I have no idea if the waffles I’m eating are stolen. Now that’s something I’ve never said over breakfast before.
But wait. Let’s back up a bit.
In case you missed it, today we are chewing over a modern-day David and Goliath story: Of an Attleboro restaurant, Burgundian, started by an Army veteran named Shane Matlock who fell in love with Liège waffles while stationed on the border of Belgium and France. First came farmers’ markets and pop-ups in 2017, then a food truck, then a brick-and-mortar.
And of a snack business, Eastern Standard Provisions Co., launched in early 2019 by successful Boston-area restaurateur Garrett Harker and baker Lauren Moran with the goal of making the “best soft pretzels on the planet.” It seems they might have succeeded. In 2019, Oprah Winfrey gave Eastern Standard Provisions a boost by putting a gift box of its pretzels with flavored salts on her annual “Favorite Things” list. An endorsement from Winfrey, the ultimate influencer, translates directly to sales — the “Oprah Effect,” as it’s called. (Side note: Winfrey’s first name was originally Orpah, Goliath’s mother in the Book of Ruth. Whoa!)
Then Eastern Standard Provisions added a new product: Liège waffles, which are named for the Belgian city and made with a yeasted brioche dough and coarse pearl sugar. Winfrey loved those, too. A gift box of the waffles with toppings went straight onto her 2021 list.
Here’s where Burgundian comes in. A lawsuit filed by the company earlier this month alleges, among other things, that Eastern Standard Provisions approached Matlock about the possibility of a co-branded waffle venture, learned Burgundian’s waffle recipe after signing an NDA, submitted waffles made by Matlock to Winfrey without credit, profited from his recipe, and severed the relationship, in the process violating the Massachusetts Trade Secrets Act as well as engaging in “a ‘bait and switch’ by selling Liège waffles from a different company than Burgundian that Ms. Winfrey has not tasted or tried.”
According to Eastern Standard Provisions, it was exploring relationships with multiple providers. The deal between these two businesses fell through, and it ultimately went with a different waffle maker. “I can just say unequivocally that [Burgundian’s] recipe is not the recipe that has been promoted on Oprah’s Favorite Things,” Harker told the Globe last week. “These claims are unfounded, inaccurate, and untrue.”
Would that we had Winfrey in house to do a taste test and tell us which waffle wins her heart. (In my dreams, this is the scene the court case hinges on, as Oprah takes the stand in a beautiful suit and pearls, a fork in each hand.) Instead, you’ll have to make do with me, for I have sampled the Burgundian and Eastern Standard Provisions waffles side by side, and here is what I can tell you:
I have no idea if the waffles I ate were stolen.
But I do know that both versions are really good. Have you ever tasted a Liège waffle? These things are ridiculous. The crystals of sugar crunch between your teeth; where they’ve touched the hot waffle iron, they caramelize into a gorgeously sticky goo. They do not need syrup, or any topping, really. (You can also sample them locally at places like Curio Coffee & Wine, Sweet Waffles + Boba, and Zinneken’s.)
I also know that the versions are different. Taste them together and you wouldn’t think they were made with the same recipe. (I will testify to this so long as I am not required by the court to consume further waffles, which would put me in jeopardy of life and limb; those things expand in the stomach.)
The Burgundian waffles are more half-moon shaped, with a straight edge from the iron. They are moister, breadier, and denser than the Eastern Standard Provisions version. Their flavor is more complex, as if the dough had a longer rise; there’s a yeastier taste to the waffle. Because the exterior is fresh off the hot griddle, the pearl sugar is visibly candied in places, my favorite thing about these waffles.
Eastern Standard Provisions’ mail order waffles are rounder, lighter, and fluffier than Burgundian’s version. Their flavor is simpler, more buttery, sunnier somehow. They arrive in a box with instructions to eat or freeze the waffles, which are to be heated for 3-4 minutes at 425 degrees or 4-6 minutes at 400 degrees. Without griddle contact, the pearl sugar offers plenty of crunch but not much in the way of caramelization.
If I had to vote, I’d call it a tie. I prefer the flavor of the Burgundian waffles, along with their pearl sugar caramelization, but I’m won over by the fluffier texture of the Eastern Standard Provisions version. At brunch, I’d kiss the cook who served me either.
I look forward to hearing the other side of the story. Until then, here’s my takeaway from the lawsuit: Far beyond this case, it is worth thinking about the ways intellectual property law does and doesn’t protect recipes, and whether that currently feels sufficient. Considered “a mere listing of ingredients or contents, or a simple set of directions,” a recipe can’t be copyrighted (although its creative turns of phrase, photos, and illustrations can). On the one hand, from cookbooks to kitchens, this is historically how cuisine has evolved, how culinary inspiration has spread — freely. (It’s how Matlock himself arrived at Burgundian’s recipe, after training with a master Liège waffle maker in Belgium.) On the other, there’s now this thing called the Internet widening the scope, and recipes are lifted without attribution all the time. It takes work, money, time, and thought to create a good one. Should creators have more recourse if someone else profits?
And also until then, here’s my takeaway from the taste test: When I want to send someone a gift or stock my freezer with waffles, I’ll order from Eastern Standard Provisions Co. And when I want to visit a fun restaurant to eat waffles, I’ll hit up Burgundian — which is the kind of place everyone dreams of having in their own neighborhood.
On the Sunday morning I stop by, it’s packed with people of all ages, a long line snaking through the room. The waffles are served plain, but also with fried chicken; bacon, ricotta, fig spread, and basil; Nutella, cookie butter, fruit, and whipped cream; and more. There are coffee drinks, pastries, breakfast sandwiches, Venezuelan corn cakes, and a roster of brunch specials, from breakfast tacos to poutine. Lunch includes Peruvian pork belly bowls, Korean jackfruit sandwiches, burgers. There’s a great beer program. The work of a featured artist hangs on the walls. As the writing on the window promises, there’s “culture & community.”
You can’t order that delivered in a box, not for any amount of dough.