Smothered: The Saga of the Chubby's Empire

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"Stella is such a great lady," says Tony Carbone of the neighboring Carbone's Italian Sausage Deli, a Denver institution in its own right. "She's one of a kind. I've never heard of a lady that old still running such a successful business. It's because of her nature; good things come back to her. She has taken care of this neighborhood so much, fed so many people who never had any money. She's always been there to lend a helping hand. And the food is delicious and so fresh. You don't find small businesses like that much anymore. Everyone knows Chubby's. It's a focal point of north Denver."

But it has spread far beyond the original. Nearly twenty different variations on the Chubby's name are listed in the Colorado Secretary of State's business records, in varying degrees of standing. Belindas Chubbys Inc, Chubby's, Chubby's #2, INC., Chubbys Bar and Grill INC, Chubbys Bubbachinos, Chubby's Burger Drive In, Chubby's Inc, Chubby's Mexican Food, Chubby's Mexican Restaurant LLC, Cordova's Original Chubby's, Cordovas Original Chubbys Burger Drive Inn No 1 INC., Demis's Chubby's Enterprises, INC., Denver's Original Chubby's LLC, El Chubby's, INC., Gotta Get My Chubby's, JINKS C's Chubbys, Original Chubby Mexican Food A Taste Above the Rest.

Many are registered to owners with the last name of Cordova.

"Thirty-eighth and Lipan, that's the only one we sanction," says Danny, noting that he and his grandmother are registered with the Secretary of State under the name The Original Chubby's Inc. "We don't have another at all, period."

Nor do the others pay a franchise fee or any other revenues to Stella, he says.

"All those other Chubby's, they give us a bad rep because they say they are related to ours, and people come and complain to us about the poor quality of the product or the high prices at another location," he says. "It hurts our business. What I want is for people to recognize that Stella is the founder of all this. She's the owner, she deserves the credit — and all those other Chubby's that try to knock her out of the business, try to take all the credit for themselves? That's just shameful."

That is why the bottom of Chubby's takeout menus, which Danny printed, read: "NOT AFFILIATED WITH ANY OTHER CHUBBYS." For Danny, the picture is clear.

But for Stella, the story is murkier.

There are three other Chubby's that she "allowed," as she puts it: two owned by her son Tony (one at 9282 West 58th Avenue in Arvada and one in a strip mall at I-70 and York Street) and one owned by her grandson Julian, at 83rd and Washington Street.

Further complicating matters is that neither Stella nor Danny applied for United States Patent and Trademark Office protection until February 2004. And by then, others had beaten them to the punch. El Chubby's, for example, which one of Stella's daughters opened in Aurora and later sold to a familial acquaintance, trademarked the name first and so is legally protected. (The current owner of El Chubby's, Norman Campbell, declines to elaborate on his relationship with Stella's Chubby's.)

"We should have done it earlier," Danny says, but he and Stella had always figured that "people shouldn't be taking advantage of us like that."

Stella and Danny are leaving El Chubby's alone, but they intend to go after the others using trademark laws that could allow them to reclaim the rights to the name.

"If someone beats you to a certain trademark, sometimes that's that," says their attorney, Dan Bonifazi. "But in some instances, when there has been a name commonly used in the public forum, there are ways to un-ring that bell."

For now, Danny and Stella are letting another family member — one who has sliced off his own piece of the Chubby's empire — take the lead in the courtroom.

Julian Cordova has attempted to trademark a version of the Chubby's name and logo. He has also registered the names "Original Chubby's," "Original Chubbys Mexican Food" and "Chubbys" with the Colorado Secretary of State.

And in October, Julian sued his cousin, Leonard Cordova, who runs two Chubbys Bubbachinos restaurants and has franchised the rights to a third. Julian has claimed in Jefferson County District Court that Leonard is illegally using and profiting off of the Chubby's name. "My grandmother wouldn't do it," Julian says. "I'm a lot more aggressive than she is, so I registered the names to try and protect her. Since doing that, I've gone after people who were operating without authorization."

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Adam Cayton-Holland