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Since 1981, Los Ranchos Restaurant in Sweetwater, Fla., has been a hub for powerful players in Nicaraguan and Nicaraguan-American politics and business, and for U.S. politicians seeking to bolster their ties to Miami-Dade’s growing Nicaraguan community. Over the past 20 years, the owners, two of whom are nephews of the late Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, gradually have expanded their steak and gallo pinto empire to six locations in Florida’s Miami-Dade County area. But the owners of the original Los Ranchos in Managua, a celebrated eatery in its own right, have accused the Miami owners of pilfering the name and concept of their steakhouse. Last month, however, they struck out in U.S. District Court in Miami. The Sweetwater location is an institution in the Nicaraguan community. Nicaraguan expatriates recently raised their glasses to toast Nicaraguan President-elect Enrique Bolanos when he dined there days after defeating former President and Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. Current President Arnoldo Aleman has been seen knocking back double whiskeys while holding court in the dining room. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was closely affiliated with the anti-Sandinista Contra movement in the 1980s, often chows down there, as did the late Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles. Framed photographs of the two governors, with their arms around busboys and waiters, hang side by side in the front vestibule. In 1999, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas used the Los Ranchos Bayside location as the setting for announcing that the county was donating two garbage trucks to the Central American nation to help clean up after Hurricane Mitch. Despite its renown, or maybe because of it, the owners of the Managua restaurant tried to end the Miami owners’ use of their company name. They claimed in separate state and federal lawsuits filed in 1998 that the proprietors of the steakhouses stole their name, their idea and their logo. Ofelio Lacaya and Ernesto Fonseca, owners of Promotora de Servicios S.A., the firm that owns Los Ranchos in Managua, alleged that the Miami owners — Julio and Carlos Somoza, Juan Wong and Abraham Quant — built their lucrative franchise on the Managua restaurant’s reputation. The actions alleged trademark infringement, false description or representation, and dilution and injury to business reputation. Lacaya and Fonseca claimed that the Miami owners benefited from the Managua restaurant’s renown, and sought to stop the Miami restaurant from operating under the name Los Ranchos and using the restaurant’s cow logo. They contended that the Miami owners’ use of the name causes confusion among their clientele, and that the Miami owners benefited from this confusion. The attorney for the defendants, however, mocked the Managua owners for waiting so long to complain about the use of the name. “They wanted millions of dollars,” says Miami lawyer Pedro Martinez-Fraga, a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig in Miami, who, along with shareholder Michelle Fongyee, represented the Miami owners. “But they were 17 years late.” At a hearing Nov. 16, U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King agreed. He issued a summary judgment, ruling that the Nicaraguan owners allowed an undue amount of time to lapse before filing their “cease and desist” letter to the Miami restaurateurs. The suit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court is pending. The Miami defendants are using the same timeliness argument to try to persuade Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey to dismiss the suit. Wong says the Miami and Managua restaurateurs were never in business together. He says he and his partners took the name and logo of Los Ranchos and got it trademarked. But Wong acknowledges that the Miami group chose the name to remind homesick Nicaraguans of the original Los Ranchos in Managua — the way the Versailles restaurant in Little Havana evokes memories of its famous namesake in Cuba. “We used it because of nostalgia,” Wong concedes. “We never said that it was connected with the Los Ranchos in Nicaragua.” The plaintiffs were less than pleased with the court decision. “We do not agree with [King's] ruling,” says Promotora’s attorney, Peter Kneski, a partner at Kneski & Kneski in Miami. Kneski declined further comment because he has filed a motion asking King to approve a settlement agreement which Promotora accepted one day after the summary judgment was issued. Under the settlement, the owners of Los Ranchos in Miami would pay the Nicaraguan owners $175,000. The defendants argue, however, that the plaintiffs accepted the settlement offer too late. Martinez-Fraga offered to settle Nov. 9. Judge King issued his oral ruling Nov. 16. Then Promotora accepted the Miami restaurant’s offer Nov. 19. While Martinez-Fraga acknowledges that he made the offer, he says Promotora’s decision to accept the offer after King issued his ruling is “too little, too late.” “What [Promotora] did was weird and atypical,” Martinez-Fraga says. “No one waits until a judgment is entered to act upon an offer.” Kneski says he expects King to rule on the motion by February.

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