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Corny dog crossroads: How a Fletcher’s trademark dispute led to family war with deep-fried emotions

Brian Davis
Austin American-Statesman
Fresh corn dogs are ready to be served at the Fletcher's Corny Dogs pop-up food truck at Mutts Canine Cantina in Dallas. The company "wanted to be more active and involved in the community outside of the State Fair," according to Fletcher's officials.

DALLAS — Some things are uniquely Texan. The frozen margarita, Dell Computer and Beyoncé come to mind. And, of course, the Fletcher’s corny dog served up to millions over the years at the State Fair of Texas.

This state’s love affair with that deep-fried concoction knows no bounds. Starting in 1938, brothers Neil and Carl Fletcher figured out how to deep fry a hot dog on a stick after rolling it in corn meal batter. It debuted at the State Fair in 1942 and, well, you probably know the rest.

Fletcher’s has been a true family business for generations. But court documents, and one particular ongoing lawsuit filed in federal court, reveal some deep-fried hostilities. “Put simply,” one document states, Fletcher’s officials “are bullies.”

Now, a grandmother is suing her own granddaughter, and both sides are sniping at one another about the iconic name, who deserves credit for growing the business and the future of Fletcher’s. Family members are accused of making “improper interference and threats” and outright lying. It’s a deep-fried mess.

“Now, she’s my step-grandmother. She’s the fifth wife. I’m pissed at her,” Jace Fletcher Christensen said. “She sued me. She did a 180 and things will never be the same.”

Glenda Gale Fletcher, known to everybody as G.G., took control over Fletcher’s when her husband Neil “Skip” Fletcher Jr. passed away on Jan. 31, 2017, following a long battle with pneumonia. It’s the day Jace and her mother, Vickie, believe everything changed.

Jace, Skip’s granddaughter, wanted to open a new restaurant off Technology Boulevard in northwestern Dallas serving corn dogs and funnel cakes. Jace and Vickie wanted to call it “eatFletch — Purveyors of Fine Stick Food.” They renovated an old 2,000-square foot Genghis Grill that’s attached to a Jason’s Deli and next to a wildly popular Ojos Locos Sports Cantina. Jace filed for a trademark, had T-shirts made up and even jewelry featuring a cute corn dog with the word “eat” written in a creative way.

The menu features all sorts of “artisanal corn-battered franks,” like a 100% grass-fed beef corn dog, a free-range turkey option and even one infused with CBD oil. Or, just skip all of that and ask for the corn dog rolled in bacon. It’s last-meal quality for those in dire straits.

The restaurant itself looks splendid with white décor and State Fair ambiance. Jace’s brother presented her with a 1950s-era carousel horse from the State Fair he found on Craigslist. Old swings found on Etsy hang overhead with the words “Stick Me, Dip Me, Fry Me, Eat Me.” There’s a long bar, where you can order specialty drinks like “The Bloodline” or “The Highland Park Hautie.” And you cannot miss an oversize, framed drawing of Jace in full corn dog glory hanging over the bar.

Patrons can walk through the line and stand a few feet from the fryer, where “dogs” are cooked at 365 degrees. “Not 364. 365,” Jace said. “If it’s 360 degrees, somebody’s getting fired.” If you don’t roll them properly in the peanut oil, dogs get “yellow bellies,” a term Skip used when one side was overcooked.

G.G. really didn’t have a problem with any of this. Or, so Jace thought. The name, eatFletch or even just Fletch, became a sticking point, though. Maybe some people would confuse that with Fletcher’s Original State Fair Corny Dogs, G.G. wondered.

Jace said she had G.G.’s blessing to use the name. The two had a lunch meeting on March 5, 2019, at the Black Walnut Café in Flower Mound, both sides said. G.G. thought she was going to meet up with her granddaughter since the two hadn’t spoken in at least a year.

“From the very get-go, she did nothing but talk about her new business,” G.G. said. “I never, ever gave her my blessing. Never. It wouldn’t even occur to me. I would never do that.”

