Saturday, February 8, 2020

Broken Chain: Barnhill's Buffet, Jonesboro, AR

Today's post highlights Craighead County, AR, retail.

Broken Chain: A business which, at some point in its history, had multiple, similarly-functioning, physical locations where a customer could purchase goods and/or services, and which presently has a significantly diminished presence and/or value as a brand compared to the same brand in its heyday. - Zap Actionsdower

Buffets are great, aren't they? Okay, maybe not always the quality, but just the concept of them is enough to captivate a wide audience - a large variety of foods, presented in a serve-yourself format, often with unlimited servings, for a relatively cheap price. What's not to love? As a child, I remember being particularly fascinated by buffet restaurants. The one I remember most is Barnhill's Buffet.

Barnhill's got its start in 1991 in Pensacola, Florida, where Steven Barnhill opened his first country buffet restaurant. The concept quickly grew, and in 1995, Barnhill sold his chain to Lovett's Buffet, Inc., while remaining with the company. Under Lovett's, Barnhill's expanded throughout the Southeast, growing to a peak of 44 restaurants in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. Ten years later, in 2005, Barnhill's was again sold, this time to Dynamic Management Co. of Madison, TN, and Jefferies Capital Partners of New York. The chain was 41 restaurants strong at that time.

These three images aren't very large, but they still should give you a fairly good impression of what typical Barnhill's Buffet restaurants looked like. Clearly, there was a strong barn theme architecturally. Image courtesy

The location pictured in the top image is in Gulf Breeze, FL, while the one pictured in the second image here is in Tupelo, MS. Albertsons Florida Blog also has his own post of an abandoned Barnhill's in Melbourne, FL, which you can check out here on My Florida Retail. Image courtesy

This location is in Columbus, MS, and is likely the one I remember, although it's possible I was also familiar with the Tupelo restaurant. I don't really remember which town, all I remember is Barnhill's itself! Image courtesy

Unfortunately, according to the Brookwood Associates website, "Barnhill's financial position was weakened in 2006 by the repercussions of multiple hurricanes in its primary markets along with a general slowdown in the economy, higher gas prices, and lower discretionary income for its core customers. Brookwood was hired by Barnhill's to explore a sale of the company." In December 2007, Barnhill's filed for bankruptcy, and in February 2008 entered into a deal to sell 16 of its restaurants to Star Buffet, Inc. Those 16 locations are listed here, and a full location list from 2005 (prior to the bankruptcy) may also be accessed here, both courtesy of the Wayback Machine. Four additional locations were sold to Star Buffet later in February, and in April 2008, Barnhill's voluntarily converted its Chapter 11 bankruptcy case to Chapter 7, closing its nine remaining restaurants.

In the meantime, Steven Barnhill, who had left his company in 2002 and moved to Dallas to work for a different restaurant chain, noted, "The whole time I was in Dallas, they were closing Barnhill's stores, the chain I started." So, following the bankruptcy, in January 2008 Barnhill left Dallas and moved to Alabama, reopening some shuttered former Barnhill's Buffets. Over the next several years Barnhill would continue this practice at several former Barnhill's Buffet sites in a few different states, including Mississippi (Columbus and Tupelo among them) and the chain's birthplace of Pensacola, FL, switching between a variety of names (including Mama Blues, Steve Barnhill's Catfish Buffet, and Barnhill's Southern Fresh Buffet). Unfortunately, many of these ventures were plagued with numerous health violations, and eventually all of them closed down.

Examples of Steve Barnhill's later, post-Barnhill's-bankruptcy ventures. The location shown here is in Barnhill's Buffet's birthplace of Pensacola, FL. Image courtesy

At this Steve Barnhill's Catfish Buffet, the sign frame is clearly recycled from the restaurant's original stint as Barnhill's, including the unchanged "BUFFET" lettering. Image courtesy

A close-up of the doorway of one restaurant reveals Steve Barnhill continued to use a similar barn theme, font, and green/red/yellow color scheme for his independent Barnhill's logos. This will be pertinent information momentarily. Image courtesy

Star Buffet, too, whittled down its Barnhill's store count over the years, to the point where only one Barnhill's Buffet remained in operation, located in Jonesboro, Arkansas. About 115 miles to the southwest in Jacksonville, Arkansas, when the owner of the town's Western Sizzlin¹ retired in 2017, Steven Barnhill resurfaced and converted the restaurant into a Barnhill's Steaks-Buffet. Star Buffet didn't much like this development. Which brings us now into...

