So, I know that questions regarding the usage of real-life company names has been brought up before, but this is a really weird example that I've run into that doesn't seem covered by the previous examples.
I don't know if this is the case for other countries, but in North America in addition to the major chains that everyone thinks of when fast food is brought up (e.g., McDonalds, Domino's, KFC, Subway) there are a number of smaller regional chains that are unique to certain areas. For example:
- Tim Horton's is located predominantly in Canada and the states bordering Canada across the Great Lakes, to the point that Canadians eating at Tim Horton's is practically a Canadian stereotype.
- Sonic is a drive-in burger chain based out of Oklahoma and is primarily found in the American Deep South where the weather is warm enough for their business model to work. Whataburger is a similar chain located primarily in Texas and Oklahoma. Locals in Oklahoma and Texas love eating at Sonic and Whataburger, to the point that when I've visited the state the local McDonalds tended to be rather empty.
- In-N-Out is a similar drive-in burger chain that is primarily located in California and is really popular among Californians. There are a couple of other chains which are common along the Pacific Coast.
- Taco John's and Arctic Circle are two really weird examples that are virtually unique to the Rocky Mountain states like Utah, Wyoming, and the surrounding regions.
These fast food chains are often notable parts of the local culture of an area and can do a pretty good job of setting the different regions of North America apart. I.e., if you wandered out of the woods after being lost and saw a Tim Horton's, you're probably in Canada. I have a case where I have a story set in a particular region of the United States, and there was a minor comedic subplot that included one of these regional franchises. I wanted to include a reference to this fast food franchise to make the setting seem more authentic: i.e., readers that had been to the region would go "oh, the author does know what life is like in that state" rather than just depicting the region as a genetic flyover state with the numbers filed off.
The issue is I'm worried about the legality of the whole thing. The idea was that a teenage character gets a part-time job working at this fast food restaurant, and its your typical soul-crushing burger-flipping job that many young people go through in the Western world, played for fish-out-of-water comedy because the character is a nonhuman being with no social skills. The character ends up getting fired, but they're fired because of their own flaws. What I'm worried is that this will get me in legal trouble because it will be seen as disparaging to the chain. The chain has hundreds of locations, so it's not like I'm making fun of a very small chain. And the comedy is just generic "teenager hates being forced to work a fast food job" than anything specifically aimed at the franchise. I liked the fact that I was able to include the reference as there aren't a ton of thing in that part of the U.S. that scream "this is set in this state", but at the same time I don't want to get sued for defamation.