Grove Square Coffee pods misled consumers and retailers

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If you’ve ever bought or sold the K-cup knockoffs known as Grove
Square Coffee pods, you might have grounds for a class-action standing —
at least if you live in Illinois’ Seventh District.

Courthouse News Service reported that
“misled coffee lovers get break on common claim.” Yet the first
paragraph of the court’s 27-page ruling almost sounds like it was
written by someone in Keurig’s marketing department:

This
case is about coffee. Not just any coffee – it is about the individual
coffee pods that are used in the popular Keurig coffeemakers. The Keurig
system solved a problem with which coffee drinkers had struggled for
years: how to make individual portions of fresh-brewed coffee in a tidy,
flavorful, easy, and relatively inexpensive way.

The
patent on individual K-cups expired in 2012, which is why there have
been so many other options on the market since then (and also why
Keurig’s next-generation coffee makers are supposed to come with RFID-chip pods, to ensure that only officially branded K-cup pods can be used in future Keurig coffee machines).

Not instant

Patented
K-cups and their post-2012 non-branded knockoffs all share something in
common with standard home coffee makers: a filter, which is necessary
to ensure you get a cup of coffee without any coffee grounds in it.

So
a K-cup or knockoff is basically a pre-packaged, disposable coffee
filter, pre-filled with enough ground coffee to brew one cup. K-cup
coffee is not the same thing as “instant” coffee – those
water-soluble crystals that dissolve when you mix them in hot water. In
other words: making instant coffee does not require a filter, but
brewing coffee does.

Anyway: until the K-cup patent expired in
2012, the only legal way for a company to sell filtered single-serving
brewed-coffee pods was through a licensing agreement with Keurig.

However,
Sturm Foods (parent company of Grove Square Coffee) got around the
pre-2012 patent requirements by introducing a slightly different product
in 2010: pods which look like K-cups from the outside, but have no
filters inside. Since the GSC pods were filterless, they did not contain
true ground coffee, only dissolvable instant coffee. (And anyone who’s
tried instant coffee knows: it simply does not taste as good as brewed
coffee.)

As Courthouse News said:

Sturm’s
consultants allegedly advised that “use of the word ‘instant’ is a real
no-no,” so Sturm’s packaging for its pods describe the product as
“naturally roasted soluble and microground Arabica coffee.”

The
package showed fresh beans on the front, and set forth a “Coffee Lover’s
Bill of Rights,” including the right to a “fresh cup,” but did not
mention that the pod contained only a dusting of fresh coffee on top of
instant chunks.

In addition, the package warns users not to remove
the foil seal on top of the pod, stating that the cup will not work in
the coffee maker without it – a false claim, possibly intended to ensure
the buyer did not view the contents of the pod.

Premium prices

Sturn
also charged premium prices for its instant coffee. But high prices and
fancy packaging couldn’t hide the fact that instant coffee simply does
not taste as good as brewed, which is why, according to the court
decision, “The public response after the release of GSC was awful. The
day after the product started selling in Wal-Mart stores, Sturm emailed
its employees to request that the legal department, not the quality
control or sales department, be immediately informed about any
complaints regarding GSC.”

One retailer allegedly told Sturm that
GSC “has been the poorest performing introductory product that we have
had in our 12 year history.” Sturm allegedly responded in part by having
its own employees open online sockpuppet accounts to post fake, glowing
reviews about GSC products.

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