Among the dishes that diners can order off the menu at Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar & Fish House in Metairie are “Mr. Chris’ Chicken and Andouille Gumbo” and “Mr. Chris’ Homemade Hamburger Steak.”
Each is named after the late Chris “Bozo” Vodanovich, the man who once ran a popular seafood restaurant at that same location, said Edmond “Ed” McIntyre III, the owner of Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar & Fish House, 3117 21st St.
Vodanovich, who died in December at 86, was a regular at Mr. Ed’s after it opened in 2013, and McIntyre said naming dishes for him was a fitting homage to a man he called his friend for four decades.
Not everyone is touched by McIntyre’s tribute, however.
Vodanovich sold Bozo’s and all of its trademarks in 2008 to a Mandeville couple who ended up closing the restaurant shortly before Mr. Ed’s opened. Last week, the couple filed a lawsuit in 24th Judicial District Court in Gretna seeking damages from Mr. Ed’s, claiming that the new restaurant infringed on their trademark by using menu item names and other marketing materials alluding to Bozo’s.
On Monday, McIntyre — whose properties include another Mr. Ed’s oyster bar in the French Quarter as well as Austin’s steakhouse in Metairie — said, “I have six other restaurants in the area. I don’t need the words ‘Mr. Chris’ to sell a gumbo. I was just using it out of respect for a longtime friend who since has passed.”
McIntyre expressed exasperation over the lawsuit filed Friday by a company managed by Susan Martinsen. Martinsen and her husband, Mark Fayard, had previously tussled in court with Vodanovich and his wife, Bernadine, who died in August at 96.
“They’re just digging,” McIntyre said of the lawsuit. “We’ll remove anything we (may be told we) need to remove, but they’re just digging.”
An attorney representing Martinsen and her husband did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The Vodanovich family originally opened Bozo’s in New Orleans’ 6th Ward in 1928. They relocated it to Metairie just off Causeway Boulevard in 1979.
The quality of Bozo’s raw oysters and fried seafood earned it a first-rate reputation, and it drew a clientele that counted notables from the worlds of entertainment, politics, sports and the media.
Chris and Bernadine Vodanovich encouraged their children to find careers outside the restaurant business. When the couple decided to retire in 2008, they sold Bozo’s and its trademarks to Martinsen and her husband while retaining ownership of the restaurant building.
Bozo’s new owners leased the building from the Vodanoviches for $6,000 a month, court records show. But the Vodanoviches accused the new owners of routinely being late with the rent.
The Vodanoviches and their attorney, Robert Harvey, opened an eviction case against the new Bozo’s owners on Jan. 4, 2013. The case was dropped a month later after the new owners agreed to move out of the 21st Street building.
Later that year, the Vodanoviches sold McIntyre the building for $525,000 so he could start a new restaurant there. Martinsen and Fayard objected, saying their lease with the Vodanoviches was supposed to afford them the first opportunity to buy the building if someone else expressed an interest in buying it.
Martinsen and Fayard alleged — among other things — that the Vodanoviches began eviction proceedings against them to avoid honoring that right of first refusal, and they sued in Orleans Parish Civil District Court against the Vodanoviches’ company and Bernadine Vodanovich, Chris Vodanovich and the estate of Chris’ late sister, Vincenza Turlich, individually.
Judge Regina Woods in May dismissed the Vodanoviches and Turlich’s estate as defendants. There has been no activity in that case since, and Harvey said Monday that he isn’t sure how worthwhile it would be to pursue litigation against a company whose principals are dead and whose primary assets — Bozo’s and its old building — have been sold.
Meanwhile, in August 2014, Martinsen and Fayard turned their attention to Mr. Ed’s Oyster Bar & Fish House. They sent a cease-and-desist letter demanding that the restaurant stop saying it’s been “Shucking Here Since 1979” or calling itself the “Oldest Standup Oyster Bar in Metairie.” The letter also demanded that Mr. Ed’s stop offering dishes with “Mr. Chris” in their names.
Martinsen and Fayard allege Mr. Ed’s hasn’t complied, and on Friday, they sued through their company.
The suit says Mr. Ed’s is trying to capitalize on the goodwill Bozo’s built up while in business, even though they became the exclusive owners of that goodwill when they bought Bozo’s in 2008.
As a result of the letter, McIntyre said Monday, his restaurant has stopped describing itself as the “oldest standup oyster bar in Metairie” and quit explicitly linking itself to Bozo’s at its building.
He said some of the things the letter complained about may have persisted on the restaurant’s website because it was more difficult for him to remove things online. He reiterated that he named the “Mr. Chris” dishes as a salute to Vodanovich and that he doesn’t believe anyone should be the sole owner of such a common name.
“How can you say someone owns ‘Mr. Chris’?” McIntyre asked.
McIntyre said he was arranging for Harvey to defend him against the lawsuit filed Friday.