It's one thing to sell your business -- but quite another to find that your identity has been unwittingly sold along with it. Just ask Steve Herrell.
Back in the early 1970s (the halcyon days when there was only one of him), Herrell's Somerville, Mass., store, named Steve's, was one of the undisputed birthplaces of boutique ice cream. While most purveyors were scooping factory-made product, Steve's featured fresh ice cream, made on the premises, and "mix-ins" -- raisins, nuts, or candies that were mashed into the flavor(s) of choice while you watched. With the owner himself frequently manning production, Steve's was a new form of entertainment. And very quickly the store became a mecca for ice-cream lovers, who apparently didn't mind queueing up even in the dead of winter. Then, after four years, Herrell up and sold the business -- name and all -- to go into piano tuning.
Steve's, minus its creator, changed hands a few times and eventually went public in 1986, all the while adding stores. For a bit, Herrell explains, watching the business expand was a source of great satisfaction. "My concepts were good ones," he says. "So good that subsequent owners stuck with them." Herrell found himself missing the business so much that when his noncompete agreement expired in 1980, he started a new ice-cream company, this time called Herrell's.
His intention wasn't to take potshots at his old business, at least not at first. But last summer, when Steve's Homemade Ice Cream Inc. began distributing its product to supermarkets in bright new containers, Herrell couldn't resist. The issue, you might say, was all in the packaging: in a feeble effort to personalize the product, the cartons featured a photograph of a smiling, bearded man in his thirties and a handwritten message signed "Steve."
Upon encountering this unwelcome impostor staring out from his local frozen-food case, the original Steve, who has never worn a beard, wasn't pleased. "It was outrageous. It's not me in the picture, and it's not my signature." Clearly, he said, it is "an infringement on my persona."
Nevertheless, he has decided not to bring legal action and is instead taking a more gentlemanly approach. In January, he began adorning containers of his own goods with stickers that, among other things, remind patrons of his commitment to fresh, hand-packed products and of his "legendary" place in the annals of ice cream. The stickers also have a photograph, he notes -- "to give people another picture to look at. You've got the fake Steve and the real Steve."
And the solution, he hopes, to a case of mistaken identity.