Editor’s Note: Baltimore Post-Examiner is proud to republish with permission an article that appeared on the website Welcome to Baltimore, Hon! Here’s the Café Hon back story behind Baltimore’s fight to liberate the word “Hon.” Since this story was first published, chef Gordon Ramsay of Kitchen Nightmares returned to Café Hon. During his first visit he helped persuade Denise Whiting along with a sea of protesters to drop the Café Hon trademark attempt. He also revamped Café Hon with a new menu.
The Year of Living Hon-gerously
For most of 2011, Baltimore was embroiled in a very unusual controversy.
A whole community, it seemed, turned against one person. There were protests and boycotts, confrontations, acts of vandalism, venomous flame wars waged in online forums, and at least one restraining order.
Baltimoreans are notoriously easy to provoke into mob violence. According to accounts, in 1772 a seafaring visitor from India stepped off the dock in Baltimore with an umbrella — a contraption never before seen in the New World. He was accosted by an unruly gang that pelted him with rocks. Dr. John Davidge and his colleagues received similar treatment when they began teaching anatomy with human cadavers in 1807; a mob broke through the door of their lecture hall on Liberty Street, stole the cadaver and dragged it down the road. The first blood spilled in the Civil War was during the Pratt Street Riot of 1861, and more than 100 people were killed during the B&O railroad strike and riot in 1877, which grew into America’s first national labor strike.
No wonder it’s called Mobtown.
This time, the provocation was a word: Hon. More precisely, the dispute was about one person’s claim of ownership of the word.
Usually, intellectual property law isn’t the sort of thing that gets a mob riled up. But that’s what happened.
And the conflict resolved with an unlikely make-a-wish ending that is only possible on contrived TV reality shows.
Because that’s what happened.
It’s a strange chapter not just in the history of Baltimore, but apparently entirely without precedent. The episode was followed closely by lawyers and linguists, made news around the world, and is discussed in business schools as a case study in how one unassuming word can drive a thriving enterprise to the brink of ruin.
And I had a front-row seat through the whole thing. This is how I risked my job, my marriage, and a potentially catastrophic lawsuit to play a small but pivotal role to help Baltimoreans liberate a word.
A Honderful Life
Café Hon is a restaurant located in Hampden, a working class mid-town neighborhood centered around 36th Street, known as The Avenue. Former caterer and business school graduate Denise Whiting opened Café Hon in 1992, and since then has substantially grown her business and presence in Baltimore.
Café Hon is inspired by the kitcshy sensibilities of John Waters’ films, particularly the garish big-haired Hon caricature exemplified by Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. The 30-foot pink flamingo in front of Café Hon is another nod to Waters, whose films include Pink Flamingos.
Whiting also operates the Hon Bar next door to Café Hon, and in 2010 opened the HONTown retail gift shop across the street on the corner of 36th and Roland Avenue.
She is perhaps best known as the founder and host of Honfest, which began modestly in 1994 and has grown into a three-day event that attracts tens of thousands of people to The Avenue every year. A high point of Honfest is the Baltimore’s Best Hon contest, in which costumed women Hon it up to extremes — leopard prints, feather boas, cats-eye glasses and very big hair.
Whiting’s popularity and public support probably peaked in the fall of 2009, when large numbers of residents rallied to her side in a dispute with the City of Baltimore over the giant flamingo in front of Café Hon. In one of her last public appearances before resigning in disgrace after a conviction on corruption charges, then-Mayor Shelia Dixon was present for the unveiling of a new flamingo on Nov. 18 of that year.
The first inkling of trouble was a Dec. 8, 2010, story by Larry Perl in Baltimore Messenger mentioning that Whiting owned trademarks for the word “Hon.” The story gained traction when reported in more depth the following day by Jill Rosen in the Baltimore Sun.
According to Rosen, the Maryland Transit Administration was launching an advertising campaign for its Charm Card rider pass that featured the image of Charlene Osborne, a former Baltimore’s Best Hon winner. The ad also included the phrase “Get yours, Hon.”
According to the Sun article, MTA’s advertising agency obtained clearance from Whiting in order to use the word. “She didn’t charge them money, but she did insist on approving each individual ad, poster and television commercial,” Rosen reported.
“I Took Ownership of the Word”
Baltimore was abuzz with this rather curious information. Twitter feeds cropped up with handles like TakeBackHon, NotCafeHon and Honicide. Somebody commandeered Café Hon’s Twitter account and renamed it CafakeHon. Facebook was quickly populated with groups and pages, including private, unlisted by-invitation protest groups. One group, “No one owns HON, Hon” rapidly gained more than 3,100 “likes.” Café Hon’s Facebook page, by comparison, had 1,957 “likes” at the end of 2010.
Outrage poured out in dozens of comments to a brief Dec. 9 item in City Paper:
“Worst person in the world. I hope John Waters flings his poop at her.” [Ed21201]
“This exploitive hussy needs to stop making fun of people’s grandmothers and crawl back into whatever hole she squelched out of.” [Madophelia]
“Pretty sure the actual women she’s mocking and/or paying homage to would kick her ass if they had a chance.” [seriously]
“Now a lot of us feel like idiots for supporting her and that damn flamingo.” [Sam]
On Dec. 10, venerated copy editor John McIntyre, The Baltimore Sun night production manager and self-described “veteran drudge” who blogs about “language, usage, journalism and arbitrarily chosen subjects,” weighed in the emerging “‘hon’ kerfuffle.”
