Blade Battle

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Cuisinart vs. Robot-Coupe

"Tell her she's the best by giving her the best food processor you can buy." That was the Mother's Day message to devoted husbands in an ad campaign that climaxed last week for the Cuisinart, the mechanical marvel that slices, dices, grinds and grates to produce treats ranging from paté to peanut butter. Cuisinarts, Inc. of Greenwich, Conn., which sells processors of various sizes, priced from $100 to $260, had good reason to launch the commercial blitz. Its status as the Cadillac of kitchen cutters is being seriously challenged by Robot-Coupe, the French firm whose founder, Pierre Verdun, invented the machines in 1963.

Food processors became a favorite tool of American gourmets after Carl Sontheimer, 67, a portly retired electron ics engineer from Connecticut, saw them at a French housewares show in 1971. Sontheimer soon signed an agreement with the manufacturer, Robot-Coupe, to market the processors in the U.S. under the trade name Cuisinart. Food mavens like Julia Child and Craig Claiborne immediately pronounced the machine magnifique, and sales took off.

But in 1977, according to Sontheimer, trouble began. He claims that he was forced to reject more than 15% of 12,000 machines shipped from France because they were defective. Recalls Sontheimer: "It was a major disaster, and by then I'd really had it. Robot-Coupe was not innovative, and their quality control was low." He struck a deal with a Japanese manufacturer to produce new mod els of the Cuisinart to augment his line, and before long he was selling more Japanese than French processors. Out raged executives at Robot-Coupe charged that Sontheimer was no longer promoting their models, and last year they severed his French connection.

Robot-Coupe recruited Alvin Finesman, 51 , who until 1979 had been the Cuisinart marketing director in the U.S., to lead its American offensive. Finesman, a wiry backslapper and pure salesman who at 13 peddled cigars in bars and brothels in Ohio, took up his campaign with gusto. Some early magazine ads for the French imports bore the slogan, "Robot-Coupe. It's pronounced Robo-Coop. (It used to be pronounced Cuisinart.)"

Sontheimer sued Robot-Coupe, charging that the firm was trying to fool the public into thinking that Cuisinart had changed its name. A court enjoined Robot-Coupe from continuing that particular ad, so Finesman's campaign now reads: "There are many food processors made in Japan. The original is still made in France." Retailers report that the Robot-Coupe is selling well but is still far behind the the Cuisinart.

Which of the food processors is better? The Cuisinart has a larger opening for feeding food into the machine, but Robot-Coupe offers models with slightly more powerful motors. Culinary experts are divided in their loyalties, and many agree with Russell Reitz, manager of Cook's Mart in Chicago, which offers its customers both: "There is virtually no difference in performance or price be tween the two processors." With the gour met grinders, as in so many aspects of cooking, it is chacun à son goût: each to his own taste.