Burlington, WI: The Chocolate War | Essay | Chicago Reader

Burlington, WI: The Chocolate War 

These Parts/A small-town festival gets caught in the never-ending battle between Hershey and Nestle.

It's the chocolate capital of the Great Lakes region: the Nestle Chocolate Company plant in Burlington, Wisconsin, puts out over 100 million pounds of the stuff every year, in the form of Crunch bars, milk chocolate bars, 100 Grand bars, Oh Henry! bars, Raisinets, Goobers, Nestle Quik, cocoa mix, and Toll House morsels, lots and lots of Toll House morsels--81,000 a minute, 120,000 pounds of them a day. Burlington merits the appellation "Chocolate City USA" as much as Hershey, Pennsylvania, some people might say. But not the people at Hershey Foods, who are currently suing the city of Burlington for trademark infringement.

Burlington is located in the southeastern part of the state, a couple of hours north and west of Chicago and an easy shot from I-94 on Highway 11. With 700 employees working three shifts, Nestle is Burlington's biggest employer and a major contributor to local charities. Because of Nestle's importance to the community--and with chocolate being one of the world's most popular addictive substances--civic boosters decided in 1987 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the plant's opening with a big chocolate festival. It was a smash hit and became an annual event. The festival committee devised a logo, a takeoff on the official city seal, that proclaims "Chocolate City USA" and features one of those ubiquitous Toll House morsels.

Traditionally held the weekend after Mother's Day (in 1991, it's scheduled for May 17 through 19), the festival runs Friday night through Sunday evening, with a big parade on Sunday afternoon. Held in parks throughout Burlington, it offers a wide assortment of activity: storytellers, clowns, and a petting zoo for children; a dozen bands providing all kinds of music, from oompah to classical to several permutations of rock; a lot of food, mostly of the brats-and-burgers variety; and--of course--a veritable mountain of chocolate.

Every year, Nestle contributes considerable financial support, bulk chocolate on an at-cost basis, and a "world's largest" confection: a giant Crunch bar, a more-than-a-ton chocolate chip, a chocolate house; this year it was an enormous chocolate dinosaur. While one is admiring the delectable masterpiece, one can indulge in an amazing range of other chocolate concoctions. In Nestle's outlet tent, the company sells its chocolate products for ten percent over cost, and local civic and charity groups offer every imaginable chocolate dessert--chocolate-dipped strawberries, chocolate scones, chocolate-covered pretzels. In 1990 there were 23 chocolate booths, and plans are for the number of offerings to increase in 1991.

This year's festival, jinxed by cold, wet weather, still saw more than $25,000 in chocolate sold. In 1989 close to 100,000 people attended, says festival chairman Kurt Ludwig. (And all this without a single beer concession. "This is a nonalcoholic, family-type activity," Ludwig notes. "We decided long ago that chocolate and beer don't mix.")

"Wisconsin has always placed a high priority on tourism," says city administrator Tom Lebak. "We have some marvelous small festivals. The chocolate festival has become the big one in this area, the one we use to draw people to our community. Obviously, it brings in a lot of dollars to our businesses and community groups. There are a lot of people who are now coming to Burlington at least once a year and marveling at the good time, from the Chicago area, from northern Wisconsin, and of course locally. It keeps us vibrant. We're not a major tourist attraction, like Lake Geneva. [The festival] is something to draw attention to us, and we've had fun with it."

Enter a corporate grinch, in the form of Hershey Foods. When Burlington started to use its Chocolate City USA logo, "the Hershey company jumped us on it," says city attorney Allan "Pat" Torhorst. "We'd filed and received permission from Wisconsin to use it as a trademark, but when we sought federal permission, Hershey got into it."

For starters, says Torhorst, Hershey objects to the name, "saying that it causes confusion." The Hershey people claim "Chocolate City USA" is too close to "Chocolate Town USA," the name of a candy bar they manufactured briefly in the 1970s. They claim it's also too close to "Chocolatetown," which they use for cookies and pound cake. And too close to "Chocolate World," which is the name of a chocolate exhibit Hershey runs in Pennsylvania.

They also object to the logo. "We have a representation of a chocolate morsel in our logo, which Nestle makes by the billions here every year, and Hershey is claiming that it looks like a chocolate kiss," says David Wright, the festival's publicity director, who in his regular life sells ads for the Burlington Standard Press. "We're not selling a candy bar--just a city festival."

Hershey did the preliminary paperwork in May 1988 and filed a lawsuit in March of this year. Burlington claims in its brief to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that Hershey has abandoned the Chocolate Town USA trademark, since it long ago discontinued making the candy bars. "We think their case is absolute lunacy," says Torhorst. "We're not going to sell dog food or cookies. We just got caught in part of the never-ending struggle between Nestle and Hershey." A spokeswoman for Hershey declined to comment, except to acknowledge that the suit has been filed and that there have been settlement discussions. But no settlement has been reached.

"I would not have brought the case if I had been representing Hershey," says patent attorney Peter Jansson, formerly of Lake Point Tower and now of Racine, Wisconsin. "The parties aren't exactly falling over each other to settle the case. And it's our opinion that, by their very lack of aggression in the matter, Hershey is showing that they're not really interested in defending the trademarks."

Jansson, who compares the everyday odor of Burlington to that of the north Loop on those special days when the wind blows east from the Blommer chocolate factory, has attended three out of the four Chocolate City USA festivals. He dismisses the notion that the festival's logo could cause any bafflement among the chocolate lovers of the region. "Burlington has shown, by successive Chocolate City festivals and the absence of any confusion, that the idea that they're going to hurt Hershey Foods is wrong. I'd hope that they'll come to accept that."

Says Kurt Ludwig, "We've gotten a lot of good publicity from this [action]. Hershey is looking like a big bully over the thing--which they are."

Meanwhile, planning is in progress for the 1991 Chocolate City USA Festival, expected to be the grandest yet, with still more bands, more activities, and most important more chocolate. "We've got plenty of real food available," says Tom Lebak. "But, you know, people don't seem to care so much about that. People always seem to go for the chocolate."

For more information on Burlington, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.

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