That wasn’t all. “I found out later, after all of this, that she was secretly recording the meeting, recording me the whole time, without my permission,” G.G. said. “That was another little letdown.”

Fletcher’s attorney Steven Ross, who specializes in intellectual property law, said, “There was no blessing given by G.G.”

So G.G.’s lawyers filed an injunction motion to stop Jace from opening the restaurant using the name Fletch. Opening a new restaurant in a pandemic is bad enough. Finally, after several months of waiting on a judge to rule, Jace changed the name, pulled down signage and scrubbed the place of anything resembling Fletch. Now, her business is literally titled CornDog With No Name and serves food via drive-thru and curbside pick-up until things open back up.

You’d think that’d be it. But a jury trial is scheduled to begin in January. Jace and Vickie filed a counterclaim in late March seeking to hold Fletcher’s and G.G. “accountable for their promises and liable for their fraud.” They expanded the claim on Sept. 11 to include Aaron Fletcher, G.G.’s son, after alleged targeted attacks that “are even further beyond the pale of their prior attacks.”

‘They’re lying’

Just from a sheer writing standpoint, the 43-page counterclaim is an incredible page-turner. “The 1942 recipe called for peanut oil, but Plaintiff uses a cheap soy-based alternative,” the defendants’ counterclaim states in its second paragraph. One footnote claims that G.G. has great wealth from owning Fletcher’s, but it was “wealth that was systematically stolen from the original heirs to the Fletcher’s legacy.”

“Little did they know that everything G.G. had said was a lie,” it continues.

Jace, a 34-year-old Flower Mound native, used to spend Christmas at G.G.’s house. “I bought her her first Chanel wallet,” G.G. said in an interview. Asked about that, Jace said, “Yeah, that’s true. I have only one Chanel handbag.” Both sides talked about cherished relationship that’s been lost, possibly forever.

EatFletch was a modern, contemporary brand, the filing states. This lawsuit is effectively an attempt to create a lifelong ban because Vickie and Jace “had the nerve to do business better, hungrier and more innovatively than Plaintiff ever did,” the counterclaim states.

CornDog With No Name’s restaurant looks nothing like how Fletcher’s is presented at the State Fair. Fairgoers see a carnival-like booth presentation, same as its been for decades.

Vickie said she helped create the actual hot dog recipe that Fletcher’s used for years. “It’s my friggin’ meat recipe and I don’t care what they say,” Vickie said. “Their warehouse manager and I did it together. Every office girl knows it.”

Fletcher’s gets its hot dogs from Syracuse Sausage in Ponder, a company that’s famous itself in the food service industry. “We’ve already had that discussion with our supplier, who was very upset about that comment, because it’s not true,” G.G. said. Nick Jr. specified what he wanted years ago, G.G. said, and the company produces the meat.

“I swear to God on my daughter. They’re lying about all this shit,” Vickie said. “I thought you had to tell the truth in court, but you apparently don’t. I didn’t even know they lied so much, so well.”

Fletcher’s made a settlement offer that practically choked Jace and Vickie. According to a confidential letter obtained by the American-Statesman, Fletcher’s will pull its original petition if the defendants pay $525,000 and agree to a permanent injunction preventing them from using anything resembling Fletcher’s trademarks.

Ross said it was “inappropriate and unfortunate” that the defendants would choose to release the confidential document.

“What they’re trying to do is extort a non-compete from Vickie and Jace,” said Brandon Renken, a Houston-based attorney representing CornDog With No Name. “You can always tell people’s true intent when they are faced with reason and they turn their back on it.”

What galls Jace and Vickie is that G.G. doesn’t want them using “photographs of, or stories about, any member of the Fletcher family.” They cannot disclose any Fletcher’s trade secrets, interfere with the company’s suppliers or even refer to “the story of the creation of corny dogs.”