“The question, really, is how far one can go to trademark a word in the vernacular,” McIntyre wrote. “But that question is a legal one, and no one apart from lawyers and linguists is apt to find it to be stimulating.”
On Dec. 11, Sun columnist and radio show host Dan Rodricks offered his view of what was being called the “hontroversy.”
“The response to Whiting’s move has been so strong and negative — so much so that you wonder if Café Hon’s owner has squandered the good will she’d established with her customers,” Rodricks wrote. “Here’s why: You can’t own something that doesn’t belong to you.”
In counterpoint, language maven McIntyre crafted a “modest defense of Denise Whiting” that accused the restaurateur’s detractors of just being envious. “I do think that I can detect something simmering beneath the unfavorable comments: envy,” he wrote.
“Denise Whiting has determinedly and efficiently exploited a set of Baltimore stereotypes to make a buck, and she has been good at it,” said the Kentucky-born McIntyre. “The American capitalist free enterprise system we all endorse, right?”
Knock-offs and Poachers
It turned out that Whiting had registered several hon-related trademarks. In 1992, the year the restaurant opened, Whiting’s attorney, Kathryn Miller Goldman, filed for a trademark on a graphical logo with the words “Café Hon.”
In 2000, Whiting began selling an oval HON sticker, a ripoff of the OBX sticker created in 1994 by Kill Devil Hills, N.C., restaurateur James Douglas. Produced to promote the Outer Banks as a tourism destination, OBX stickers became ubiquitous on SUV rear windows during the late 1990s.
As Douglas discovered, Whiting was unable to trademark the design of the HON sticker because the design of capital letters in a black oval is an international symbol. (You can’t trademark a stop sign either.)
Instead, Whiting sought trademarks for the word itself. Subsequently, she also began formulating ideas to somehow develop HON as a brand.
Whiting filed for a trademark on the word hon in the context of restaurant services in 2004 — a sensible way to prevent a similarly named restaurant from opening up and glomming off the business she created.
In 2006, Whiting filed for a trademark on Honfest, and also filed a registration for the use of HON by retail gift shops — even though she didn’t own a retail gift shop at the time. HONTown wouldn’t open for another four years.
Most worrisome was a trademark covering two broad categories of products. One group included paper goods such as bumper stickers, napkins, note or gift cards, greeting cards, wrapping paper, gift bags, note pads, calendars and pens. The other category covered clothing such as t-shirts, sweatshirts, tank tops, hats and caps, boas, short-sleeved shirts, shorts, capri pants, underwear, ties and halter tops.
In a Dec. 16 letter to The Baltimore Sun, Whiting contended that her actions were misunderstood by the public. “All my company was trying to do by trademarking the commercial use of ‘Hon’ was to protect it from merchandise knock-offs and poachers who wanted to capitalize on the commercial side of the concept enhancement work we had done,” she said.
“Some People Are Going to be Mad”
“Hon” is not indigenous to Baltimore. The term of endearment can be heard from coast to coast. But Baltimore does have a unique and overtly self-conscious relationship with the word and what some call Hon culture — informed largely by John Waters films, which in turn paid homage to actual Baltimore hons.
All sorts of people use “hon” in all sorts of ways. There is a soccer team called The Hons, and a group of Lindy dancers who throw an annual event called the Hi-De-Hon. Food blogger Wendi Mosteiko has done Bon Appetit Hon since 2007. The word is often used in advertising, on t-shirts and posters, in Twitter names and countless blogs and websites.
I’ve owned the welcometobaltimorehon.com domain since the late 1990s, and began producing content on an active site a few years later. The name — which is not trademarked — was inspired by Hon Man‘s alteration to the wooden “Welcome to Baltimore” sign near the airport on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, a practice that began in the early 1990s.
During the week after the news broke, I discussed the possible implications of Whiting’s trademark with some Hon-involved friends, particularly William Patrick Tandy, publisher of the well-regarded literary magazine Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore!
Tandy felt that the MTA advertising set a dangerous precedent. As a state agency, the MTA gave Whiting’s claims the imprimatur of legitimacy. “It’s like Miracle on 34th Street, when the post office delivers sacks of mail to Kris Kringle in the courtroom,” he said.
What could this mean for others who use the word on a t-shirt or bumper sticker, on a web site or for any sort of product or service? The answer wasn’t reassuring.
In 2004, Whiting found that a manufacturer and distributor of souvenirs was selling merchandise to a vendor at BWI-Marshall Airport and several other local stores that was almost identical to her HON sticker — “mugs, shot glasses, pins, shirts, magnets and that sort of thing,” the Sun’s Rosen wrote.
Whiting’s trademark for the HON sticker wasn’t filed until June 1, 2005, and her registration doesn’t include shot glasses, mugs or pins. Nonetheless, Whiting confronted the souvenir maker. “I had a meeting with him and said you have to give me all the merchandise, basically,” she told Rosen.
The issue wasn’t that consumers might be confused about what HON represents, or were being duped into buying a sticker of inferior quality. In fact, Whiting continued doing business with the offending souvenir company. It just wasn’t her sticker.
