GLADSTONE PARK — Leadbelly, the Northwest Side burger chain best known for its gourmet burgers, craft beers and boozy shakes has a new name after a lengthy legal battle with the estate of the legendary blues musician that it was meant to honor, the owners said.
"It is kind of sad," O'Brien said Tuesday. "We wanted to spread his legacy. We didn't want to profit from his name."
The name change will be the only thing different about the restaurant, which has locations in Portage Park and in Gladstone Park. Plans are in the works to open a third eatery this fall in Jefferson Park, O'Brien said.
"It will be a whole new concept," O'Brien said, declining to reveal more details or the location until plans are finalized.
The Portage Park restaurant, at 5739 W. Irving Park Road, was an instant hit when O'Brien and his wife Nicole Masse O'Brien opened it in March 2013 in an area of the Northwest Side with few trendy restaurants.
Heather Cherone say legal fees were escalating fast for the owners:
A second location in Gladstone Park at 5691 N. Milwaukee Ave. opened a year later — and caught the attention of the musician's estate, which asked O'Brien to pay royalties for the use of Ledbetter's nickname, for which the estate owns the trademark.
Tanya Singh, the executive director of the Leadbelly Foundation, said the O'Briens never asked the family for permission to use the musician's name, and refused to pay royalties for its use.
Terika Dean, Ledbetter's great-great niece and the administrator of his estate, did not respond to phone and email messages left Tuesday afternoon.
Ledbetter enjoyed a spurt of attention earlier this year, when the Smithsonian released a five-disc set designed to document his "monumental, sprawling career" and a tribute concert took place in April, according to the New York Times.
"We offered a settlement, but didn't hear back," O'Brien said. "Then six or seven months ago, we got another demand for royalties, and what they were asking for was excessive."
O'Brien said he countered with a "fair offer" to pay a yearly fee to use the name, but the estate rejected it.
"We felt strongly that they had no case," O'Brien said, adding that there could be no confusion between burgers and blues music. "But the legal fees were escalating."
Unwilling to take a chance in court, O'Brien said he reluctantly decided to change the restaurant's name.
"We didn't want to, but we had no choice," O'Brien said.
The menu items, which were named after Lead Belly's songs, won't be renamed, O'Brien said.
The walls of both eateries are covered with pictures of musicians like Kurt Cobain, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the Beatles — all of whom were inspired by Ledbetter and, in some cases, covered his songs. Rock videos featuring music inspired by Leadbelly play on flat-screen televisions as diners unhinge their jaws to wolf down the massive burgers.
O'Brien said he and his wife considered changing the name to something else inspired by the music they love, but came up empty handed.
"We've got the trademark for BRGRbelly," O'Brien said. "We didn't want this to happen again."
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