Jace and Vickie feel like they’re being bullied, they said. “Not feel like. Yes, bullied,” Jace said. “I am a granddaughter. I am Jace Fletcher. I’m not giving up my name and not giving up my corn dog heritage.”

Amber Fletcher, G.G.’s daughter and the Fletcher’s marketing director, believes Jace is simply being deceptive, like dropping her married name Christensen when it suits Jace’s needs.

For the record, the name on Jace’s birth certificate reads Victoria Jace Fletcher. Her nickname is “Fletch.” Jace even had a designer license plate that reads, “FLETCH1.”

Still, intellectual property law is pretty clear that someone can’t just use their surname as a basic defense of trademark infringement.

“We have an 80-year family tradition made up all these Fletcher families, and she took the essence of a family company and now it’s all about herself in one company,” Amber said. “There’s not a single Fletcher family member that supports or agrees with what she’s doing.”

The Fletcher family tree

Tracing the Fletcher family tree can be confusing. Thankfully, Ross put together an easy flowchart. It’s labeled Plaintiff’s Exhibit 1 in a filing over in the Eastern District federal court, Sherman Division.

Neil Sr.’s son Skip married five times, according to court documents, but was married to G.G. the longest. Skip was an airline pilot for Frontier Airlines, while G.G. was a flight attendant with Texas International. The two married in 1979. “We were married 37 years,” G.G. said.

Neil Sr. had three sons — Skip, Henry John Fletcher (now deceased) and William Carl “Bill” Fletcher. Bill had a son named William Carl “Dub” Fletcher II.

The family heritage, and who had rightful ownership to the Fletcher’s business, would be the focal point of a 2011 lawsuit in Dallas County. Bill and Dub ended up suing Skip and G.G.

According to the original petition, Neil Sr. wrote a will that created three testamentary trusts for his sons. Skip was appointed the trustee. In 1999, “Skip Fletcher began to devise a scheme,” the petition states, where the assets would start being shifted. In 2002, Skip created a limited partnership named Fletcher’s Original State Fair Corny Dogs, Ltd., according to court documents. Around the same time, another partnership was created titled SFGG, Inc., which was controlled by Skip and G.G.

In July 2002, Skip, acting as trustee, moved each of the brothers’ assets into the new limited partnership that he controlled. None of this was disclosed to Bill or Dub until after the fact, according to the petition. “In short,” the document reads, Skip Fletcher “knowingly, and in bad faith, engaged in a scheme” meant to enlarge his own interest in Fletcher’s corny dogs.

The case was ultimately settled out of court, but there’s still some lingering resentment and mistrust. Skip was the public face of Fletcher’s at the State Fair but, since his death, G.G. holds majority ownership. Nobody disputes this. Her children, Amber and Aaron Fletcher, are next in line.

“First of all, there would be no way to manipulate my husband,” G.G. said. “He did what he wanted to do. He had his will written, he had the trust set up six years before he died. There was no changing that. It was all done.”

Vickie married into the Fletcher family. Skip’s son Craig married Vickie on Valentine’s Day in 1986. Jace is their only daughter, but Vickie had a son from a previous relationship, Jeff Warner. Craig is now deceased.

What irks G.G. is the idea that Jace calls herself the “Corn Dog Queen” and believes she’s some kind of “true bloodline” to the Fletcher’s empire. The settlement offer calls for a permanent injunction to stop Jace from referring to herself with those phrases. It’s doubtful Jace would ever take down the gold-plated sign on her office door at the restaurant that reads “Corn Dog Queen,” lawsuit or not.

“The true legacy of my father is in the hands of my brother and I,” Amber wrote on a now-deleted Facebook post in February 2019. “Anyone else making claims to be taking on that role is simply, a liar. Don’t be fooled y’all.”

At one point during an expansive interview, G.G. just sighed, lamenting the loss of her husband. “This wouldn’t be happening if he was still here.”

Fletchers Unlimited

Like anything else, follow the money. Since Fletcher’s is a private company, it does not have to disclose its financial records. But court documents pull back the curtain a little.

