What’s the big whoop with a name like Big Wick’s? Ask barbecue sauce manufacturer Wicker’s Food Products (WFP), headquartered in Hornersville, Missouri, and founded in 1947. The company filed a lawsuit in January against Wes and Sarah Wicker of Weatherford, who sell a mesquite-smoked jalapeño glaze under the brand name Big Wick’s. WFP is demanding a name change and seeking all profits the Wickers have made on their product, plus attorney’s fees and compensation for damages from “immediate and irreparable harm and injury to Plaintiff, and to its goodwill and reputation.” The kicker is that back in 2019, a WFP employee assured Wes Wicker the company wouldn’t sue him.

“We aren’t going to sue you over it or anything, so don’t worry about that,” Korey Speaight, who was described in news stories at the time as the business manager of WFP, wrote to Wes in a Facebook message four years ago. Back then, Wes was marketing his product as Wicker’s TX Mesquite Smoked Jalapeño Jelly, a recipe he developed in college. He launched it in 2012 while attending Texas Tech but abandoned it after graduation. With help and encouragement from his wife, Sarah, Wes relaunched the product in 2019, and was looking to Speaight for advice about his product name after realizing there was another Wicker’s brand out there.

“I established a rapport with the COO of the company several years ago when we were doing the jelly to try to prevent getting sued,” Wes told me recently, explaining his messages to Speaight. (It’s unclear when Speaight became COO.) From the exchange, Wes didn’t think he needed to consider a name change for his company until he sought a trademark. Speaight reassured him, saying, “You won’t run into trouble from us over it, but the trademark office can be picky,” in a message dated September 28, 2019.

That understanding held until last August, when Wes and Sarah received a cease-and-desist letter from attorney R. Emmett McAuliffe, representing WFP. Two months earlier, Jeff Jones had purchased WFP to merge it with his other sauce-making firm, JonesyQ BBQ Co., based in Ridgeland, Mississippi. The demand from WFP gave Wicker’s TX, as it was then known, a little over a month to change its name. It took longer, but Wes filed a trademark request for the new “Big Wick’s” name on the first of October 2022, and released a new label later that month. The new name was still too similar for WFP’s liking.

WFP’s January lawsuit was filed as Speaight started a new job, having left his position as COO of WFP. Regardless of his outgoing title, McAuliffe told me the company believes that “[Speaight] did not have authority to give Wes permission.” Wes’s attorney John Bustamante disagrees. “I think he did,” Bustamante said, and wrote in response to the lawsuit, “Wicker’s TX relied on the representations of Mr. Speaight regarding their use of the Wicker’s TX name and mark.”

As for the name change, WFP argues Big Wick’s can still be confused with its product. WFP sought the opinion of Tim McCreery, president and CEO of Junket Foods in St. Louis, Missouri, as an expert witness. His conclusion is that, because of their similar names, uses in barbecue, and shelf placement in stores, “the two brands are likely to be confused at the point of purchase by the shopper.” McAuliffe also forwarded documents to me from 2009, when a company in Grapevine attempted to trademark W.C. Wickers for a barbecue sauce and failed because it could be confused with the existing trademark of Wicker’s Food Products.

Big Wick’s trademark was published for opposition—allowing interested parties to oppose the trademark before it is registered—this week by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. McAuliffe says they plan to oppose it. “Our position is that we can’t allow Big Wick’s any more than Smucker’s jelly could allow Big Smuck’s,” he said. (The Italian packaging company Schmucker did, however, secure its U.S. trademark in 2020.) I asked McAuliffe if WFP was considering a lawsuit against the Wicker BBQ catering operation in North Carolina. “No. We weren’t aware of that,” he said.

I first met Wes in 2021 outside a barbecue trailer in Weatherford, where he handed me two jars of his jalapeño jelly and snapped a photo as part of his small-scale, in-person marketing strategy. You’ll find it posted on Big Wick’s Facebook page.“I started this business literally with nothing,” Wes said. “It’s hard and stressful because I don’t want to lose it.” But the business isn’t making him rich. The total sales last year added up to around $25,000, he says, and he forecasts $60,000 this year as he continues to work for an insurance adjuster as his full-time job.

The next step for the two sides is mediation, which is scheduled in Austin toward the end of August. If they can’t come to an agreement, the case is expected to go to a jury trial next year.