There was some confusion among residents over the past few months, when popular pizzeria, Pitfire Pizza appeared to move...or change its name. There was Pitfire opened in JLT, and the one in The Greens rebranded as PFire.
No one was sure why or what the difference was. But bubbling under the surface was a messy legal case, copyright problems and a business ownership fall out.
This is why it happened.
(There are many finer details to this story. However, both parties have been through a lot and don't want to risk any legal issues, so we have stayed away from some of the granular issues upon their request).
How it all began
Four years ago Bill Johnson was a lighting consultant for businesses in the UAE. One of his clients was an Italian man by the name of Francesco Pitea.
Francesco had an Italian restaurant called Il Tagilo Pizza and Pasta in The Greens.
Bill noticed the heavy footfall in The Greens and asked Francesco, why the restaurant was not busier, given the high traffic area.
Francesco recognized that while the restaurant was very popular amongst Italians in Dubai, there are only 3,500 Italians living here (compared with 8,000 Germans, and 250,000 Lebanese to put it into perspective).
Of course, not only Italians eat Italian food, but they both agreed that something needed to be done.
Bill Johnson had always dreamed of having a pizza restaurant
Bill spent the first 12 years of his life in New York, before moving to New Mexico. His passion for pizza came from his time in the States.
Francesco's main business is SF Yachts which he built from scratch in the UAE and which he is focused on growing.
Although he knew a lot about Italian food and had opened a restaurant, he was really looking for someone, or a team, to run it for him. So, at the start, it seemed to be a perfect arrangement.
An MOU (Memorandum of Association) was drawn up between the Johnsons and Francesco's Il Tagilo LLC for Bill to run the restaurant including a rebrand.
The brand Pitfire Pizza was born and the restaurant was rebranded
There was an agreement amongst all that this was the concept they would move ahead with. It wasn't just a logo however, it was about how the pizza is made, the dough is prepped for 48 hours, then each pizza is cooked for seven minutes. Most fast food pizza places cook the pizzas in high heat for 90 seconds, so you are essentially eating the frozen dough.
Bill and his wife Michelle trained the team, in their home.
At the start, Francesco would oversee what was happening, with Bill in charge of the concept and its implementation.
Soon, the place took off.
Over the space of 18 months, the restaurant revenues grew 10-fold, from running at a loss to running at a significant profit.
Considering Dubai is home to more than 800 pizza outlets, this was no mean feat.
The falling out
What ensued was a bitter falling out between both sides.
Both saw the potential in the Pitfire Brand. There were some discussions over each having their own individual restaurants, however, again, it wasn't clear who would own what.
A long drawn-out battle fought with lawyers and the Department of Economic Development (DED) to claim ownership of the Pitfire Pizza brand took place.
The DED are very well set up to support businesses, and this area was managed extremely well. The Dubai Courts system doesn't have the same structure that favours small business claims.
So while both parties, their lawyers, and the DED can come to a verdict on the trademark, the cost involved to take the matter further and resolve every last detail of the dispute through the courts is very high for small businesses.
The DIFC courts under English law jurisdiction was set up in 2011 to facilitate this the system is being improved all the time. There are also many new laws being introduced including the business bankruptcy protection law issued last year. That said, Francesco says it would cost him around AED 1,000,000 to take this all the way in the courts.
The battle has taken more than two years.
Since the MOU was signed the following has happened
- Francesco renamed his LLC from Il Tagilo to Pitfire Pizza LLC
- Bill had set up a BVI (British Virgin Islands) company - this is a common company structure in the UAE to have an offshore entity but still requires on onshore company to operate - and he had trademarked the Pitfire Pizza logo in the UAE
The timing of these actions would become crucial elements in the eventual verdict.
The DED ruled that Bill Johnson did indeed own the trademark to the Pitfire Pizza brand, and therefore Francesco would need to change his store name. He had since opened a second store in Al Barsha, this one was called Francesco’s Pizza Café. Late last year, both names were changed to Pfire Pizza.
However, the names and locations still weren't clear to consumers. The DED couldn't do anymore, other than the obvious copy of trademarks, so more lawyer letters were sent until the name was changed to Francesco's.
The trademark was upheld by DED in Bill Johnson's name. There are ongoing disputes and claims and other than the relatively small fines, there were no big pay-outs or claims for damages and loss of business.
What was IL Tagilo LLC, is now Francesco's LLC, and it isn't owned by Bill Johnson' he has his own business called Pitfire Pizza DMCC in JLT.
It wasn't easy to prove any of this, Bill showed me the documents that had to be submitted to DED and it was evident that it was a painfully difficult process. This messy business affected both parties deeply.
Even after the name change, there were still problems.
When Bill then set up a new Pitfire Pizza in JLT, and there was confusion amongst customers over which branch to visit. Text messages were sent to customers that Pitfire had ignored, but Pfire was still open. All the social media profiles and followers transferred across to Pitfire in their new location.
To clarify, and for those still with me, there is now Francesco's Pizza in the Greens, in Al Barsha and they are just opening in The Springs. While there is Pitfire in JLT.
The original location was briefly called Pfire Pizza, there is now no Pfire Pizza in Dubai
Francesco's was officially renamed as such on February 22 this year - the locations in The Greens, Al Barsha and The Springs will be called Francesco's
Pitfire Pizza's main branch is now in JLT, Cluster D
The initial agreement wasn't robust
It wasn't clear who owned what exactly, and it didn't stipulate clear permutations, eventualities and roles and responsibilities.
Business isn't easy, in Dubai, or anywhere else. There are probably many other stories like this that don't make the light of day. One way this could have been resolved in hindsight is that if
- Bill Johnson franchised Pitfire from the offset to Francesco
- Bill could then have been paid a setup and management fee, in addition to the franchise license and royalties by Francesco, with a contract for a set period of time until the place was self-sufficient
- Francesco would then have that Pitfire outlet and could even be the sole franchisee in the UAE
- Bill could then take the BVI registered business and franchise it across the region and / or the world
The winners, in a way, are the people of Dubai. There are now four more great pizza places in the city. Like all homegrown businesses in the UAE, it would be great if they were both supported, even if you only did so to decide for yourself which is the better pizza.