The brains behind the "Dumb Starbucks" coffee shop generated a lot of buzz with their publicity stunt – but they couldn’t outwit health inspectors, who shut the store on Monday, its fourth day for operating without a valid permit.
Nathan Fielder, the television comedian who opened the shop, where people lined up for hours to get a free cup of mediocre coffee, had insisted he didn’t need a permit because the space was legally an art gallery and the coffee was art, not a beverage.
Los Angeles County health inspectors disagreed, and by Monday afternoon told the shop to stop serving coffee before posting a “notice of closure” by the front door.
The store had survived the weekend – as had the secret of who was behind it.
That lasted until Fielder, a Canadian comic, told a crowd Monday afternoon that he was pursuing the “American dream,” before acknowledging that he planned to use the bit on his Comedy Central show Nathan For You.
Patrons didn’t seem to mind, snapping pictures in front of a green awning and mermaid logo that seemed so familiar – except the word “Dumb” was prominently featured.
They weren’t coming for gourmet fare: Their descriptions of the coffee ranged from “horrible” to “bitter,” and one parent said his daughter complained that the hot chocolate was like water.
Instead, they were just coming to say they came, and to score a white paper cup with a sticker bearing the curious logo.
Before the rush of the past few days, production crews came to the location several times to film, according to permits taken out with Film LA, a private nonprofit that issues the licenses. The permits were billed to Abso Lutely Productions, which has produced Fielder’s show.
Once opened, Dumb Starbucks caught the attention of the real Starbucks. “While we appreciate the humor, they cannot use our name, which is a protected trademark,” Laurel Harper, a spokeswoman for Seattle-based Starbucks Corp., said in an email.
At the front counter, a sheet of frequently asked questions said the store was shielded by “parody law.”
“By adding the word ‘dumb,’ we are technically ‘making fun’ of Starbucks, which allows us to use their trademarks under a law known as ‘fair use,’ ” the sheet said.
One law professor suggested Dumb Starbucks needed to sharpen its legal theory.
“Fair use” can protect parodies of copyright material, but a trademark such as the logo has different protections that Dumb Starbucks may well be violating, said Mark McKenna, a trademark law expert at the University of Notre Dame.