In one court filing, Fletcher’s admits to selling 500,000 to 600,000 corny dogs each year at the State Fair, which lasts 24 days. At $6 each — or 12 Fair coupons — that’s anywhere from $3 million to $3.6 million in gross sales annually. The State Fair was called off this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fletcher’s did serve its trademark fare in a drive-thru event, and the company will have some booths open for the annual Texas-Oklahoma game on Oct. 10.

But COVID is a temporary setback, hopefully. Once the State Fair resumes, Fletcher’s revenue stream could continue for years or decades to come. Mustard and ketchup included.

Fletcher’s has signed agreements to sell corny dogs at North Texas games and moved into Texas A&M University’s Kyle Field this season. The company recently entered into an agreement with Golden Chick fried chicken restaurants. New TV ads show people eating a Fletcher’s corny dog, an odd site for sure considering everyone associates the company with the State Fair.

Fletcher’s has a corn dog stand at Royal-Memorial Stadium, too. Or, so it appeared for several years until recently. The University of Texas entered into a contract with a company called Fletchers Unlimited in 2017. The school then signed a new three-year extension with Fletcher Warner Holdings LLC on Aug. 1, 2019.

Neither company is Fletcher’s Original State Fair Corny Dogs LLC.

The story of Fletchers Unlimited — no apostrophe — is an especially sore topic to both G.G. and Vickie, who built the company from scratch. Vickie used the Unlimited brand to go around the country selling “Fletcher’s” corny dogs at Texas Motor Speedway, NASCAR tracks in Charlotte and Atlanta and football stadiums like UT’s.

“I eat two of those bad boys every game, that’s for certain,” said Chris Del Conte, UT’s athletic director.

Vickie said G.G. is now trying to stop her from getting meat product for future events. “I do know that G.G. threatened (Syracuse Sausage) to not sell to me anymore because they told me,” Vickie said. “They called me and told me she was having a freak-out attack.”

Jace and Vickie’s counterclaim states that Vickie was “solely responsible” for all aspects of Unlimited’s business “and G.G. knew it.” G.G. was the one who came up with a way to use the Fletcher’s name in a way that wouldn’t violate trademark laws. For a while, the company lost its marks to Tyson Foods through a bankruptcy reorganization in the late 1980s. Fletcher’s has since regained ownership of its trademarks.

For 20 years, Fletchers Unlimited operated with a banner that read “Fletcher Corny Dogs & Funnel Cakes.” And written in itty-bitty print in the upper left corner was the phrase “Owned and Operated by Vic & G Fletcher.”

Vickie did all the work and G.G. just took her “free money” as part owner, Vickie said. The claim was also repeated in court documents.

By the end of 2018, G.G. approached Vickie and said the Unlimited brand couldn’t use the name Fletcher anymore. That was unless Vickie brought the company under the Fletcher’s umbrella that G.G. controlled, Vickie said. For years, this was never a problem. Things changed after Skip died, Vickie points out.

“That’s not money like the State Fair, but it’s money,” Vickie said. “And they were shut out of that and shut out of the glory of it all. I always had to hide it.”

G.G. and Vickie agreed to close the Unlimited business. Vickie left G.G. in charge of filling out the required paperwork, Vickie said. But G.G. never closed the business. It’s still operational, albeit on paper. Now, Fletcher’s is trying to go after those events that Vickie locked up under the Unlimited brand.

“So if you’re wondering how CornDog With No Name got into all these amazing events,” Amber said, “all of those events think they have Fletcher’s from the State Fair of Texas.”

Said Ross: “It almost goes beyond trademark infringement to corporate identity theft.”

Good, old-fashion competition

Vickie and Jace both said that haven’t “stolen” any corporate secrets. They don’t have to. It’s reasonable to assume they know Fletcher’s dry-mix batter and meat recipes by heart. It should be noted they aren’t being sued for stealing anything.