In 2005, Whiting had a cease-and-desist letter sent to the owners of a retail gift shop in Towson called Thanks, Hon! — even though she didn’t own a retail store at the time and didn’t file for a HON trademark for retail shops until the following year.
The SEARCH Foundation, a charity that supports event professionals during times of crisis, threw a Hon-themed benefit in 2010. Whiting donated HON merchandise and props for the event — and had the catering service for the benefit pay a $25 licensing fee, “[f]or the sake of preserving the integrity of Café Hon’s trademark in the context of restaurant and catering services,” according to a statement posted to her Facebook profile.
Whiting’s trademark registration was limited to restaurants and said nothing about catering services or special events.
Whiting’s proprietary claims to HON extended way beyond a neighborhood restaurant and a sticker. Her plans to develop and commercialize HON were even more grand. “Whiting thinks when the time is right, there could be opportunity to use the HON brand to make real money,” Rosen reported.
For instance, if Baltimore’s tourism bureau wanted to adapt its slogan from “Get in on it” to “Get in on it, Hon,” or something like that, it would have to negotiate with Whiting, according to her lawyer. “We’d have to see about that,” she says.
If the city did one day come to her, wanting to use Hon in a tourism campaign, she said she’d be willing to let them run with it — if they built a parking lot in the busy Hampden shopping corridor.
In that same article, the one that ignited the hontroversy, Whiting admitted that some people won’t appreciate the business acumen that envisioned bottling up a word that flows through Baltimore like tap water.
“People are going to be mad,” she said. “People are going to be mad they didn’t think of it themselves.”
“I’m Hon Central”
It was becoming increasingly clear that almost anybody who uses Hon in some way could potentially become a target and unexpectedly face a costly legal problem. That the word is in the common vernacular is immaterial. What I thought, or what somebody who silkscreens a t-shirt thinks, doesn’t matter as much as what Whiting and her lawyer thinks. She’s the one wielding the trademark cudgel.
Who else has to get Whiting’s approval? Who will be shaken down for a licensing fee next? The target could be Welcome To Baltimore Hon or Smile Hon, You’re in Baltimore or Bon Appetit Hon or maybe even Next Day Floors:
A cease-and-desist letter essentially says to stop whatever you’re doing, or else. Your options are to fight it, or capitulate and do whatever they demand. Fighting it can get staggeringly expensive; $450 per hour is not unreasonable for an intellectual property lawyer. The retainer — just a down payment — could run $10-20,000. Actually going to court will cost six figures or more.
I heard from one West Coast business man who was entangled in a trademark dispute over the word “flag” as it is used in the real estate industry. He ended up exhausting his legal insurance, spending $300,000 of his own money, losing his home and, because the legal case drained so much of his time and resources, ultimately losing his business. He couldn’t spend as much as the larger and wealthier company suing him. When his money ran out, he had no choice but to give up, broke and broken, stripped of everything he worked for.
Outrage against Whiting and Café Hon gained traction on Facebook, along with calls for a boycott of the restaurant. Several people undertook a concerted effort to post negative reviews at Yelp, CityPeek, Urbanspoon, TripAdvisor and anywhere else Café Hon had been reviewed.
“I’d love to see Café Hon hit one star,” said a member in a private Facebook group. “That would be reason for a toast.”
A protest was scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 19 — the last weekend before Christmas — on The Avenue in front of Café Hon.
As the date drew near, I mulled over how any one of us who use Hon could be blindsided with a sudden and unexpected legal crisis — a liability that nobody knew existed until days earlier. Something had to be done.
It’s a Protest, Hon
Despite the brisk winter weather, dozens of people turned out for the Dec. 19 protest. Several people carried hand-lettered signs as we milled about The Avenue across the street from Café Hon. The mood was light, almost festive. A couple of Café Hon employees even spent time on the sidewalk passing out a Hon trademark fact sheet and defending Whiting with protesters.
While there were many familiar faces — Patrick Tandy was present, as was WTBH contributor Caryn Coyle — I had the chance to meet many people I only knew through Facebook; Steve Akers, Frankie Morgan, Christina Haas, Stacey Haza, Frank Noe, Janice Bowen and many others.
Author, storyteller and WTBH collaborator Rafael Alvarez distributed a flyer that likened Whiting to Robert Irsay, the reviled former Baltimore Colts owner who sneaked his team out of town under the cover of darkness. Alvarez said Whiting was “Robert Irsay in a dress” — a stinging comparison upon which he elaborated in a North Baltimore Patch story. The story appears to have subsequently vanished from Patch.
Bill Hughes, a lawyer, actor, activist and photographer, documented a range of views expressed at the Dec. 19 protest:
The media were well-represented at the protest, including Jill Rosen of the Sun, Fern Shen of Baltimore Brew and the local television stations.
I recognized a familiar face that was distinctly out of place in the crowd — the only person wearing a suit, with a two-tone dress shirt and his trademark bow tie. The dandyish figure was John McIntyre, slumming among the hoi polloi on The Avenue, no doubt researching another strabismic commentary on the Hontroversy. I was tempted to say something, to ask whether he is being subtly satirical or perhaps just trolling, but let him pass without comment.
“It’s Condescending Now”
For sure, there was a lot of piling on. Once Whiting was on the defensive, critics emerged from the woodwork. It was unbridled character assassination, and Baltimore was full of likely suspects. Everybody had their own reasons for despising Whiting — her opportunism and relentless self-promotion, her domineering personality — particularly other Hamden merchants, residents and Honfest vendors. Many people resented Whiting’s outspoken support of a proposed WalMart that threatens to alter the character of the community.
