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Food Mentors: A Case Study in Trademarking

Alexander Harik of Zesty Z Discusses the First Move

There are two kinds of za’atar in the world. This za’atar. And this one.

The first za’atar is a condiment used by millions of people in the Middle East. Familiar to chefs and increasingly so to foodies, it’s still practically unknown to mainstream America. But that’s about to change. Just like equivalent “ethnic” staples hummus and greek yogurt, which were equally unknown to most Americans only 15 years ago but now generate billions in annual revenue, za’atar is an ancient, versatile product whose time in the U.S. has finally come.

The second za’atar is essentially the same thing as the first — a typical homemade recipe, produced by a mother-and-son team of Lebanese heritage — but it’s prepared for immediate consumption and presented in a convenient jar. Zesty Z, the company making the product, was founded less than a year ago but will have hit the 100-store mark before its one-year birthday.

This second za’atar is trademarked. Alexander Harik filed his first trademark at the encouragement of his lawyer sister, within days of the idea for the business first hitting him. (As he tells it in this terrific interview, Alexander was sitting around the table with his family one evening when he “noticed” the condiment, which he’d grown up eating his whole life, as if for the first time. He knew it was his product to introduce to the world. The name came to him that very moment.)

“You can’t patent za’atar,” Alexander tells me, “But what we’ve been doing instead is focusing on building the brand, and really acting very quickly to be the first mover.” Since the beginning, he’s been adamant about claiming first-to-market status. “We want to own everything za’atar,” Alexander says. “The Za’atar Company,” his most recent trademark, for instance, gives the brand identity broader scope than ever before.

His advice to other small food businesses is vehement, and he says it all in one breath: “You trademark it. You protect yourself. You’re proving you’re the first mover. That matters for investors, that matters for brands. All the legal stuff that you’re doing is just brand management. Entrepreneurs oftentimes get too focused — at least in the food business — on the product, not the brand. Or vice versa sometimes.”

Although it’s been trademarked “before I began [the company],” he stays vigilant, policing and updating his categories regularly. The day I spoke to him, Alexander had been talking to a legal mentor at the FoodWorks. “She just told me to make sure my geography and classifications were alright. You want to be global, not just U.S.”

The example of Zesty Z is especially instructive considering that the condiment is a ubiquitous staple all over the world. The fact that it is unknown here and can therefore be trademarked by the “first mover” shows the power of the law to protect originality — even if your originality lies in being the first to recognize the value of something, when half the world takes it for granted and the other half doesn’t know it exists.

Meeting Alexander personally, and knowing that the company is the product of a family coming together around one deeply loved recipe, makes me really glad that the law works this way, and that he was smart enough to use it. I grew up on za’atar too. That someone else — or, worse, a faceless corporation — could have made that move first is a scary thought, especially considering how uniquely the man and the product are suited. Alexander is the incarnation of za’atar: healthy, bold, yet completely adaptable to anyone, enhancing everything around him.

This case study has a happy outcome. Here’s hoping that Alexander’s example makes more such outcomes possible. I’ll let him have the last, inspiring words.

“What’s it like [to be the face of za’atar]? It’s a lot of pride. It fuels me. Even in New York, they call me the za’atar guy. People see me at an event, they say, ‘Oh hey, you’re the Za’atar Guy!’ It’s not pressure. I like it. It keeps me honest. I can’t make a bad product.”

Written by Monika Norwid