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'Dumb Starbucks' mystery: The real Starbucks responds; LA officials unconcerned about safety risks

On Sunday, the coffee shop was swamped with curious coffee-seekers. Cups of joe and pastries were still free, as they were Friday and Saturday.
Frank Stoltze/ KPCC
On Sunday, the coffee shop was swamped with curious coffee-seekers. Cups of joe and pastries were still free, as they were Friday and Saturday.

As dozens continue to line up outside a “Dumb Starbucks” serving free coffee in Los Feliz on Sunday, questions remain about the establishment’s legality.

Megan Adams, a Starbucks spokeswoman, confirmed: “It’s obviously not a Starbucks.” She said the corporation was "looking into it," but declined to say if it would pursue legal action.

And city leaders did not seem too concerned. The official word from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's office, as relayed by his spokesman Yusef Robb: "We are remaining 'dumb' on the subject."

Related: 'Dumb Starbucks' mystery: Who's behind the faux coffee front in Los Feliz?

One local legal expert said “Dumb Starbucks” may have the law on its side.

"Starbucks’ potential case against 'Dumb Starbucks' is not a slam dunk," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School. She said Starbucks would have to prove the use of their logo causes a likelihood of confusion.

"Customers know they are not going to Starbucks," Levinson said. "They seem to think that this is some type of joke, hoax, or publicity stunt."

Besides using the Starbucks Corporation name, the "Dumb Starbucks" logo on the roof of the store looks very similar to one outside of your local Starbucks. And so do many of the details on the inside, including a menu offering "Dumb Tall" and "Dumb Grande" coffees.

It also does not have posted in public view a business license, nor a grade for a health inspection, like other coffee shops.

Messages left with people believed to be associated with it have not been returned.

UPDATE: Starbucks says 'Dumb Starbucks' can't use its name

Levinson said “Dumb Starbucks” will have a much stronger defense if it can show its name is a parody. Parodies are protected speech under the First Amendment. If it is a parody, it also adds to the argument that customers understand it is not a real Starbucks.

"I think it may come down to whether or not a court sees this as a parody," Levinson said. 

In a letter posted inside “Dumb Starbucks," whoever is responsible for opening the coffee shop seems to be trying to head off litigation.

The curious were drawn to the Dumb Starbucks, as word of its existence traveled across social networks. And everyone seemed to have a theory explaining the origin of the store.

"Reality TV show, maybe. Or maybe its some sort of social experiment," said Megan Gillmore of Glendale. Others guessed the whole store was a performance art piece.

Gillmore held her 5-month old son Beckett as her husband snapped photos.

"We figured it wasn't going to be here very long...before they get sued," Gilmore said.

If Starbucks does file a lawsuit, Levinson said the courts offer it another legal avenue to try and close the Los Feliz store. It could file a "trade dress claim," which refers to the appearance of the store or packaging of the products.

But Levinson thinks it will be difficult for the company to shut down “Dumb Starbucks” because she doesn't think the store "is likely to cause confusion, or to cause a mistake, or to deceive," elements that would need to be proven in court.

At least one city leader doesn’t see a role for local government. The “Dumb Starbucks” is in the district of Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who said he did not expect the city to intervene to shut it down.

“It’s a commercial dispute,” LaBonge said Sunday. The councilman did criticize the name.

“Dumb is not a nice word,” LaBonge said. “I don’t know what the purpose of the store is.”

He has been by the location, but did not go inside.

“It looks very authentic,” LaBonge said. “My wife and I drove by it, then went to a real Starbucks and got our chai lattes.”

Oscar Rangel was among those in the long line stretching outside the door on Sunday.

“I was curious to see what all the fuss was about,” Rangel said. “I’ve just been seeing people posting about it on the Internet and I figured why not stop by.”

The Eagle Rock resident had been waiting in line for about 30 minutes, and probably had another half hour wait. But it didn’t bother him.

“I’ve been too busy people watching and taking pictures," Rangel said. "It's fun.”

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