June 14, 2010 -- An English muffin may be mostly flour, yeast and milk baked on a hot griddle, but the owners of Thomas' English Muffin bakery are afraid of getting burned by an ex-employee who could leak their recipe to an arch rival.
Chris Botticella, a longtime executive at the famous English muffin company, recently took a job at competitor Hostess, the creator of Twinkies, Hohos and Ding Dongs. Boticella's former bosses want to scorch the move, fearing that he's taking their recipe and other trade secrets with him. They've filed suit to try and prevent him from accepting the job.
"Botticella could produce an English muffin that might look a bit different, but that would nevertheless possess the distinctive taste, texture and flavor character that distinguish the Thomas' English Muffin and that have been the foundation of the product's success," argued lawyers for the bakery owners, Mexican food giant Bimbo, in a brief filed with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Thomas' lawyers claim that Botticella not only knew the recipe, he copied work-related files in his final days on the job, charges he denies.
'Nooks and Crannies' a Trade Secret?
The muffins at stake are big business, accounting for some $500 million in annual sales, the company says. They were first created by Englishman Samuel Bath Thomas, who immigrated to New York in the late 19th century and opened a bakery. Thomas' recipe bakes in "nooks and crannies" that makes their muffin different from other breakfast breads, the company boasts.
Only 7 executives, including Botticello, were entrusted with the complete recipe, including details on the quantity of dough, baking methods, and even the right balance of moisture to crunch. All were compelled to protect it by a confidentiality agreement.
At question is whether that agreement bars Botticello from working for another baker.
"It's a horrible situation he finds himself in," one of his attorneys, Elizabeth K. Ainslie, told the Associated Press. "If the assistant coach of the Philadelphia Eagles moves to the Dallas Cowboys, is he supposed to forget all of the plays that he learned while at the Eagles?"
Secret Recipes Drive Big Business
Thomas' is hardly the first company to turn to authorities to protect a secret recipe.
At Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Harland Sanders' famous handwritten recipe with 11 herbs and spices is reportedly kept in a vault at company headquarters. KFC once sued a couple who thought they had discovered a copy of the recipe in a journal in Sanders' former home, though the company dropped the suit after examining the document and declaring it false.
And, of course, there are plenty of companies that use secrecy as a marketing ploy. Coca-Cola, of course, has long stoked the mystery surrounding the secret forumla for its classic soft drink, developed by Dr. John Pemberton in an Atlanta pharmacy in 1886.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.