Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but when restaurants attempt to duplicate each other’s success, the results can be…confusing. Which halal cart is the halal cart? Which Ray’s is the original Ray’s? And does it really matter if that vanilla ice cream cone comes from Master Softee, not Mister?
We’ve broken down the key differences between eight well-known establishments and their swagger-jacking predecessors.
Ray’s vs. Original Ray’s vs. Famous Original Rays
It’s now known as Prince Street Pizza, but in 1959, Ralph Cuomo’s Ray’s Pizza became the actual original, no matter how many other slice joints claim the contrary. Famous Original Ray’s is the brainchild of Rosolino Mongano, a fellow Italian immigrant who took Cuomo’s second location off his hands in 1964.
The rest of the Ray’s proliferated from there, a naming frenzy that’s resulted in at least one mess of lawsuits in the early ‘90s. Despite the legal wrangling, the Ray’s trend continued unchecked: There are still at least four dozen pizza joints called “Ray’s” in New York alone, though not all of them claim to be famous.
The kicker? There is no actual “Ray.” Cuomo simply gave the restaurant his childhood nickname. (Photos: Flickr, David Turnley)
The Halal Guys vs. The Halal Guys of New York vs. New York’s Best Halal Food
Everyone knows that the place to go for chicken over rice in NYC is the intersection of 53rd Street and 6th Avenue, the longtime location of the halal cart that did long lines way before the Cronut™. Established by Egyptian immigrant Mohamed Abouelenein in 1990, the cart’s been keeping office workers and drunken hordes alike happy for almost 25 years.
The problem is that while Halal Guys, located on the southeast corner of 53rd and 6th, is the bonafide original, competitors have long since realized that on any given day, there are three other corners of the hallowed intersection up for grabs. Enter the knockoffs, who even imitate the distinctive yellow-orange hue of the Halal Guys’ signage and uniforms.
On the brink of a massive national expansion, however, the Halal Guys have begun cracking down on their #brand. Though Serious Eats claims their gyros stand above the competition on taste alone, the owners recently filed a lawsuit against The Halal Guys of New York, one of the more recent (and flagrant) ripoffs. (Photos: The Halal Guys, New York Street Food)
Pat’s vs. Geno’s
What pizza is to New York, cheesesteaks are to Philadelphia—right down to the intense rivalries. Much like the Halal Guys and its competitors, Pat’s and Geno’s are located on the exact same intersection in South Philly: 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue.
There’s no argument over which came first. Pat’s, established by a pair of brothers in 1930, has a good three and a half decades on Geno’s. The question is who makes the better version of Philly’s iconic sandwich; Geno’s founder Joey Vento once claimed to the LA Times that though Pat Olivieri invented the cheesesteak, “I perfected it.”
One blog post isn’t going to solve a 50 dispute, but here’s a rundown of the basic differences between the Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteaks: Geno’s wraps its sandwiches; Pat’s serves them open. Geno’s slices its ribeye; Pat’s doesn’t. Customers’ default cheese at Geno’s is provolone. At Pat’s, infamously, it’s Cheez Whiz. Now go forth and order. (Photos: Wikipedia)
Mister Softee vs. (Master) Softee
With hundreds of trucks in 15 states and a (one-hundred percent authorized) spinoff franchise in China, Mister Softee’s become synonymous with cheap summertime treats for a good chunk of the United States. No wonder some enterprising New York entrepreneurs attempted to capitalize on the 60-year-old ice cream titan’s success.
The most recent in a line of pretenders, including the awesomely named “Mustafa Softee,” is Master Softee, which garnered attention around New York’s outer boroughs this spring with its daringly similar look. Basically identical to a Mister Softee, Master Softee simply changed a single letter.
Owner Dimitrios Tsirkos was able to pull it off for a few weeks before a judge put a stop to it with a court order in early June, after which the fleet of trucks carried on with business as usual—just with the “Master” scratched off. (Photos: Blogspot, Instagram)
McDonald’s vs. Madonal
McDonald’s needs no introduction, but its Iraqi bastard child requires a bit of background. Located close to the border with Iran, MaDonal began when owner Suleiman Qassab applied for a McDonald’s franchise in the late 1970s. McDonald’s wasn’t wild about setting up shop under Saddam Hussein, so Qassab’s application was rejected.
If he couldn’t join McDonald’s, Qassab reasoned, he might as well bring his hometown the closest thing to it he possibly could. So he founded MaDonal, an imitation McDonald’s that soon spawned its own imitation, called MatBax.
MaDonal’s offers items such as “Big Macks,” informed by Qassab’s experience as a McDonald’s cook during his time as a refugee in Vienna. So far, McDonald’s has declined to take legal action, likely because Qassab isn’t taking any business away from one of its actual restaurants. (Photos: TypePad, McDonald’s)
Grimaldi’s vs. Juliana’s
The first thing to know about the difference between Grimaldi’s and the pizza joint right next door is that Patsy Grimaldi doesn’t own—or cook at—the restaurant with his name on it. Confused yet? Let’s move on.
Grimaldi sold his restaurant way back in 1998 to current proprietor Frank Ciolli. When Grimaldi’s (the restaurant) was forced to move next door in 2011, Grimaldi (the pizza chef) saw a chance to get back in the game. So he took over the original space, including its pizza oven, and opened Juliana’s.
A would-be lawsuit by Ciolli was dead on arrival, so would-be diners now have a choice between the Grimaldi’s name and the Grimaldi’s space, pizza oven, and chef. Tough call. (Photos: Flickr)
Pizzeria Uno vs. Lou Malnati’s
When/if the question of whether Chicago-style pizza is, in fact, pizza is ever settled, we can start talking about what really matters: Which chain deserves credit for inventing the stuff.
Technically, that honor goes to Chicago-native-turned-airport-staple Uno, founded by Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo in 1943. But Uno’s most famous product was developed by chef Rudy Malnati, Senior, who co-managed the original location in River North with his son Lou.
In 1971, Lou took the family recipe and struck out on his own, opening a store in Lincolnwood with his wife Jean. As of today, it’s got almost three dozen locations around Chicago, but that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to Uno. That, and family ownership, gives Malnati’s the edge. (Photos: Taste of Chicago, Flickr)
BurgerFi vs. Shake Shack vs. In-N-Out
Walk into any one of BurgerFi’s 60-plus locations across the country and you’d be forgiven for doing a double take. With its green-and-white logo design and metal-heavy decor, the sustainable fast-food chain looks an awful lot like Danny Meyer’s fast-casual sensation, Shake Shack. The menu even has “concretes” made out of frozen custard and mix-ins.
Founder John Rosatti (also founder of the Brooklyn Plaza Auto Mall) takes his inspiration from multiple sources, though. In addition to its Shack-style emphasis on quality ingredients, BurgerFi also has a “secret menu,” albeit one that’s publicly available on its website. The “alternative style” burger and fries bears a suspicious resemblance to a certain West Coast chain’s house-sauce-and-grilled-onions specialty.
As of this writing, BurgerFi’s heavy borrowing seems to be doing them more good than harm: No one’s sued yet, and the Florida-based company has almost double Shake Shack’s locations. (Photos: BurgerFi, Shake Shack)