What you are about to witness is real. The information below is directly lifted from the case text as found online. I've swapped the terms "plaintiff" and "defendant" for "Star" and "Steven" in most instances, but otherwise, the quotes are only minimally altered for clarity.

In 2019, plaintiff Star Buffet sought to bring defendant Steven Barnhill to court over Steven's use of the Barnhill's name for his Jacksonville, AR, restaurant. The issue lies in the question of who owns the Barnhill's Buffet trademark. Upon its purchase of the 20 Barnhill's restaurants in 2008, Star obtained "a perpetual, royalty-free, fully transferable license to use the intangible property of Barnhill's Buffet." However, the court case notes that there is no indication in the record that this right was exclusive. Upon Barnhill's Buffet, Inc's, dissolution in Chapter 7 bankruptcy, "all of the bankruptcy estate's rights and interests in the Barnhill's trademark, name and logos" were purchased by Steven Barnhill.

While Star argues that, by opening his Jacksonville restaurant, Steven has committed trademark infringement, Steven argues that his purchase of the Barnhill's trademark in 2008 gives him equal rights as Star to use the trademark. If that were the only matter in the case, it would be easily resolved. But a further complication exists: trademark abandonment. "The Lanham Act provides that a trademark shall be deemed to be 'abandoned' if either of the following occurs:"

(1) "The mark becomes the generic name for the goods or services on or in connection with which it is used." This is the case for a lot of items (think Band-Aid, Kleenex, etc.), and a few of them have actually lost their trademarks in court rulings. See here for more.

(2) "The mark's use has been discontinued with intent not to resume such use. Non-use for 3 consecutive years shall be prima facie (accepted as correct until proved otherwise) evidence of abandonment." This one is the one that companies are more likely to encounter problems with, especially those that merge with and acquire various other brands in the course of business. In turn, this is why many of those same companies will keep minimally using those brands in order to prove that they are not "abandoned." Examples include the few remaining Sam Goody and Suncoast stores² (same with EB Games and Babbage's)... the use of the Burger Chef and Toddle House trademarks as described in this post... Dial using the Breck brand name only on soap it supplies to hotels, and no longer in retail (see page 73)... and Chevron's continued use of the Standard Oil brand name in each of its markets (thanks to Northwest Retail for alerting me to this one!), among others.

Scan of the February 1997 edition of the Chevron Now publication. If you can make out the text, be sure to give it a read (you can click on the image to make it larger). It's pretty interesting in that it clearly explains the continued use of the Standard name. The text avoids explicitly saying it is for trademark purposes, but at the same time, it seems written in such a way as to provide definitive proof of non-abandonment if use of the trademark were ever to be called into question. Image courtesy

A couple of pics I took of the EB Games store at Oglethorpe Mall in Savannah, GA, on a visit there last summer. The GameStop logo is present on the storefront as well, but only in a secondary position.

As a matter of fact, this is one of three GameStop-owned stores in Oglethorpe Mall. They've got this EB Games, a regular GameStop, and a ThinkGeek, which is owned by GameStop. Crazy!

As it applies to this case, "when Steven made his purchase of the Barnhill's Buffet trademarks, two of the five marks had already been cancelled for non-use, and by September 2013, they had all been cancelled." Additionally, "Steven's own testimony indicates that he did not use the Barnhill's trademarks from 2011 until January 2017, when he opened the Jacksonville Barnhill's restaurant." Not only does Star thus argue that Steven has long since abandoned - and therefore lost any rights he may have had to use - the Barnhill's trademarks, Star itself registered the trademark BARNHILL'S SALADS BUFFET DESSERTS in 2014, and "has continuously used this mark on signs, menus, and other materials at the Barnhill's Country Buffet in Jonesboro, Arkansas," the sole remaining Barnhill's restaurant it purchased back in 2008. As stated earlier, "Steven promotes his Jacksonville restaurant with the service mark BARNHILL'S STEAKS BUFFET, which Star contends is confusingly like BARNHILL'S SALADS BUFFET DESSERTS."

The case text proceeds from here to evaluate the validity of the arguments lobbied by and against each party. "To succeed with claims for trademark infringement, Star must demonstrate that a likelihood of confusion exists as a result of Steven's use of the accused mark. To determine the likelihood of confusion, six factors are relevant." These are broken down individually below.