Some even questioned Whiting’s legitimacy as a natural born Baltimorean, citing her upbringing in neighboring Anne Arundel County.
Many people objected to her appropriation and exploitation of popular culture. Some contend that Whiting ridiculed and held in contempt the women she claimed to be celebrating. Even John Waters said that the Hon schtick had jumped the shark, and that he wouldn’t use the word or image in any of his films going forward.
“To me, it’s used up,” Waters told a reporter in 2008. “It’s condescending now. The people that celebrate it are not from it. I feel that in some weird way they’re looking slightly down on it.”
On the evening of the 19th, the day of the protest, the Daily Record published the first authoritative opinion on the hontroversy — a piece by Jim Astrachan, principal of Astrachan Gunst Thomas and one of the top intellectual property attorneys in Baltimore. Astrachan teaches copyrights and intellectual property law at University of Maryland and University of Baltimore Schools of Law, and regularly appears on “best lawyers” lists.
In his commentary, later republished at his own blog, Astrachan contended that Whiting’s trademark claims were objectionable — that the word is generic and weak as a mark, and that Whiting may not be using it properly.
“HON should remain in the public domain where it was born, discovered and cleverly exploited by Café Hon,” Astrachan wrote.
That same evening, John McIntyre posted his take on the HON protest in an item entitled “Try the pancakes“:
Just back from lunch at Café Hon. All the tables were full, despite the protest outside, so I sat at the counter and had two mugs of Zeke’s coffee and blueberry pancakes.
The pancakes were excellent.
People in the restaurant were talking animatedly and tucking into their food with evident relish. I couldn’t help but notice that the two dozen or so protesters across the street appeared rather sullen.
McIntyre had a curious lack of interest about why Baltimoreans were protesting to preserve their common language and popular culture. “[T]he cascade of abuse to which Denise Whiting has been subjected, whatever the merits of the trademark issue, does not put our fair city in a flattering light,” he wrote.
“I’m Just Protecting My Business”
In the wake of the protest, Whiting made appearances on local radio shows to defend herself and assure the public that she is a reasonable and fair trademark owner. But the ill-advised effort went awry. Her ham-handed attempts at damage control only made matters worse. Like vermin squirming on a glue trap, every turn Whiting took to explicate herself ended up sticking her deeper into the mess.
On Monday the 20th, Whiting appeared on the morning news program of WBAL.
“I’m not Robert Irsay,” she said, clearly annoyed. “I am protecting my legal rights as a business owner to own a trademark.”
When pressed further on how she would enforce the Hon trademark, Whiting said, “If somebody was going to do something awful with it, I might take issue with that.”
Later in the morning, WBAL’s Mary Beth Marsden spoke with Steve Akers, an optician who grew up in Hampden and was an organizer of the Hon trademark protest.
“We’re fine with…her protecting her name and her logo, Café Hon and HONtown and Honfest,” Akers said. “We’re not okay with anyone owning Hon and claiming it. That’s not hers; that belongs to the people of Baltimore.”
“Even if she says she won’t sue somebody, nobody should have to go to her to make sure,” Akers said.
On the 98 Rock morning show, Mickey Cucchiella asked Whiting whether the word “hon” printed on a t-shirt would violate her trademark.
“As long as you’re not mass-producing them…” she began to answer.
Cucchiella asked whether Whiting would object to a t-shirt that said, “Laugh, Hon” or “My Baltimore, Hon.” Whiting replied:
If somebody’s going to produce 5,000 of them for mass-production of them, I’m going to take a look at that. I’m going to be honest with you. But if somebody’s going to produce a small quantity of Hon something, I’m not going to…I can’t police that sort of thing.
…If somebody produces a t-shirt that is really derogatory, and really horrible, and presents the city in an awful way, would that be fair? If it’s something that’s derogatory that’s out there, I wouldn’t want Baltimore to be portrayed in the negative…
Creative brilliance by Bill Hughes:
Cease and Desist
There was very clearly an explicit threat to Welcome To Baltimore, Hon! and everybody else who uses HON in some way. In order to more fully assess the nature of the threat, I tracked down the former owners of Thanks, Hon!, the Towson gift shop on the receiving end of Whiting’s cease-and-desist letter in 2005.
I contacted Brenda Prevas, one of three co-owners of Thanks, Hon! Prevas told me that she and her partners thought HON was in the public domain when they named their store, which was inspired by an English gift shop called Thanks, Darling.
“We are hopeful that you will change the name of your entity, operate under a different name and abandon all confusing domain names, so that Café Hon will not have to take action against you.”
“We request that you immediately cease and desist from any use of the term ‘HON’ in connection with all use, advertisements, listings, promotions and marketing of your services.”
The owners had recently opened when they received the cease-and-desist letter, and had spent most of their budget on signage, bags and merchandise. “Changing our name would have been so cost prohibitive as to put us out of business,” Prevas later explained in an online comment. “We decided that until we were ‘really’ sued, we would continue to operate.”
The women consulted an attorney who advised that waging a trademark fight will cost them $20,000 — money that the struggling enterprise didn’t have. The lawyer suggested that the store owners meet with Whiting.
