Manuel's Original El Tepeyac Cafe has been operating in Boyle Heights since 1955, dishing up their massive signature "Hollenbeck" burritos and homestyle Mexican fare. The founder and namesake, Manuel Rojas, operated the restaurant until he passed away in 2013. His daughter, Elena Rojas, now runs the popular eatery.
Enter Sean Martinez. Martinez, an East L.A. native, opened a restaurant two Fridays ago in a shopping center in Mattydale, a small town outside of Syracuse, N.Y. His restaurant is called El Tepeyac Hacienda; its motto is "Born in the heart of East L.A." An article on Syracuse.com covered the opening and the restaurant's owners, Martinez and Rudy Boleslav. Soon thereafter, accusations began to fly on Manuel's El Tepeyac's Facebook page, which posted an accusation that Martinez was "claiming to be part if [sic] the family."
This post appeared on the We Are Boyle Heights Facebook page soon thereafter:
Elena Rojas maintains that Martinez effectively copied her father's restaurant. She says that decades ago, a college student designed the font for the Manuel's El Tepeyac's logo exclusively for use by the restaurant. That logo font, seen here on Manuel's El Tepeyac's website, appears identical to the logo font used by Martinez here on his El Tepeyac Hacienda website.
The two restaurants' menus also bear similarities. Both menus feature "Hollenbeck" and "Okie" burritos (Hollenbeck is the name of the Los Angeles policing division that includes Boyle Heights; Okie refers to Oklahoman Great Depression migrants who settled in California). Some menu descriptions are virtually identical. For example, Manuel's El Tepeyac describes their Hollenbeck de Machaca burrito as:
"shredded beef with sautéed onions, tomatoes, jalapeños & eggs with melted cheddar cheese with rice, beans, & guacamole topped with ranchera sauce."
El Tepeyac Hacienda also has a Hollenbeck de Machaca burrito. It is described similarly, down to the order of listed ingredients:
"shredded beef with sauteed onions, tomatoes, jalapenos, eggs, cheddar cheese, rice, beans and guacamole. Topped in ranchera sauce."
"We've been having trouble with this guy for years," says Rojas. "First he tried to do this in Chino Hills, and now he's doing it again." Rojas claims that Martinez spun off, without permission from the Rojas family, an El Tepeyac in the San Bernardino suburb of Chino Hills. That restaurant closed in 2010, shortly after it opened.
This is more complicated than a simple case of plagiarism or trademark infringement
This is more complicated than a simple case of plagiarism or trademark infringement, however. According to to Rojas, Sean Martinez opened another El Tepeyac — this time with permission from the Rojas family — together with Rojas' brother, Mark (Manuel's son), in Rocklin, Calif., near Sacramento. Rojas says there was a falling out between Martinez and the family subsequent to the business' closing in 2012, less than a year after it opened. Martinez, however, denies involvement with the business in Rocklin and Mark Rojas.
According to Martinez, "There is no issue. I had an agreement with Manuel." Martinez claims he signed an agreement with the now-deceased Manuel Rojas to license the restaurant, putting him legally in the clear. On El Tepeyac Hacienda's Facebook page last Thursday, however, the business has posted: "We have never claimed to be a franchise of the original nor do we share the same name or menu. They did not invent burritos or any other item any Mexican restaurant is making." Business, Martinez says, has been good so far. "It's very busy. We run out of food every day."
El Tepeyac is a reference to the name of a hill in Mexico City where, according to Catholic tradition, Saint Juan Diego met the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531. Adding to the nebulousness of the situation is the fact that El Tepeyac spin-offs are hardly without precedent in Los Angeles.
While Manuel's El Tepeyac, established in 1955, is the oldest, there are at least six restaurants with "Tepeyac" in their names that have no affiliation with Manuel's El Tepayac (which has its original location in Boyle Heights and an additional location in City of Industry). And at least four of those restaurants, Villa Tepeyac (two locations; South El Monte and West Covina), Ray's Tepeyac in Covina, and El Patio Tepeyac in Alhambra, also serve Hollenbeck burritos.