The 5 Hountalas Trademarks for The Cliff House, San Francisco

Time to Stop Jerking Knees and Start Looking at Documents

The Cliff House, San Francisco, in the 1940s. Source: Worthpoint

or 47 years — from 1973 until the end of 2020 — the restaurants and bars at the historic Cliff House, in San Francisco, as well as maintenance of the property itself, were run by Dan and Mary Hountalas and their family.

More accurately, the enterprise was run by the Hountalas family’s restaurant management company, Peanut Wagon, Inc. But, for the practical purposes of what follows, Peanut Wagon and the Hountalas family are one and the same.

For most of this period, the Hountalas family ran its Cliff House business as an “operator,” or “concessionnaire,” under a series of long-term federal government contracts with the National Park Service, which is the owner and landlord of the property.

The NPS did not offer a new long-term Cliff House contract to the Hountalas family (or anyone else) following the expiration of the most recent NPS/Hountalas contract in 2018. Against the backdrop of the COVID-mandated closure of The Cliff House in 2020 and a breakdown in negotiations between the Hountalas family and NPS, The Cliff House closed at the end of 2020.

long with this news has come reports that the Hountalas family has trademarked the name “Cliff House” and is taking the name with them on the way out.

The “Cliff House” name dates to the opening of the first Cliff House on this site in 1863—110 years before the arrival of the Hountalas family—and has been used continuously for every Cliff House since then, including the famous fantastical Victorian Cliff House built by Adolph Sutro in 1896 and lost to fire in 1907. The current Cliff House is anchored in the 1909 building that replaced its predecessor.

So—understandably—the prospect that the “Cliff House” name could be lost to a private corporate trademark filing has led to much hand wringing amongst historically minded residents and friends of San Francisco.

But, many of the trademark fears are being ginned up by clumsy reporting.

On 31 December 2020, the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

Because the Hountalases trademarked the name “Cliff House,” any new operator brought in by the National Park Service would not be able to use the name….

The next day, the Chronicle published a letter from the leaders of four San Francisco nonprofits whose work is focused on the Cliff House neighborhood. They wrote:

We are dismayed that the building’s name will be lost….

A few days ago, on 3 February, the Chronicle repeated its earlier claim, reporting:

[W]hatever restaurant potentially moves into the building likely will not be called Cliff House or bring the sign back, as the Hountalases trademarked the name.

The Chronicle’s suggestion that the Hountalas family has a blanket trademark on “Cliff House” and that the name is lost to future use is hogwash.

I am not a lawyer of any kind. But, I know enough about how trademark law works to know that there is no such thing as a blanket trademark.

The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), the sole trademark authority in the United States, grants individual trademarks only for its own highly specific categories and uses.

Furthermore: Trademarks are not like U.S. Supreme Court judicial tenures. They are term-limited. A standard term is 10 years. And, a trademark owner must renew the trademark at the end of every term in order to maintain ownership of the mark and continue to enjoy the rights associated with it.

To know what rights the individual Hountalas trademarks for The Cliff House afford, one has to start with the trademark registrations themselves — and with the highly specific uses granted for these marks.

There are five. The official registration document for each trademark describes the mark and lists its approved uses. The documents are scanned, catalogued and publicly available via the USPTO database.

Below are the documents, in reverse order of longevity.

Of course, these documents are not self-explanatory. Especially if The Cliff House is to remain an attraction that includes a restaurant(s) and/or bar(s), it is likely that one or more of the trademarks would have to be adjudicated in a court of law.

But, these documents are where the conversation about preserving the most expansive possible use of the historic “Cliff House” name for the institution, the property, the building and the amenities of The Cliff House must begin.

Worth noting, though: None of these trademarks is for the name of the Cliff House building/property itself.

— Registered 17 March 2015

APPROVED USE (a) “For: Packaged Mixes for Bakery Goods”
APPROVED USE (b) “For: Bottled Non-Alcoholic Cocktail Mixes”

Source: United States Patent & Trademark Office

CLIFF HOUSE product logo
— Registered 17 March 2015

APPROVED USE (a) “For: Packaged Mixes for Bakery Goods”
APPROVED USE (b) “For: Bottled Non-Alcoholic Cocktail Mixes”

It appears that the trademark is for this specific logo.

Source: United States Patent & Trademark Office

— Registered 21 August 2001

APPROVED USE (a) “For Retail Store Services in the Field of Gifts and Souvenirs.”

APPROVED USE (b) “For Restaurant Services and Bar Services.”

It appears that the trademark is for this specific logo.

Source: United States Patent & Trademark Office

THE CLIFF HOUSE service mark
— Registered 7 September 1993

APPROVED USE: “For Restaurant Services and Retail Gift Shop Services.”

This mark is for “typeset word(s) / letter(s) / number(s).” This could be seen as applying to the typographical representation of “The Cliff House” on any restaurant signage, menu, website or other promotional collateral relating specifically to any (or all) of the Cliff House restaurants and bars.

But, it’s not clear whether such a broad reading applies here. Indeed, it appears that, for most of the period after the Hountalas family secured the “The Cliff House” word mark for restaurant and gift shop use in 1993, the family did not brand any individual restaurant or bar within The Cliff House as “The Cliff House.” Rather, they used names like “Sutro’s”; “The Terrace Room”; and “The Bistro” (previously “The Upstairs Room”).

The Hountalas family here claims “1850” as the “first use.” This appears to have been based on a misapprehension of the year in which The Cliff House was founded, which was 1863. In 1984 and 1992, the Hountalas family filed applications for now-dead trademarks—the latest one cancelled in 2004—using the phrase “Since 1850.”

Source: United States Patent & Trademark Office

— Registered 13 July 1993

APPROVED USE: “For Restaurant and Retail Gift Shop Services.”

This is a tagline.

Source: United States Patent & Trademark Office

John Lumea is founder of The Emperor Norton Trust. His work in SF history has appeared in the SF Chronicle, KQED, Mother Jones, WSJ, LA Times and more.