BRATTLEBORO -- Is Brattleboro big enough for two Pandas?
Ting Ting, whose family has been running Panda North on Putney Road for 25 years, doesn't think so.
A few weeks ago a banner was hung on the former Gillies Seafood Restaurant in West Brattleboro announcing the opening of a new restaurant; Panda West.
Almost immediately Ting and her family were receiving congratulations, support and even a call from her propane company asking that the family extend service to the new restaurant.
The problem is, Ting explained, is that Panda West is an entirely different business with different owners and she and her family are worried that the 25 years they have spent building a loyal following with local diners and tourists is now in jeopardy.
"We're upset about it," she said. "We feel like he is stealing our name. If someone goes there and has a bad meal it can ruin our reputation."
Ting's attorney has already explored the family's options and at this point there is not very much they can do about the situation.
Jia Guang Wang has registered the name Panda West with Vermont's Secretary of State Corporations Division and he joined a long list of Vermont Panda corporations, all of which have a legal right to the Panda name.
Wang was working in the Western Avenue restaurant Thursday as he prepares to open for business some time in the next few months.
He said he owned the former Panda Chinese Restaurant in Keene, N.H., and his cousin owns a Panda Restaurant in Connecticut.
"This is Wang's Panda," he said. "We don't think anyone will be confused. If we serve good food people will come back."
Wang said he knew there was a Panda North in Brattleboro.
That's why he called his restaurant Panda West.
And Ali Sarafzade, director of the Secretary of State's Corporations Division agreed.
Sarafzade said Vermont actually has a stricter standard than most other states when approving trade names.
Most states approve a trade name if it is available and if only a single letter is different.
But Vermont, Sarafzade explained, uses the deceptively similar standard, which allows the office to decline a registration if the name it is too similar to an existing business.
B-4 the Fall and Before the Fall, for example, would not be allowed.
Sarafzade said the office registers names but his staff does not get involved with disputes.
"We are not the intellectual property arm of the government. We are not here to protect brand names," he said. "We have limited enforcement powers."
Sarafzade said the staff knew there was a Panda North in Brattleboro.
If the new restaurant uses the same font, logo or menu it will be up to the court to decide if Brattleboro can keep two pandas alive.
"We can not freeze the use of the word ‘panda' for the entire state," he said. "This differed by an entire word and we felt that was sufficient to allow the registration to go forward."
Panda West joins a long line of registered Vermont corporations that use the cuddly, black and white mammal in their name.
In Vermont there is a Panda Garden Restaurant in Manchester, a Tickled Panda clothing store in South Burlington and a Little Panda Daycare in Bennington.
Even when considering a panda, the issue is not always black and white.
"We have to use common sense and we try to be as permissive as much as we can," Sarafzade said. "But there is definitely some gray area."
Dara Carleton, the administrator in Brattleboro's Assessor's Office issues business licenses and she said she was initially reluctant to give Panda West a business license because the name was so familiar to an existing business.
After checking with the Secretary of State, however, Carleton said she would have to approve the local business license.
"It is their legitimate business name," Carleton said. "The state is the end of the line and if they say it's OK there is not very much I can do about it."
Carleton said there is usually not too much drama or controversy surrounding business licenses.
If there is a problem, she said the assessor, town manager and ultimately Selectboard might be asked to figure out the best way forward.
For now there is a sign hanging in the Panda North Restaurant on Putney Road, right above the board advertising crispy duck rolls, letting customers know that Panda North is not affiliated with any other business, nor is the family thinking of expanding at this time.
"It is not easy keeping a restaurant going for 25 years. My parents and my family have worked hard to build this name," Ting said. "This is a nice town. Anyone can have a business in America. That's why I love America. We just don't want people to be confused."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com; or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer