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Frushi: The Invention of Food

»Now, when I google the word Frushi, which I do every so often, I think about the feeling of capturing lightning in a jar.«

The Invention of Food
by Matt Miller

I invented a food. You can take a moment and google it, it’s called Frushi. It might help to know what we’re talking about if you’ve never heard of it, or if the name itself doesn’t explain it all.

A portmanteau of fruit and sushi - so simple. No different than pushing together breakfast and lunch to make brunch. But I wasn’t able to patent my invention because while you can invent a food, you can’t patent one*.

It isn’t like holding a patent on a tool. You can invent a revolutionary spatula, and patent the design making it easier for millions of people to flip burgers without the fear of carpal tunnel syndrome, but you can’t patent a burger because you didn’t invent ground beef. The same holds true for fake meat. Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger are trademarks with patented formulas, but they are not patented foods because they’re plant based, and the makers didn’t invent the plants, nor the chemicals used to make the plants taste like meat.

Let’s go back a little farther to give you an idea of just how complicated it is to invent a food, and why most of us remain anonymous. For example, ever wondered who invented the hamburger? Sure there are a lot of stories out there going back to the turn of the last century. One story goes that the burger was invented in 1895 and came from Louis’ Lunch Wagon in New Haven Connecticut when a hurried customer wanted his lunch to-go. The cook slapped the chopped steak into two pieces of bread and the burger was born. Another story claims that the burger made its debut in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair, the invention of Fletcher Davis of Athens, Texas, who manned his burger stand and introduced his invention to the masses. In 1916 Walter Anderson, a fry cook, invented a squat bun made to hold a patty of ground beef (not unlike a small square slice of meatloaf) and went on to co-found White Castle, the first fast-food burger chain.

But the thing is, it’s entirely possible that the burger goes back farther than the Louis’ Lunch Wagon. John Montague, The Earl of Sandwich, in 1762 notoriously refused to leave a card game and requested his roast beef be served to him between two slices of bread, thus inventing the sandwich. Whose to say he didn’t later ask for finely chopped beef to be served to him on two slices of toast rather than just one, á la his new sandwich invention? Bread and meat have been a staple of the human diet since the dark ages, who's to say that someone didn’t use one to hold the minced scraps of the other?

While it’s hard to say who might have actually invented the hamburger, I don’t think I’d get many arguments if I said that when one thinks of a burger, likely the association goes directly to McDonalds — who themselves didn’t invent the hamburger, they just made it an everyday quick-grab bite. But there’s one thing they did invent: The Big Mac (sort of).

When you see the word Big Mac, it needs no description. We all know what one looks like. We all know what one tastes like. We all know it’s “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun.” The Big Mac is synonymous with McDonalds, but the McDonalds brothers didn’t invent it. On their original menu they only had hamburgers and cheeseburgers.

Now let’s talk about Jim Delligatti, a name I’ll bet you’ve never heard. Jim Delligatti was a McDonalds franchisee who, in 1967 (six years after the McDonald brothers sold McDonalds to franchise salesman Ray Kroc) invented the Big Mac at his McDonalds franchise in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Since the idea of a franchise is that every location is exactly the same, he had to go through corporate to get approval before the sandwich rolled out to all of the franchises across America. So you’d think, Jim must be a pretty wealthy guy. He must get a royalty from every Big Mac sold in the world or every time the name is printed. The standard royalty rate is between 2%-15%, and considering a Big Mac sells for an average of $3.99 and there are 560 million Big Mac’s sold every year (17 every second), that really adds up. Assuming Jim Delligatti got the short end of the stick and only got 2% royalty for his creation, his cut every year would be $44,688,000

Too bad it doesn’t work that way. I’m sure that Jim, Jim’s children, and grandchildren feel the same way. But since Jim was a franchisee, his invention, and the Big Mac trademark belonged to the McDonalds corporation. While you can’t patent a food, you can trademark a name as it pertains to an idea. That’s intellectual property. And since Jim wasn’t the owner of the McDonalds corporation and was only a franchisee, he could’ve either sold his McDonalds in order to open a burger joint called Big Mac’s with his trademarked burger, an unproven cash-cow (no pun intended), or just hand the idea over. We all know how it ended, the good news is Jim did get a plaque. So that’s nice.

Now, imagine what it must be like to walk down the street and see a Big Mac billboard on the side of a bus rolling past you. You have bragging rights, sure, but who’d believe you? This is exactly what I thought when I told you to google the word Frushi. Who’d believe me?