Jace believes she can make a better tasting corn dog. How? Start with the baking powder.

Go get the can of Clabber Girl out of your pantry. One of the key ingredients is sodium aluminum sulfate. Researchers believe high levels of phosphate can lead to accelerated aging and vascular disease. CornDog With No Name uses a baking power with no aluminum, a specific choice Jace made.

The subtle change in baking powder makes corn dogs float differently in the fryer, but ultimately, it’s healthier, Jace said. She created her own batter recipe for the restaurant using a black KitchenAid mixer and a household size FryDaddy — two items anyone can get off Amazon.

Jace also unveiled a $24 corn dog dipped in 24-karat edible gold. The material is popular in the baking industry, just new in the corn dog niche.

G.G. is afraid of competition, Jace and Vickie believe, even though Fletcher’s has complimented the scrappy upstart in interviews and press releases about the case. “She doesn’t want us to be able to operate at all, using the name Fletcher’s or otherwise. She does not want us to succeed,” Vickie said.

Vickie, do you really believe that?

“For sure I believe it,” she said. “This is just how it is. She controls the State Fair and they make $4 million to $5 million for three weeks. She’s never worked. Her kids have never worked. They don’t even know how to make batter. For real, I’m not just being tacky.”

Vickie was instrumental at the State Fair for numerous years, too, although G.G. scoffs at the idea that Vickie was a key figure. Vickie said G.G. didn’t know how to deal with vendors, the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission or even “how to buy the sticks.”

“That is not true. According to them, they did everything,” G.G. said. “Why on Earth does (Vickie) think she can say she ran the fair when everybody knows that’s not true.”

Jace never worked the Fletcher’s stands at the State Fair, according to G.G. Jace never wanted anything to do with corndogs until her grandfather died. That’s when Jace had her epiphany, the Fletcher’s side believes. Jace, an international economics and psychology graduate from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, used to be in finance. She worked for boutique investment firms in New York and Miami since June 2009, according to Jace’s LinkedIn profile. She came to back to Dallas in 2016 and started CornDog With No Name in January 2019.

At the funeral, Jace stepped forward and wanted to give a eulogy, G.G. said, and used information from a manuscript. Jace said she feels compelled to “finish my grandfather’s book,” which technically belongs to his widow, G.G.

“This is one thing that just sets me on fire. She stole it!,” G.G. said. Before G.G. could really get going, Ross stepped in and said, “This is obviously a hot-button emotional issue” and that’s why Jace told a reporter. Amber claims Jace even began shopping it around to prospective publishers.

“I did talk to editors, illustrators, publishers about it,” Jace acknowledged.

This family war will only continue. CornDog With No Name has landed a permit for two concession stands inside the Cotton Bowl stadium. How that happened is a whole other story. Fletcher’s Original will still make a killing at Fair Park, but during events like the Texas-OU game, Jace and Vickie will reap the rewards inside the venue.

“Other people are allowed to sell corn dogs,” Renken said. “The one thing that Vickie and Jace did wrong, if you can call it that, was they started with the name Fletch.”

G.G. and Amber both said they aren’t afraid of competition. But given the family dynamics, it’s easy to see how this has gotten under their skin. Several Dallas-area media outlets have written articles about Jace’s new venture, which prompt calls to Fletcher’s office to get the company’s opinion. “Regardless of what we said, it’s been kind of a battle,” G.G. said.

“The Fletcher’s family pursued Vickie and Jace as this mustache-twirling couple,” Renken said. “The biggest problem is that Vickie and Jace are really good at this.”

And that’s why it’s a battle Jace and Vickie Fletcher refuse to give up.

“This whole thing is so deeply rooted and so complex and emotionally driven than just a trademark lawsuit,” Jace said. “It’s so much more than that.”

A sign blocking out the name "Fletch" hangs at Corndog With No Name restaurant. Fletcher's family members are locked in a legal battle over control of the beloved corn dog franchise.