SALT LAKE CITY — To say things are complicated between Traeger Grills and its founder, Joseph Traeger, is probably an understatement.
On July 16, Traeger Pellet Grills, which is listed as a limited liability company out of Delaware but has its headquarters in Salt Lake City, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tampa, Florida, against Joseph Traeger, Brian Traeger and Mark Traeger. The complaint accuses Joe and Brian Traeger of breaching a contract and “trying to sell their brand and likeness twice, to the detriment of the company they founded and the employees that work there.”
The beef began around 2018 but grew further this year. According to the Statesman Journal (Salem, Oregon), which first reported the lawsuit Tuesday, Joe Traeger and his son, Brian, began working for Dansons, Inc., which is a competitor to Traeger Grills.
As the suit notes Joe Traeger invented the wood pellet barbecue grill in the 1980s and sold the company in 2006. According to the Statesman Journal, the company was sold to a Florida venture capitalist for $12.4 million that year. It was eventually sold again to its current owner in 2014.
The suit states when Joe Traeger sold the company, the new owners paid more than $9 million for “exclusive and perpetual right to use Defendants’ names, likenesses and reputations in the wood pellet grill industry.” It adds that since 2006, the company has spent more than $100 million in building the “Traeger” brand in the grilling industry.
So when the Traegers joined Dansons, Traeger Grills alleges they began “colluding with a competitor and using the very names, likenesses, and personal goodwill they sold.”
It also claims Dansons announced the hires to elevate its Louisiana Grills brand, and that the company announced plans earlier this year to introduce a “Founders Series” of grills with Joe Traeger’s name on it as the founder of the pellet grill.
Accessed on Wednesday, the Dansons website about the grill series does include Joe Traeger’s name and a photo of the family in front of a “Traeger” sign on a barn. There are two legal notes at the bottom of the photo and text that state “Dansons does not endorse, support or market with Traeger Grills, LLC” and “Dansons is in no way affiliated with Traeger Grills.”
In the complaint, Traeger Grills states it has no problem with Joe and Brian Traeger working for Dansons or another grill company, but only if they aren’t using their name or likeness.
“They are not free, however, to do what they agreed not to do – and what they were paid millions of dollars not to do – which is to use their names, likenesses, and reputations to market competing wood pellet grills,” the lawsuit states.
At the same time the lawsuit was filed in Florida, Traeger Grills filed a second lawsuit against another former Traeger employee and Dansons in a U.S. District Court in Arizona. That lawsuit alleges similar complaints against Dansons, which is based in Phoenix, Arizona, including theft of trade secrets and trademark infringement.
“Since hiring Joe and Brian Traeger, Dansons has engaged in a multi-pronged efforts to capitalize on Traeger Grills’ popularity and success in the wood pellet grill industry by copying Traeger Grills’ trade dress and marketing at nearly every turn,” the lawsuit states.
Both lawsuits remain active in the respective courts they were filed in. In both cases, Traeger Grills was seeking a jury trial and damages in relation to claims in the complaints.
U.S. District Court records show Dansons officially responded to the claims on Friday. In it, Densons denied claims in the lawsuit against it. In addition, Jeff Thiessen, the company’s president, released a public letter on the company’s website, where he called the allegations by Traeger Grills “false and unfounded.”
“We will vigorously defend Dansons to protect our character and reputation. Joe and Brian Traeger were hired in 2018 based on their personal talent, passion and experience in the grilling industry,” Thiessen wrote. “They brought fresh ideas and concepts that we were happy to engage and they have become a valued part of the Dansons family.”
Treager Grills moved its headquarters from Portland, Oregon to Salt Lake City in 2015. The company states it sold about $400 million in grills and accessories in the U.S. in 2018.