The same can be said for the person who invented the Frappuccino (George Howell), the Dorito (Arch West), and the Snicker’s Bar, which was said to have actually been the idea of Forrest Mars (inventor of the M&M), son of Frank C. Mars, confectioner and owner of the Mars corporation, and the one who ultimately took credit – a dispute that is said to have destroyed their already rocky relationship.

The Birth of Frushi:

The idea came to me fully formed, in much the same way Botticelli depicted Venus, born fully grown arriving to the shore in a clamshell. Am I comparing my food idea to a 15th century work of art? Yes, I am.

But the birth of Frushi was no-less brilliant. In the early spring of 2001 I was opening a brunch restaurant on Chicago’s north side. The idea was simple, make fun of haute cuisine by dumbing it down to breakfast so everyone can enjoy it - ensuring that each dish was alive with over-the-top plating, and whenever possible stacking food into a tower, which was once the definitive symbol of cool food. The taller the stack, and the more brilliantly colored the coulis (a finely pureed fruit or vegetable used as a sauce), the better. This was a very new idea at the time — a concept I coined as being “boutique brunch.” In the early aughts breakfast was diner food, and the only thing that made brunch extra-extra fancy was the whimsical use of chocolate.

While I was running numbers to determine how many customers I was going to need per month, and how much each table was going to have to earn in order to stay in business, I came to the conclusion that I needed an appetizer; which wasn’t something one typically ordered before 5pm. And since I wasn’t trying to re-invent brunch, but was trying to re-invent dinner as brunch, an appetizer was a must.

Enter Frushi - fresh fruit sculpted to look like sushi. The idea was that it would be offered as an appetizer, as a little billboard on a plate. Not something you’d order every time, but definitely something unique enough that you’d bring relatives from out of town in to try.

I set out to create it in the kitchen of my loft on Chicago’s west side. A cavernous place that had little more than a sink and gas-leaking stove, with a refrigerator plugged into an extension chord some ten feet away. No overhead lights to illuminate, and the windows looked out only onto soot darkened brick. My goal, from the darkest place imaginable, was to create a light, bright, colorful fruit sculpture that would resemble sushi.

With my sister as my sous chef, I gathered what I needed: assorted fruits from the grocery store, a half a bags worth of sushi rice sticking to a burned pot on the stove; armed with pairing knives, peelers, and bamboo rollers, I had my marble and I had my tools, now I was determined to conjure Michelangelo and ask him how to carve David.

The mess in the kitchen was a culinary bloodbath. As if I were creating a diorama depicting the carcass riddled lair of the man-eating lions of Tsavo. Clumps of sushi rice stuck to cabinets, hands, faces, and tangled in hair like bones of the dead caught in predators webs. Flesh of fruit stuck to counter tops, walls, dishes, handles and chins from savage tasting. Fingers bled from sharp blades, eyes burned from citric acids, and the floor had become as sticky as a glue trap. But in the end, on a white plate lay three perfect specimens.

The most difficult part was the name. Rather, getting hip servers to say such a ridiculous word. Frushi. Frooo Sheee. Not fruit-sushi. Not, it looks kinda like sushi but it’s fruit. Not: “I don’t know if it’s vegan, it does have coconut milk … you wanna try it anyway?” Frushi. That was the word for it, and nothing else would do. I felt like the restaurant manager in the movie Office Space telling Jennifer Aniston that she wasn’t wearing enough “flair” every time I had to take a server aside and explain why they had to call the food by its name. I realized that it didn’t matter to them, but it mattered to me, because if they said it, the customers would say it. And then when the media arrived they would say it too. Frushi.

When the media finally did arrive, which they did in droves, Frushi became the talk of the town. Frushi was the worm on the hook that caught me four forks in the Chicago Tribune. Frushi was the gateway-food that caused my restaurant to be named one of the best new restaurants of the year by Chicago Magazine. From neighborhood rags to national publications, Frushi was always the lead-in to the story in a montage of spinning headlines, one after the next, announcing Frushi. Cooking Light published the recipe from my dark kitchen and brought Frushi into homes across suburban America. Local television followed, and the Food Network wasn’t far behind.

That was when I learned about trademarks. My attorney told me that my idea was “intellectual property,” and that it needed protecting. And she was right. One quick search showed that a woman in a suburb of Chicago about thirty miles away had filed a trademark on the word Frushi only two weeks earlier, which I then had to challenge with headlines and articles proving that I was the true creator.