According to Prevas — and confirmed by Whiting in multiple press accounts — Whiting suggested during the meeting with the store owners that the matter could be resolved if Thanks, Hon! sold her HON-related merchandise.
The demand letter is particularly noteworthy because Whiting did not own a retail store when it was sent in October of 2005. Café Hon sold a few souvenirs and trinkets, such as the HON stickers. But Café Hon is a restaurant, not a gift shop. Whiting didn’t even file for the HON trademark related to gift shops until May of 2006 — months after the Thanks, Hon! demand letter. HONTown didn’t open until 2010.
While the demand letter was not the cause of the store’s eventual demise, it was an unnecessary and pointless annoyance that cost legal fees.
“I still have the cease-and-desist letter,” Prevas told me. “Would you like to see a copy?”
“Yes, please,” I said. The document arrived by email within minutes.
Baltimore’s Best Hon
Through the hontroversy, I befriended Charlene Osborne, the model whose presence on the MTA advertisement ignited the whole brouhaha. A native of the area, Osborne is as purely genuine a Baltimorean as they come. When she recalls her experience with Denise Whiting, tears well up in her eyes.
By day, Osborne is a CADD designer for an architectural and engineering firm. Her side career in entertainment dates to 1993, when she appeared as an extra in John Waters’ Serial Mom. Beginning in 2001, Osborne and some of her girlfriends and co-workers began holding summertime theme weekends in Ocean City, MD. “I went as a 1950’s Hon based on John Waters characters,” she said.
When the Hairspray musical opened at the Mechanic Theatre in September of 2003, WBAL Radio held a “Big Hair” contest to win tickets to the premiere. Osborne submitted a photo and won two tickets.
In October of 2004, Osborne visited LA and toured Hollywood with a friend. During the trip, she visited a wig store and found two wigs she “fell in love with” — a red bouffant and a blonde beehive. “They reminded me of Baltimore and John Waters,” Osborne said. “I just had to bring them home.”
Osborne entered her first “Baltimore’s Best Hon” contest at Honfest the following year, wearing her red bouffant wig, but failed to finish in the top 10. She missed the next two Honfests, and won third place with the blonde beehive in 2008. The blonde beehive proved to be a winner for Blaze Char; in 2009 she was won first place as Baltimore’s Best Hon.
In the persona of Blaze Char, Osborne often makes appearances at special events and charity benefits. She has long been involved in coordinating charitable causes, including fundraising for United Way of Central Maryland and the Red Cross. Except for a few modest gigs like the MTA advertising campaign, Osborne doesn’t charge for appearances. “I don’t do it for money,” she told me. “It’s my way of paying tribute to the hons of Baltimore, and to give back to the community.”
After winning in 2009, Osborne had the idea of documenting her year as Baltimore’s Best Hon in a photo-rich coffee table book. Unable to find a publisher interested in the project, Osborne undertook publishing the book herself. Working closely with principal photographer David Muse, she aimed to capture the strange experience of a hon’s life. Several other notable photographers contributed on the project, including Middleton Evans, Jaime Windon and Chuck Ritz.
In December of 2009, Osborne attended “Night of 100 Elvises,” an annual charity event to benefit the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, with Whiting. According to Osborne, Whiting noted the photographer who accompanied her to the event. Osborne mentioned the book project.
“She’s like, ‘What book? I’ve always wanted to do a book. You have to talk to me,'” Osborne said. “She seemed jealous that somebody was going to do a project about Hon that she didn’t have a finger in. From that moment on, I was a target.”
Osborne had to hire an attorney, and embarked on a series of back-and-forths with Whiting and her attorney over various aspects of the book. “I wanted to name it It’s a Honderful Life. She said, ‘You can’t do that. I own that.'”
“She was intimidating me into feeling like she has a right to have a say,” Osborne told me. “It’s my story. It’s a documentary about my year. Only I can write that. I had to fight for that right.”
Osborne said that Whiting wanted to be included in the cover photo of the book, ideally with the image of the two of them together when she won the 2009 Baltimore’s Best Hon contest. As a concession, Osborne used that image for the back side of the book’s dust jacket, but Whiting doesn’t appear on the cover of the book itself.
According to Osborne, Whiting insisted on maintaining a role in the MTA Charm Card campaign in the fall of 2010. Whiting “told them she represented me and they had to go through her,” she said.
Her message to Osborne was clear and direct: “‘Charlene, I created you, I launched you and I own you,” she recalls being told. “‘I am like Walt Disney and you are my Minnie Mouse.'”
Leading with the Chin
Tempers continued to simmer just below the boiling point on all sides of the issue. Hon protest stickers and graffiti littered The Avenue. There were reports of tourists being harassed while visiting HONtown and Café Hon. Whiting later said that people wished her dead. It was only a matter of time before windows were broken, or worse.
In a way, the protests were counter-productive. Before the Baltimore Sun story broke, the association between HON and Café Hon was practically nonexistent. If you had asked 1,000 people what HON meant to them, how many would have said Café Hon? Not many, if any.
The louder the protest, and the longer it goes on, the stronger the link becomes between Café Hon and HON in the public mind. Protesting had the unintended consequence of strengthening the HON brand identity.
Unless Whiting abandoned the trademark, which didn’t seem likely, the only way the issue would be resolved is in the legal arena. Along with the help of several legal minds, I began to formulate a plan to wrest HON from Whiting.
