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Steaks were high in meat company's suit vs. Philly chain

HIS OWN lawyer was worried that Michael Lane - a saucy, outspoken South Philly man - would curse on the stand.

HIS OWN lawyer was worried that Michael Lane - a saucy, outspoken South Philly man - would curse on the stand.

It's not as if Lane didn't have cause.

To begin with, Lane, owner of the local restaurant chain Steak' Em Up, never thought the lawsuit against him would make it to federal court. In fact, he thought it was a gag when he received a cease-and-desist letter from the owners of Steak-umm, a brand of thinly sliced frozen steak based outside Reading.

The letter threatened Lane with a trademark-infringement suit if he didn't change the name of his chain within 24 hours. It charged that he was trying to capitalize on Steak-umm's brand.

"I thought it was a joke because being from South Philly, the last thing I wanted to be was associated with Steak-umm," Lane said.

Earlier this month, nearly three years after getting the letter, Lane celebrated when a federal judge denied Steak-umm's claim.

"They were trying to bully me and they messed with the wrong guy," he said.

When Gene Gagliardi, the inventor of Steak-umm, was informed of the ruling, he vented his frustrations at the judge.

"He did no justice to the meat world!" Gagliardi said. "That's the worst ruling I've ever heard come down the pike."

Gagliardi, 81, whose other famous invention is popcorn chicken, started making Steak-umm in the late '60s because the meat in steak sandwiches at the time was too tough, he said.

"You couldn't serve it to children because the meat was so tough you'd drag it out of the sandwich and choke on it," he said. "This was definitely a safety feature."

While in the throes of choosing a name for his product, Gagliardi went on a quail-hunting trip to North Carolina with some buddies and a half-gallon of Rebel Yell bourbon. Gagliardi couldn't stop obsessing about naming the meat byproduct, and it was pissing off his friends.

"One fellow was so sick of hearing me say it, he said, " 'F--- 'em, stick 'em with Steak-umm,' " Gagliardi said.

The name of Lane's restaurant was inspired by South Philly's "gangster culture."

"I've been in South Philly my whole life. I thought it was funny," Lane said. "I also wanted to incorporate 'steak' in the name."

So, with the phrase "Stick 'em up" in mind, Lane named his shop Steak' Em Up and created a logo with a gangster holding a hoagie as if it were a machine gun.

You may have seen their catchy ads - one is set to the tune of the Cars' "Shake it Up" - during Phillies and Flyers games.

"I get 50 percent of the people that say they can't stand the commercials and 50 percent say they love the commercial," Lane said. "Whether you like it or hate it, you remember it."

Lane, 38, embodies the South Philly stereotype. He has the thick accent and the slicked-back, black hair. He wears a flashy silver Breitling watch - its face rimmed with diamonds - and his arms are tatted up, including the Steak' Em Up logo on his right forearm.

In 2005, Lane opened his first eatery in South Philadelphia. Today he has three more - one in Collingdale, one in Ridley Park and one in Old City, which is co-owned by Eagles players Brent Celek and Todd Herremans.

Lane operated his restaurants without problems until 2009, when Gagliardi's brother heard a Steak' Em Up ad and told Gagliardi about it.

Even though he is no longer affiliated with Steak-umm, Gagliardi notified the current owners, and in June 2009, Lane was notified that Steak-umm would sue.

From the beginning, Lane vowed to fight and keep his name.

"I was adamant about being right, knowing that I didn't do anything wrong," Lane said. "It just made me angry that this company could do this to a mom-and-pop little shop."

The two-day bench trial, held in October, included testimony from Lane, Gagliardi and experts.

On April 11, Judge Lawrence Stengel released his ruling siding with Lane.

A Steak-umm spokeswoman said the company, which is now owned by Quaker Maid Meats, still believes the name of Lane's chain "constitutes an infringement on our trademark and potential confusion in the public's mind."

Stengel ruled against Lane's request to have Steak-umm pay his legal costs.

Lane and his attorney, Robert McKinley, declined to provide a figure, but McKinley said such cases typically cost between $175,000 and $300,000.

"It's kind of bittersweet because I won the case . . . but it cost a lot money," Lane said. "At the end of the day, did I really win?"