Recipes are rarely copyrightable as lists of ingredients. That's why there are so many available on the internet, unprotected and unprotectible. If they're written in haiku, or accompanied by art, then they might be copyrightable as expressive creative works. But not otherwise.
Sometimes formulas, like for example, Coke's famously "secret" recipe for its soda drink, can be protected as trade secrets. For something to be a trade secret, a company has to show that they took steps to keep the secrets secret. That means written employment agreements, locking information up with passwords of they're computerized or by lock and key if they're on paper, etc. etc. If your restaurant didn't take thoe kinds of steps to identify and restrict the flow of the information you want to protect, you'd very likely lose any court proceeding.
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As usual, Ms. Koslyn's answer is directly on point so the best thing you can do is create an employee manual that delineates your signature dishes' recipes as trade secrets, (in all lanaguages that your employees consider their primary language) and have the employees sign and acknowledge that. That may go a long way to protecting you from an employee who leaves now though it will not help against those who have already left. As the head of my firm's Restaurant Trade Group, I and my firm have helped many restaurants develop a manual that fits them and which protects them from all sorts of other issues. Please feel free to email me at email@example.com if you are interested.
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Yes you may protect the recipes through trade secret law. The trick here is that most likely the infringer, like a cook that knows the recipe, will not be able to indemnify you but the restaurant/employer may.
Implementing a trade secret is not a one time deal, it requires many steps, such as having the employee sign an agreement, before work commences and before it comes in contact with the recipe, and also keeping separate the processes of making the recipe from the ingredients. Also the access to the kitchen where the recipe is prepared must be controlled access to those with a need to know. If it is open door, then there is no secret, as you cannot pretend for other to guard a secret more than you. The are other restrictions which must be continuously implemented to prevent the secret from going public.
For all the above reasons, recipes enjoy very little or no protection, but if you are determined to keep it secret, then this is the way to go.
An additional protection, is trademarks. It does not protect the recipe, but it provides a commercial identity and an added value.
USPTO Registered Patent Attorney, Master of Intellectual Property law, MBA
I am neither your attorney, nor my answers or comments in AVVO.com create an attorney-client relationship with you. You may accept or disregard my free advice in AVVO.com at your own risk. I am a Patent Attorney, admitted to the USPTO and to the Florida Bar.
Yes, there are ways. More than my colleagues have revealed.
1. Employment agreements with strong secrecy obligations
2. Strong steps to maintain the recipes confidential and not publicly disclosing them
3. Promptly confronting any employees who jump ship to a competitor and suing them for misappropriation of trade secrets should they steal your recipes,
4. Branding the resulting dishes with special trademarks,
5. Patent the recipe, if it is really unique and not obvious
While not a complete list, the following is intended to demonstrate the wide range of types of recipes that have earned U.S. patent protection:
Reduced calorie: A surge of these appeared in the 1980s and continue with many hundreds of recipes for things like fat replacements (5,466,479) and sugarless bakery goods (5,804,242)
Microwavable: Sponge cake that can rise when microwaved (6,410,074)
Texture: Ingredient replacing egg whites to reduce toughness of batter coatings (6,288,179)
Moisture protection: Preventing a cream filling from making its outer bread layer soggy (5,145,699);
Shelf life: Single-dough cookies that store well (4,344,969)
Smoothness: Cooking process that improves mayonnaise (6,579,558)
Flavoring: Additive that improves chocolate flavor in baked goods (3,733,209)
Shaping: Controlling cookie geometry (5,374,440)
Convenience: Toaster cookies (6,093,437); ready-to-bake dough (5,560,946)
Appearance: Confections that swim in a carbonated beverage (6,319,535)
Special diets: Diabetic nutritionals (6,248,375)
Combinations: Storing peanut butter and jelly in the same container (3,117,871)http://www.ipwatchdog.com/2012/02/10/the-law-of-recipes-are-recipes-patentable/id=22223/ or http://store.inventorprise.com/content_articles.php?id=1049
but recognize that is expensive - figure about $10,000 - so that better be one hell of recipe to do that. See patent class 426 for more.
As to how trademark and patent for recipes differ, see http://smallbusiness.chron.com/recipe-patent-vs-trademark-20893.html
Most importantly, see an Intellectual Property Lawyer - specifically, one who deals in patents as well as copyrights and trademarks so you get a full range of options.
So far, this is free to you. Until you pay a fee, I am not your lawyer and you are not my client, so you take any free advice at your sole risk. I am licensed in IL, MO, TX and am a Reg. Pat. Atty. so advice in any other jurisdiction is general advice and should be confirmed with an attorney licensed in that jurisdiction.