(1) Strength

For this factor, the court compared the "service marks as actually used" by both parties, i.e. their logos. As you can see below - and as the court concluded - "the word Barnhill's arguably denotes a farmhouse barn rather than a surname, and suggests the qualities or characteristics of Star's country buffet restaurant."

The Barnhill's logo used by the Jonesboro, AR, restaurant operated by Star Buffet. Courtesy Jonesboro Barnhill's website

The Barnhill's logo used by the Jacksonville, AR, restaurant operated by Steven Barnhill. Courtesy Jacksonville Barnhill's website 

Further evidence of commercial strength was presented by Star in relation to its "significant advertising expenditures and revenue for the Jonesboro Barnhill's restaurant from 2009 through 2018," but "Steven correctly notes that Star offers no evidence showing a direct link between advertising expenditures and public recognition of the Barnhill's mark."

(2) Similarity

"The undisputed evidence shows that the parties' marks are nearly identical, and given that the parties use the marks in the same state to provide the same class of services, the similarity factor tips in Star's favor."

(3) Competitive Proximity

"Star asserts that given the high degree of similarity between the Jonesboro and Jacksonville restaurants, '[a] customer who has patronized Star's buffet restaurant in Jonesboro would almost certainly be confused when s/he came upon Steven's restaurant less than two hours away in the Little Rock suburb of Jacksonville.' Steven contends that the parties operate restaurants in 'geographically isolated' markets, and points out that Star offers no evidence as to whether or how often consumers encounter both restaurants. The effect of the geographic separation between Jacksonville and Jonesboro is relevant, and Star shoulders the burden to show that despite the 115-mile distance between restaurants, consumers are likely to be confused."

Further relating to this point, "Steven argues that because Star has no 'market penetration in Steven's market,' Star cannot obtain an injunction stopping Steven from using a Barnhill's mark." But it remains a question for trial whether Jonesboro and Jacksonville are indeed "distinctly separate geographic markets." (I should note that this case text is from a judge's dismissal of motions for summary judgment, that is, the judge making a ruling on the case before it ever has to go to trial with a jury. That's why the intent here was only to determine if there were valid questions for trial, not to actually answer the questions. I'll have more details on the ultimate outcome of the case later on in this post.)

(4) Alleged Infringer's Intent

"The fourth factor asks whether the alleged infringer intended to pass off its goods as the trademark owner's goods."

"Star argues that Steven set out to copy Star's Jonesboro restaurant when he opened his Jacksonville restaurant in 2017. It is undisputed that before Steven opened the Jacksonville restaurant, he was well familiar with the Jonesboro restaurant. By affidavit, Steven acknowledges that when he worked for Lovett's, which became Barnhill's Buffet, Inc., he was personally involved in converting the Jonesboro restaurant into a Barnhill's restaurant. Additionally, Star presents evidence that Steven copied Star's mark and 'even the look and feel of Star's restaurant.' While an intent to copy is not the same as an intent to confuse, given the stark similarities between the restaurants and viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Star, the Court finds questions for trial as to whether Steven intended to have consumers associate their restaurant with Star's."

(5) Actual Confusion

"Star seeks to prove actual confusion with a copy of attorney's demand letter regarding an incident that occurred at Steven's Jacksonville restaurant. The attorney apparently mailed the letter to Star. Star asserts that the misdirected letter is evidence of actual confusion."

Unfortunately, "because the letter is unauthenticated," the court deemed it inadmissible. But if the letter is real, it would only add to Star's argument.

(6) Product Type

As already discussed, both Barnhill's restaurants offer the same sort of stuff, for the same range of price, in the same type of atmosphere.

Given that none of the six elements of trademark infringement could be outright dismissed, the court found that this case had enough merit to send to trial. A jury trial was set to commence in Little Rock at 9:30AM on Wednesday, June 19, 2019... until shortly before that date, on June 5, an out-of-court settlement was reached between the two parties. So, unfortunately, we'll never know what conclusion a jury would have reached in this matter. But in any case, I thought it was all certainly interesting to read about, and I hope you did, too.

Oh, and I should note that in addition to the "official" Barnhill's restaurants (ownership of which ultimately wound up with Star Buffet) and Steven Barnhill's various unofficial ventures, beginning in 1993 Charles Barnhill, Steven's father, was granted permission to use the Barnhill's service marks at his own buffet restaurant in Nacogdoches, Texas. This restaurant was never connected either to the official Barnhill's chain or to Steven Barnhill, and continued to operate unabated until November 2019, when Charles retired and the restaurant subsequently closed (independently of the lawsuit and settlement between Star and Steven). Apparently, Star didn't care about Charles's use of the Barnhill's name over 400 miles away in Texas - only when Steven began using the name a lot closer to home!