The general idea was to force her hand, to draw her out into a fight. It would be costly to launch a suit, I was told, but could be pretty easy to defend. When a lawsuit comes to court, the plaintiff (the side bringing the suit), goes first. The plaintiff has to prove that he or she has a valid case.
Legal-minded friends identified serious flaws in Whiting’s trademarks and the way they were used. A trademark is supposed to identify the source of a product or service. But there was no HON-branded product — no HON beer or HON brand frozen meatloaf dinners. Just the word itself printed on a sticker.
As the word was used by Whiting, HON didn’t refer to Café Hon or Honfest. There are plenty of examples of Whiting using HON as a term of endearment, and in the context hon culture or the Baltimore hons of yesteryear. But not as a brand of anything. Trademark squatting is frowned upon. The mark must be used for a product or service.
Hon by itself is a generic word, a term that can be used to describe a type of performer or character, similar to mime, clown or mascot. It’s difficult to describe what Osborne does as Blaze Char without using the word “hon.”
Perhaps most damaging, Whiting may have committed fraud in filing for the trademarks. On the Midday with Dan Rodricks radio show, Astrachan pointed out that the trademark registration form includes a declaration in which applicants swear, under penalty of perjury, that “to the best of his/her knowledge and belief no other person, firm, corporation, or association has the right to use the mark in commerce.”
Obviously, Whiting knew that Thanks Hon! existed when she filed her 2006 trademark. She also knew that shops at BWI Airport were selling HON merchandise before filing her 2005 trademark.
HON had been used since 1992 — the same year Café Hon opened — by Hon Man, who achieved folklore status by stapling the word to the “Welcome to Baltimore” sign on Baltimore-Washington Parkway. HON was literally Hon Man’s mark, and by 1994 he was selling t-shirts and coffee mugs — long before Whiting printed the word on a sticker. According to a 2002 NPR story by Lisa Simeone, Hon Man expressed an intellectual property interest of the word.
Did Whiting know about Hon Man? Oh yes, indeed.
In 1993-94, Hon Man’s cat-and-mouse game with whatever authority was ripping the HON signs down made the news, and Rodricks championed his cause. Rodricks argued for leaving the signs in place. On Feb. 23, 1994, he wrote:
…Denise Whiting, owner of Cafe Hon in Hampden, has joined our crusade. “‘Welcome to Baltimore, Hon’ is reflective of our sense of humor and strong civic spirit,” Denise says. A new and permanent Hon-greeting would spell relief for Hon Man, that mysterious civic sprite who has been stapling “Hon” to the wooden welcome sign on the parkway’s median strip for the last two years. (Some chowderhead keeps ripping his laminated placards down.) Denise Whiting has printed petitions calling for “yous’ guys who keep terrin’ down” the “Hon” placard to desist…. Petitions are available at Cafe Hon, 1009 W. 36th St., and Denise has agreed to collect them.
If there were a way to lure Whiting into bringing a lawsuit, as plaintiff the burden of proof would be on her to prove that the trademark was registered and used properly. The consensus was that Whiting would lose, hands down.
Somebody with standing — who uses the word and is at risk of her trademark claims — had to step up, put on the bunny suit and hop into Whiting’s crosshairs.
All for Hon, Hon for All
The plan was simple: Sell a coffee cup emblazoned with HON. And do it in a way that can’t be ignored.
I set up an online store at Printfection to sell HON mugs, and spent most of the holiday season hammering out a lengthy Hon Manifesto to share the background information I had developed. The manifesto was intended to put the issue into context, to explain why the trademarks are invalid, and to provoke movement toward a legal resolution. I’d hoped that others would follow suit and take back Hon, and challenge Whiting by selling their own Hon-related products.
It was also important to shine a light on all the people and groups who use HON. The glare of publicity might offer some protection. At least her attempts at enforcement would be less likely to slip beneath the radar in the future. Some people still didn’t think Whiting’s trademark claims were significant. The manifesto explained why it mattered.
My college-age son and his fiance were visiting over the holidays. Max took photos of me posing with the HON mug in a vaguely menacing manner — black hoodie, my face covered with a skull-and-crossbones bandana, cats-eye sunglasses added with Photoshop. Sinister and a little hon-ish at the same time. Honister.
Things were falling nicely into place.
There was one other aspect of the plan to consider: my employer.
I was local editor of Arbutus Patch, a hyperlocal news site covering the southwest corner of Baltimore County. Café Hon was not within my territory and never mentioned at my site, so it did not present any sort of conflict of interest to me. My relationship with Patch had no effect on my Hon-related activities, and the trademark issue had zero influence on any aspect of my work for Patch. There was no overlap.
Besides, North Baltimore Patch editor Adam Bednar was cool with having one of his paid contributors handing out protest fliers in front of Café Hon on Dec. 19. So there was that.
Over the New Years holiday weekend, I called Bednar to let him know what was about to happen, since it involved his territory. I also sent him an embargoed press release about the trademark challenge. Bednar suggested I talk it over with his boss, Doug Donovan, a regional editor in charge of a dozen sites in the Baltimore area.
Donovan agreed that there was no conflict for me since Café Hon has nothing to do with Arbutus Patch. He never expressed disapproval, but then again I wasn’t asking for permission. I was informing him.
