Starbucks' crumbs are becoming a social-media feast.
A new Starbucks pastry that's a cross between a muffin and a doughnut has evolved into a David vs. Goliath public relations predicament for the coffee giant in the United Kingdom.
At issue: Did Starbucks borrow the concept - dubbed the "Duffin" - from a tiny pastry store owner in London? The bakery's owner insists it did. But Starbucks says it didn't.
In either case, Starbucks appears to have gotten caught with its hand in the proverbial cookie jar, and it's evolving into a social-media consumer melee on Twitter and Facebook - something no major brand wants.
"It's always a PR problem if it's a large company against a little guy," says Al Golin, chairman of Golin Harris, one of the world's 10 largest PR firms.
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The back story: Last week, Starbucks rolled-out the Duffin - which looks like a muffin, but tastes like a doughnut with raspberry filling - at 730 of its stores in the United Kingdom. The Starbucks pastry partner in the U.K., Rich Products, also trademarked the name Duffin in the U.K.
But the Duffin has, apparently, been around for years. Bea's of Bloomsbury, a small London baker, has been selling them since April 2011.
"I find the similarities between our two duffins to be too much of a coincidence to ignore," says Bea Vo, owner of the local bakery, in an e-mail to USA TODAY. "I'm just more worried that by trademarking a name for something we have been selling for years, they have the legal right to prevent us from doing so, and that's really scary for a small business - to take on a legal fight that we really can't afford."
But Starbucks insists it didn't rip-off her recipe - and that it has no plans to stop Bea's of Bloomsbury from selling them.
"Since launching the Starbucks Duffin, we have discovered there are other Duffins being created and enjoyed in the U.K.," says Ian Cranna, vice president of marketing & category for Starbucks U.K., in a statement. "Neither Starbucks nor Rich Products has at any time suggested that we will attempt to stop Bea's of Bloomsbury selling their own Duffins."
But Bea's of Bloomsbury takes little comfort in that. "We are reviewing all options," says Vo, the owner. "Which include the option to invalidate the trademark."
"I can't say what we'll do next," says Starbucks spokeswoman Linda Mills.
But Golin, the PR guru, has an idea.
Starbucks needs to find a way to somehow credit - or compensate - Bea's of Bloomsbury, suggests Golin. "I don't think (Starbucks CEO) Howard Schultz would willingly steal an idea from a little guy," says Golin. "He's way too PR-savvy and too smart for that."
But Schultz should find a way "to do something for this little bakery," says Golin. "It would be a nice gesture."
Meanwhile, the Duffin is "selling well," in the U.K., says Starbucks' Mills.
Any plans to bring it to the U.S.? Says Mills: "We haven't explored that yet."
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)