The sign for Barnhill's Steaks and Buffet in Nacogdoches, TX, operated by Steven Barnhill's father, Charles Barnhill. This restaurant closed at the end of 2019, and was never associated with the Barnhill's chain, although it did have some sort of agreement in place concerning use of the trademark. Image courtesy

¹ - I guess I do footnotes now? Neat, haha! Wanted to mention here that Western Sizzlin actually has a connection to the other Barnhill's town as well. Jonesboro, AR, had a Western Sizzlin that operated from 1995 until shortly before my visit, closing in May 2019. For that matter, Batesville, MS, had a Western Sizzlin restaurant as well, but now there are no longer any locations of that chain in the Mid-South.

² - Unfortunately, the surviving locations of the brands mentioned in that post may soon be in danger. Recently the FYE chain was sold from Trans World Entertainment to Sunrise Records. This has the potential to be great news for the chain, given the way Sunrise intends to invest in and expand it, but a sad side effect could be the elimination of the FYE name as well as all those remaining outliers like Sam Goody, Suncoast, etc., as one source suggests "The stores will be rebranded as Sunrise." (h/t Cape Kennedy Retail)

--------------------------------------------------

I'd be interested to read your verdicts in the comments to this post, but in my opinion, Star Buffet had the better chance of winning this case. Which is unfortunate for Steven, given that he was the original founder of the chain, and Barnhill is also his last name, for crying out loud. But based on trademark law, it seems pretty clear to me that he abandoned the trademark, and his Jacksonville restaurant is clearly way too similar to the trademark to pass as coincidence. That said, I suppose it worked out happily for him in the end, since his restaurant remains in operation. But for the purposes of our broken chain analysis, only one official Barnhill's Buffet remains in operation, and that's the location in Jonesboro, AR, owned by Star Buffet. I made the trek up to the (technically) last Barnhill's ever on July 11, 2019; details and photos from my visit follow below.


Unfortunately for us, the Jonesboro Barnhill's is not one of the chain's past freestanding locations, so we won't be seeing any barn-themed architecture here at the final remaining Barnhill's. Instead, this restaurant is part of the Caraway Plaza strip center, occupying its north end. The plaza is also home to stores like TJMaxx/HomeGoods, Old Navy, and Petco.



Approaching the storefront, we see that the restaurant is fairly nondescript in exterior design, but it is what it is. In reality, none of the rest of the shopping center has this look, so I'm not sure if Barnhill's was the only tenant built to look like this or if the whole of the plaza once looked the same, but has since remodeled.



There are two entry points into the building, one on either side of the corner on which the restaurant is located, which lead into a short vestibule area. We're looking along the front sidewalk in these photos. Note how the doors are decorated with the Barnhill's logo.


Courtesy Google Maps

Courtesy Google Maps

Heading in, we find an old stove acting as decoration in the vestibule/waiting area, followed by some views of the register counter and the "menu." The latter two images are not my own; we'll be seeing several other Google Maps user images throughout this post as well, to show off parts of the interior I wasn't able to photograph myself.


Near the register was this cool wooden bench with the Barnhill's logo hand-carved into it. Really neat piece, I thought!



From the register and then our table (respectively), here are our first overviews of the dining area. I have to say, I was impressed! The rather bland exterior didn't prepare me for the comparatively grand interior. There's not much to it, I suppose, but the fact that it wasn't run-down or dingy was a good start. Then the super high, open ceilings; skylights; and brick accent wall and support posts sealed the deal for me. Definitely not what I was expecting.

Courtesy Google Maps

Courtesy Google Maps

Courtesy Google Maps

Here are some additional views of the dining room, all from Google Maps. This area was very spacious, but not terribly busy on my visit. The top image was taken parallel to the right-side wall, while the bottom two were taken from the middle of the restaurant looking toward the back and to the left, respectively.


Here's my own photo of the left side of the restaurant, as viewed looking back towards the front of the building. This area had a defined seating fixture, with its own "roof," lights, and everything, which I thought was cool. Unfortunately, this side of the dining area was closed off at the time of my visit. I imagine it's not put into use unless the restaurant is super busy. The rest of the dining area is plenty big to support the regular crowd without having to make use of this side.