“If do this, you gotta give us something exclusive,” he said.
Nobody had reported on the cease-and-desist letter sent to Thanks, Hon!. I shared the letter with Donovan and Bednar, which they wrote about in a Jan. 19 story that also seems to have vanished in the new Patch 2.0 site.
I decided not to tell my boss, Danna Walker. There was a good possibility that, for whatever reason, Walker might say no, don’t do this. Whether giving such a directive was within her prerogative is another issue. I didn’t want to risk appearing insubordinate, so I didn’t give her the opportunity to say anything.
This was a business matter that had nothing to do with Patch. This was something more important — involving me and many others, this web site, and a restaurateur with peculiar ideas about intellectual property rights.
There was one small detail of not having legal representation in case of a lawsuit. I wasn’t particularly concerned. I figured that if everything worked right, lawyers will be tripping over each other to represent HON pro bono. The person who secures HON in the public domain will be a hero. Let the lawyers get all the glory. I just want the word back.
* * *
On Jan. 3, 2011, the hontroversy story made a huge splash in the national media with a segment on NPR’s All Things Considered.
McIntyre, the Sun’s resident contrarian and author of The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing, used that day’s blog post to tidy up loose ends from the previous year, including what he called “the bogus controversy about Denise Whiting’s trademarking of hon.”
“The torrent of vilification sweeping over her says uglier things about Baltimore than anything she’s done,” McIntyre wrote.
“My prediction for 2011: Ms. Whiting will continue to draw customers, and the noise about her will subside as some other non-issue attracts the attention of those who like to feel aggrieved,” he said.
Honday Bloody Honday
Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011, was pretty crazy. The Baltimore Sun ran a story about me, and it got noticed. “Catonsville man challenges Hon trademark,” read the headline.
My cell phone rang non-stop. I did interviews with local radio stations, Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and several others. I heard from a couple of intellectual property lawyers who offered to take the case pro bono if I were sued. I also got a call from a state lawmaker who said he was interested in exploring whether anything could be done legislatively to preserve popular culture. The Delegate also said that he was friends with a lawyer champing at the bit to take this case. He gave me a name and number and told me to call him if I’m served with papers.
Friends linked the story all over Facebook. The response I received was uniformly positive. I felt confident that the community was behind me.
If nothing else, the story got Whiting to stop talking. “I have absolutely no comment,” she told the Sun’s Jill Rosen.
Mid-morning, I had a meeting at a coffee shop with three other Patch editors and Walker, our boss the regional editor. The meeting itself was brief and routine. We were done in less than an hour. As we got up to leave, Walker said to me, “Hold on. Sit.”
Why didn’t you tell me that you were planning to do this, she asked.
“To give you deniability,” I said. “You could honestly say that you knew nothing about it, and can’t be held responsible. If I’d told you about it, you might have said no.”
“You’d rather ask for forgiveness than ask for permission,” she said.
Patch is concerned that an editor is in the news, she said.
The HON issue has nothing to do with Patch, I said. You knew I had this web site before you hired me. I haven’t done anything wrong, haven’t broken any laws or violated the terms of my employment. All the work was on my personal netbook on my own time, and I used my own cell phones for the calls. There is no conflict with Arbutus Patch.
We don’t want you saying negative things about a local businessperson, she said.
I’ve made it very clear that this has nothing to do with Café Hon or Denise Whiting personally, I said. This is a legal issue about a trademark. It affects the free expression of a lot of local people, including myself.
“We’ll talk about this later,” she said. “For now, whatever you’re doing, just stop.”
The other shoe dropped when I returned home after the meeting. As it it turned out, there was another element of my cunning plan that I hadn’t fully factored: my wife.
“What are you doing” Bridgett asked.
“Trying to get Denise Whiting to sue me,” I said. “Some folks at Patch are bent out of shape, but there’s nothing to worry about.”
I love my wife dearly, but there have been a handful of times when she gets a face that frightens me; her lips furled into a tight line, chin jutting forward, the look of death in her eyes. This was one of those times. It’s the kind of face that makes you glance around for an exit. It’s the face that a star makes just before going supernova.
Her position could be summed up succinctly: “Are you out of your fucking mind?”
Granted, things were difficult for a couple of years after the economy tanked in 2008. The freelance writing market dried up, and decently paying jobs in journalism were vanishing. Patch was not only one of the few media companies hiring journalists, working on Arbutus Patch was a job that I actually enjoyed. I loved the job, and was good at it. I was grateful for the opportunity to be a newsman and participate in the hyperlocal news experiment that was Patch. All true.
I tried to explain that picking a trademark fight wasn’t all that risky. There were fallback positions and safety nets. If I get a cease-and-desist letter, ceasing and desisting is always an option. It can be as simple as that. If push came to shove, there are lawyers on hold. Nothing bad is going to happen.
And as far as Patch is concerned, this isn’t something they want to get involved in. Firing me puts them on the wrong side of free expression, and on the wrong side of a hot-button local issue. Patch doesn’t want the negative publicity. They won’t fire me, I told her. They don’t have a reason to.
Bridgett was unconvinced. “If you lose your job over this, I’m outta here,” she said.
We went to our separate corners.
I set HON aside and spent the rest of the day working on news stories.