With the fame of Frushi came the money. An agricultural sponsor arrived looking to cash-in on the concept offering a five figure check to simply recommend their fruit while making Frushi. Cookbook offers came. Franchise companies called wanting to churn my restaurant and product out across the country. And when the success of Frushi was beginning to crest, so did the internal fighting.

The kitchen manager felt he should get all the sponsor money, and fame, since he was the one cooking my food. After all, I wasn’t a cook - I was just the owner (a realization he came to after reading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential). I explained to him that while I wasn’t the one who cranked out dish after dish of Frushi and other foods, they were still my ideas. And Frushi wasn’t mine alone, it belonged to the company I founded, where we were both employees collecting paycheques for doing our jobs. His: cooking my food. Mine: running my restaurant. And all the newfound money was going into the business for much needed equipment and refrigeration, as well as small bonuses for the crew.

Restaurants don’t make a lot of money, despite how successful one might appear. Restaurant owners aren’t usually rich unless they started that way. The thing that restaurant workers don’t realize is that if they’re not happy they can work somewhere else, but the same doesn’t hold true for the owner. If the business is successful, that’s great for everyone, but if it goes down, the owner goes down with it, along with their credit.

In the end I offered to give the kitchen manager half of all of the sponsor revenue and twenty percent of the company, but he declined. He wanted all of the money or he quit. Ultimately we compromised, I fired him and offered him half of the money as severance pay if he left quietly, but he didn’t. He did everything he could to get me shut down, and staged a walkout of the kitchen staff by telling them that I wasn’t going to be giving bonuses but instead was going to buy myself a house. Which I was surprised worked, because every employee, including him, had already gotten bonuses. And if I had taken all the money for myself, the best I could do was possibly use it as a down payment on a used car in “good runner!” condition.

When the dust settled, my restaurant was still standing and thriving, as was the popularity of Frushi. I’d like to say that was the only time it happened, but it wasn’t. Over the next few years it happened repeatedly, with cook after cook. The moment they went on television and made Frushi, and the media praised them, the ego swelled and the fighting began - and ended the same way.

“You didn’t invent Frushi, I heard they made it at Disneyland,” a cook would always throw at me. To which I’d answer that if that was true, why did I own the trademark on it, and not Disney? The arguments were the same, the issues were the same, and the food was always the same.

Finally, I couldn’t do it anymore. Frushi had been a marketing invention designed to make my restaurant - a childhood dream - stand out. It was invented to raise the check average. It was invented because it was fun.

After the third internal war over Frushi, I decided to sell the business to my investor, who simply saw it as a widget. No personality. No creativity. No passion. Merely a widget. When we signed the sales agreement he asked me if I wanted to keep the Frushi trademark, since it was my invention. I told him no, taking the high road. I told him that I had invented it for the restaurant, and that’s where it should stay.

When I left, I left low in spirit. Holding just enough money in my pocket to relocate to the beaches of Southern California to bury my head in the sand. My former business partner never renewed the trademark for Frushi, because he didn’t care. Not realizing how huge the popularity was, and that the holder of the trademark was able to license the word, and charge anybody who wanted to use it. Or stop anyone from using it without permission.

Do I regret not keeping the trademark for the food I invented? Yes, I do. Did I ask myself that question to punctuate how stupid I feel? Yes, absolutely, without a doubt. Yes, I did.

Now, when I google the word Frushi, which I do every so often, I think about the feeling of capturing lighting in a jar. The exhilaration of having an idea that brought so much joy to so many people; that was claimed by so many others, and copied endlessly around the world by so many more. And I think about Big Mac’s, and Frappuccino’s, the inventor of the Coca-Cola recipe and the person who suggested slicing bread before selling it, and I think that it doesn’t really matter. Even if I told someone about the idea I once had, and the food I once invented, nobody would ever really believe me.

A final note on the subject: A few years ago I told a co-worker about my Frushi idea, and we googled pictures. He’d seen it. He sighed and told me that he and his college roommate had a sticker business that he walked away from because he didn’t think it was going to go anywhere. As he left, he offered his final idea of using every religious symbol to write the word: Coexist.

We had a drink together in perfect silence.

* You can patent a genetically modified seed, like corn, soy or cotton, but GMO’s and Monsanto are a completely different article.