An article in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal reminded me of a point I’ve been trying to make for years but didn’t have a good hook to do so. Now that this idea is in print, I do, so here goes.
The article concerns a group called Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, which gives pizzerias certificates called VPN or Vera Pizza Napoletana. Tutta Bella, a pizzeria located just a few blocks from my house, has one.
The WSJ article goes into great depth about the process by which the VPN certification is awarded. It requires one to pay a fee, attend a class and use equipment and ingredients that meet a certain standard. The Tutta Bella website has an excellent list.
But there are two characteristics of VPN designation that make complete sense to me:
· It is a purely voluntary designation awarded by a private organization–you either qualify or you can’t get it.
· It uses a relatively strong trademark that does not try to arrogate to itself words that others should be free to use–VPN does not stop someone from saying “we serve Neapolitan Pizza”, but if you don’t qualify for VPN, you can’t say you are VPN.
The difference between VPN certification, and many other certifications in the food industry and elsewhere, and all the litigation that ensues over terms like “natural”, is huge. In fact, the original title for the story I wanted to write was “Don’t Make Artisan the New Natural”. It was suggested by this article in the Seattle Weekly. Artisan, like natural, is just a word in the language that no one should be able to appropriate to their own product, but which should not have sufficient meaning that someone can claim they were deceived to discover that, say, Dunkin Donuts is claiming its bagels are “Artisan.” Some people decided to make complaints about this, which is all well and good, but in the end that’s a lot of work for the legal profession and doesn’t really help consumers much.
The guy who made that bagel complaint listed the things he did that made his bagels, in his opinion, “artisan.” I happen to do all of them for my own bagels except I don’t turn over the bagels in the oven, just as my pizza would meet VPN standards, as described by Tutta Bella, if I had a wood oven and used fresh yeast. And they still taste just fine without those amenities. The difference between VPN and something like the “Good Food Merchants Guild” is the difference between a valid trademark and something that really can’t be a trademark. You simply can’t trademark the phrase “Good Food” any more than you can trademark “Artisan”. They’re just English words.
Create standards and enforce them. Create a novel mark and enforce it. Publicize your mark and make people associate it with a standard of quality and a valuable experience. That’s the recipe for getting the issues of what food meets a particular standard out of the courts and onto consumers’ tables.