lawsuits

Did Wegmans Rip Off a Japanese Chef’s Idea?

Sakanaya at Wegmans. Photo: Chris Crowley

It’s war on Wegmans. The restaurateur Yuji Haraguchi built his reputation hawking tonkotsu broth made from tuna (at Yuji Ramen) and evangelizing New Yorkers to the serene pleasures of Japanese breakfast (through Okonomi). Before he was a chef, though, he was a fish salesman, experience he parlayed into his store Osakana, NYC’s best-known Japanese seafood market. That market is mere minutes from Manhattan’s only Wegmans, which opened in October with the chain’s first-ever Japanese seafood shop, Sakanaya. Eyeballs were trained on the buzzy store, especially after a video of the its tuna-butchering ceremony went viral. But Haraguchi was curious about the opening for a different reason. He says Wegmans was in talks to buy his market first. Instead, his lawyers filed a legal complaint last week alleging that the grocery chain and its business partners have committed fraud, trademark infringement, breach of contract, and more. He is seeking no less than $1 million in damages.

In 2016, Haraguchi opened the original location of Osakana in Williamsburg offering local seafood, prepared foods such as chirashi, and sushi-making classes. The New Yorker described the market as marrying the freshness of domestic seafood with the Japanese handling of products. In 2021, he expanded with a second location on St. Marks Place, a compact space that feels a bit like an artist’s studio.

According to the complaint and a Change.org petition, Haraguchi was first contacted in August by Culinary Collaborations, Wegmans’ fish broker, about purchasing Osakana. At the time, he says that he was looking to sell the business so he could move to Hawaii. On August 28, both Haraguchi and Culinary Collaborations signed an NDA that included a noncompete barring each party from hiring the others one’s employees. After signing a letter of intent, Haraguchi says that he disclosed, as he puts it in the petition, all of his “trade secrets, practices, and the financial information.” The deal never came together, but when Wegmans opened on October 28, it contained Sakanaya, with no involvement from Haraguchi. (Wegmans wouldn’t comment on specifics, but a spokesperson says the company is “confident” that the claims are “without merit.”) He says he found out about the opening from a customer’s text message. When he reached out to Culinary Collaborations, he says he was told that they were going to run both Sakanaya and Osakana.

After the opening, Haraguchi says that he was asked, in November, to prepare a draft purchase agreement, which, according to the complaint, he now believes was done “in order to keep the scam going” since, one week later, Culinary Collaborations backed out of the arrangement. “I told them, ‘Once you back out you’re going to be my enemy, because you really opened the direct competition against me three blocks away,’” Haraguchi says. “And they just backed out and disappeared.”

He says he’s spent the past two months attempting to contact the grocery chain — with no luck. “My lawyer was like, ‘Yo, you really, really have no choice: You got to just sue them,’” he says.

In his Change.org petition, he describes his shop Osakana, as “the real and original SAKANAYA in NYC” and accuses Wegmans of fraud, cultural appropriation, corporate bullying, defamation, trademark infringement, and more. The Sakanaya name, which translates literally to “fish market,” has been confusing for Japanese customers specifically, he says, because of the similarity of the words. He also points to the similarity of the fonts used for the logos.

The proximity of the stores — along with the similarity of names and business models — is central to Haraguchi’s argument that Wegmans is violating common-law trademark rights. “If Wegmans opened that Sakanaya in its Brooklyn store, I wouldn’t have claimed that it violates my common-law trademark because it’s in a different neighborhood,” the chef says. The same would be true, he adds, if there weren’t a history of the NDA, NCA, and due diligence. “I would’ve just kept my mouth shut. But we had a history. I’m fine if someone just copied it down the street. I’ll suck it up. I’m used to it. I’ve been doing this for ten years.”

Is Haraguchi at all worried about being able to carry out a lawsuit against a giant company like Wegmans? He acknowledges their resources pose a problem: “They can keep selling fish, no problem, as long as they make arrangements with me,” he says. “But there is no discussion right now. They think I’ll just go away, but that’s not going to happen.”

On March 7, lawyers representing Culinary Collaborations and two other defendants in the case filed a counterclaim, calling the lawsuit “baseless.”

This post has been updated with a response from Wegmans as well as the counterclaim against Haraguchi.

Did Wegmans Rip Off a Japanese Chef’s Idea?