap of his legal adventures.

1998: The first trademark

The website for Chickie’s & Pete’s claims Ciarrocchi trademarked his creation all the way back when he was 21 years old, some 40 years ago. However, the first official listing in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows up as filed in 1998.

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Screenshot / USPTO

Makes sense, because 1998 was the year C&P expanded to Veteran’s Stadium. Crab fries quickly became one of the best-selling concessions at the Vet. They were also reportedly a favorite snack of the Eagles and their new coach Andy Reid, which helped give the brand widespread name recognition and cred.

2000: A very local lawsuit

The founders of Tony’s Place in Northeast Philly can boast they were the first first of several to get a cease-and-desist letter from Ciarrocchi’s legal team.

On June 29, 2000, Chickie’s & Pete’s ownership brought a suit against Tony’s parent company, Dominic, Inc., with various claims including trademark infringement. The term “crab fries,” the suit alleged, was used on Tony’s menu to describe fries that were close in taste, name and aesthetic to Ciarrocchi’s version.

Though plenty of people in Maryland had been drowning their fries in Old Bay seasoning and cheese sauce for years, the recipe itself ended up being irrelevant.

It’s what the dish was called that was in question, and lawyers for C&P were apparently able to bring enough legal pressure that the suit was settled out of court.

In Oct. 2002, attorneys from both parties shook hands and parted ways after Dominic, Inc. agreed to not use the terms “crab” or “crab fries” in their restaurants’ menus.

2007: From ‘crab fries’ to Crabfries®

As their popularity grew, Ciarrochi realized he needed to go further to protecting his sports munchies crown.

In 2007, CPC Properties, the Delaware-based parent company for his restaurant group, registered a trademark for “Chickie’s & Pete’s Famous Crabfries®.”

Unlike the previous trademark, which was simply for the typed letters that spelled out “crab fries,” this one established a logo for the dish, and also codified its name as a single word.

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Screenshot / USPTO

2008: 5 million orders sold

Expansion continued apace, and in 2008, Chickie’s & Pete’s celebrated their five millionth order of Crabfries® sold.

By the end of 2009, the snack was offered at dozens of locations. Ciarrocchi oversaw a seasoned fry empire that included stand-alone restaurants in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as stands at PHL Airport and stadiums across the nation. You could even get Crabfries® in Missouri — something that probably made now-Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid pretty happy.

2011: Maryland chain capitulates

Crabfries® being available in other states made Ciarrocchi’s legal team even more aggressively protective of the trademark.

In 2011, they sued a Westminster, Maryland, restaurant company called J & P Pizza. Per reports, J&P had only used the phrase “Maryland Crab Fries” once, in one rendering of an online menu dated 2007, for one of their eight locations.

Instead of risking complications and an expensive payout, the chain chose to eliminate the “offending” phrase from their menus.

2012: North Carolina spot prevails

Legal wrangling didn’t always turn out in Chickie’s & Pete’s favor:

In August 2012, a federal trademark infringement lawsuit against Crabby Fries in the Outer Banks was dismissed.

Three attorneys defending Crabby Fries had argued throughout the case that the terms “crab” and “fries” were too generic to fuss over, asserting that the name of the restaurant was “only vaguely related” to the trademark.

Supporters of the independent eatery also vocally fought Ciarrocchi’s claim that since he “invented” crab fries, the North Carolina spot should have to change its name — and Crabby Fries eventually prevailed.

2013: Not even a photo

Despite that minor setback, Chickie’s & Pete’s trademark protection efforts continued — this time against an old foe.

Apparently, the owners of Tony’s, Dominic, Inc., hadn’t realized the extent of Ciarrocchi’s defensiveness, and published a menu that had pictures of crabs next to the word “fries.”

In an 85-paragraph federal complaint, the legal eagles at C&P asserted that Dominic, Inc. was culpable of “trademark infringement, false designation of origin, common law service mark infringement, unfair competition, unjust enrichment and trademark dilution.”

In 2013, the judge in the case ruled in Chickie’s & Pete’s favor that the image of a crab next to the word fries was enough to constitute trademark infringment.

2016: Another trademark — for chips  

The Crabfries® juggernaut was so powerful that even a federal investigation over Ciarrocchi’s tip skimming and wage violations (which cost the company an $8 million payout) didn’t diminish the brand’s popularity.

It was still attractive enough for Chester County’s Herr Foods to partner with C&P. After filing a new trademark that specifically connected the “crabfries” name with chips, a new Herr’s flavor was born.

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Screenshot / USPTO

In February 2016Chickie’s & Pete’s Crabfries Seasoned Potato Chips with White Creamy Cheese Sauce Flavoring were introduced.

So these days, thanks to Amazon, people all over the world can dive into that oh-so-special Crabfries® flavor — without fear of being sued.