Courtesy Google Maps

Courtesy Google Maps

Courtesy Google Maps

Some more pictures of the dining room now, as we approach the buffet itself. The middle image actually looks back toward the front of the restaurant; you can see how the vestibule hallway is separated from the dining room by a wall with faux windows on it. Behind the second set of faux windows you see heading into the background lies a separate party room, which I did not get any photos of.




Next up are my own pictures of the buffet, which are sadly lacking in number due both to the fact that it's hard to take pictures while also holding a plate you're trying to fill up with food, and to the fact that it's very difficult to be inconspicuous in doing so with everyone else up here trying to fill up their own plates as well! The one pic I don't think any customers saw me take, the chef working in the kitchen on the other side of the brick wall did XD




That said, it's likely I'm not the only one who has been seen taking photos of the buffet, given all of these pictures posted to Google Maps! (Even though they aren't captioned as such, all of the above did come from that source.) I'm including these to give you guys a better idea of the wide variety of foods that could be found at this buffet, although even then this still isn't indicative of all of Barnhill's offerings.



As for what I personally sampled? My two plates are photographed above. I'm horrible at describing things, especially food, so I'm not even going to try and be like Zap and do a big write-up here. But suffice to say, a majority of what I had was good. There were a couple things I didn't like as much, but at this point I can't even really remember which items those were. That said, I do remember distinctly liking the (extra fluffy!) mashed potatoes and gravy, spaghetti, and especially the rolls. I love a good roll.

Courtesy Google Maps


Before heading back up to the front, we have one more Google Maps user photo, taken from the far back corner of the restaurant overlooking the entire dining area. Below that is a quick peek at the front hallway (lined with chairs) past the register, which leads to an exit onto the front sidewalk as well as the entrance into the separate party room mentioned earlier. Beyond the claw machine on the right are the restrooms. On the front of the claw machine itself is a Barnhill's Buffet logo, but I wasn't able to get a better photo of that.



On our way out I snagged the above comment card, obviously so that I could have a keepsake with the Barnhill's logo on it, of course! The reverse is addressed to Star Buffet's offices (worth noting, by the way, that Star Buffet once upon a time was spun off by CKE Restaurants Holdings, Inc., best known as the parent of Hardee's and Carl's Jr. That's where the "Star" name and logo come from). And below that, a picture of our receipt, just because. Clearly Barnhill's isn't as cheap anymore as Steven Barnhill's "Five Dollar Buffet" days :P




Finally, as we exit the restaurant, we step out into the parking lot for some quick peeks at the roadside sign for this end of Caraway Plaza. All the stores that occupy the majority of the plaza (as mentioned earlier in this post) share a second Caraway Plaza road sign over on the other end of the strip, so Barnhill's gets its own sign with top billing on this side. Note the presence of yet another slight logo variation here: there's no apostrophe in "Barnhills" this time, and the tagline here is "Country Buffet," not "Salads Buffets Desserts," "Salads Buffet Catering," or just plain "Buffet," all of which have also been spotted at various points in this location. (Go back and look closely at all the photos if you don't believe me!)

With that, we wrap up our exploration of the history of Barnhill's Buffet - from southern staple down to just one location, and with plenty of interesting happenings along the way, ranging from bankruptcy to illicit copycat locations to an almost-jury trial. While the residents of Jonesboro likely remember when Barnhill's was a chain, they probably don't realize their town is now host to the final official location of the buffet. But at the same time, to them, the restaurant is intrinsically local anyway, serving as a gathering place that dishes out good food and supports the local Red Wolves sports team (ASU is located in Jonesboro), and that's likely part of what has kept it operating all these years, long since the closure of all the other Barnhill's Buffets. Here's to hoping this location will continue to carry on the Barnhill's legacy for years to come.

--------------------------------------------------

Are you familiar with Barnhill's Buffet? Have any memories or photos to share? Please send them in to us at midsouthretailblog [at] gmail [dot] com! In the next few months, the blog will return to two existing, ongoing series, so be sure to watch out for those posts. I've also got a really special treat in the works that I'm super excited to share with y'all soon. My intent is for that post to act as the blog's 100,000 pageviews celebration, but there's a chance I may get too eager and publish it sooner than we can reach that milestone :P  But just in case, please make sure to keep clicking back so as to boost our pageview count - the quicker we hit (or at least, approach XD ) 100,000, the sooner I can share that post with you guys! I've included a little teaser of the subject for you below...


Until next time and as always, thanks for reading, and have fun exploring the retail world wherever you are!

Retail Retell