Late that evening, I had a Google Chat conference with Walker and her boss, Tim Windsor. They expressed their displeasure, and said that I put them and Patch in an awkward spot. I said that I never mentioned Patch, and reiterated that Patch has nothing to do with this. Nobody else is drawing Patch into the issue either, I said. Patch hasn’t even been mentioned in any news coverage.
“Not yet,” Windsor said.
Patch knew what I was doing before I did it, I said. I sent a press release and the cease-and-desist letter to Bednar and Donovan.
I should have informed my supervisor, they said. Patch can’t dictate my non-work activities, I replied. I have a right to protect my property. Other Patch editors are involved in music or photography on the side. If they were involved in a non-work trademark or copyright issue, it’s none of Patch’s business.
“Patch doesn’t want to get in the middle of this,” I said. “A lot of people are watching. Also, I’m kind of lawyered up at the moment.”
We went back and forth, achieving nothing. They wanted me to write an editorial note for Arbutus Patch saying that I broke journalistic rules.
I said no, I won’t do that. I haven’t broken any rules, haven’t done anything unethical or improper. I’m not going to say that I screwed up and then let you fire me.
“Am I fired?” I asked.
“Stop the trademark challenge,” I was told.
I let that thought roll around for a moment. The HON mug existed, and others had been purchased online. Does stop mean stop selling the mug or stop talking about it? Do I have to destroy my HON mug and seize the others? No, the deed was done. You can’t put toothpaste back in the tube. Nothing else was necessary to make the point or taunt Whiting into action.
It wasn’t entirely clear what was meant by “stop.” Instead of asking for clarification, I noted the ambiguity and moved on. I might need this for cover in the future.
After much back and forth with Walker, we ended up running an editor’s note that wasn’t much of a mea culpa. The note is now lost in the new Patch 2.0, which is just as well. It’s baloney and not my words.
“She Doesn’t Have a Shot”
The trademark challenge was a springboard for an hour-long discussion the following day, Jan. 5, on Midday with Dan Rodricks, a public radio talk show. Rodricks’ guests were intellectual property rights expert Jim Astrachan and Eliot Wagonheim, an attorney and business consultant who often writes about business issues.
Considering the previous evening’s tense talk with my bosses at Patch, I thought it was prudent to stay out of the conversation. However, I provided Rodricks’ staff with the Thanks, Hon! cease-and-desist letter, which makes a rather dramatic appearance about halfway through the broadcast.
The opinions of Rodricks’ guests were very enlightening.
“HON is one of those marks that I would describe as very weak,” Astrachan said. “Regardless of whether somebody has been able to convince the United States Trademark Office to issue a registration, I find it hard to believe that the mark distinguishes any source of goods so as to serve as a trademark.”
Astrachan said that my HON trademark challenge could be successful. “I think he has a pretty good chance of winning,” he said.
“She doesn’t have a shot at actually winning on the use of the word on a bumper sticker,” Wagonheim said.
Toward the end of the program, a caller named Will phoned in. Will said that several years ago he had printed up several thousand t-shirts that say “Hey Hon,” and that he sells these t-shirts on the streets during Honfest.
“I want to know if I can get in trouble for selling them now,” he said.
“Is somebody going to try to stop you from doing that? The answer is probably yes,” Wagonheim said.
As he ends the call, Will can be heard saying, “Oh, god…”
HON for ALL
Whiting didn’t take the bait. After two weeks there was no sign of a lawsuit, no cease-and-desist letter. Nothing.
If Whiting didn’t take enforcement action against the HON mug, it still served a useful purpose. A trademark owner who doesn’t enforce against infringement risks losing those rights. The mark can slip into the public domain. This is what happened to words like cellophane, aspirin, elevator and gummi.
The mere existence of the mug loosened Whiting’s grip on the word, even if ever so slightly. If somebody were sued for using HON in the future, they could point to the mug and say, “Well, she didn’t enforce her rights against that use.” She was in a double bind — damned if she did take action and damned if she didn’t.
Remaining in a holding pattern was dissatisfying, and ultimately untenable. Despite being read the Riot Act by my wife and my bosses, the issue had to be pushed toward some kind of resolution — but without drawing a lot of attention. If I just kept my mouth shut, maybe I can stay under the radar and everything will be okay.
On Jan. 17, I sent a letter to Whiting’s attorney, Kathryn Goldman, notifying them of my intention to file a petition for cancellation with the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board.
“I need to know that nobody will be threatened for using ‘hon’ in any context ever again,” I wrote.
Unlike a federal court, where a judge hears all variety of civil and criminal cases, TTAB is comprised of a panel of judges who are all experts in trademarks. TTAB is an administrative tribunal, not a court.
A petition for cancellation can be filed by a person who believes that he or she is — or will be — damaged by a trademark registration. Someone like me. All it takes is $300 per class, or category, of trademark to get the ball rolling.
Two days later, on Wednesday morning, Whiting unveiled a new lawyer — Ned T. Himmelrich, another highly regarded intellectual property rights heavyweight — and released a statement to apologize to Baltimore.
“I apologize to everyone in Baltimore for misspeaking,” Whiting said in the statement. “I’m sorry for creating the impression that I can stop people from using the word, and for causing such an outcry here.”
Whiting “pledges to be a responsible trademark holder and exercise her trademark rights only to the extent that there would be brand confusion if she were to act otherwise,” the statement said.
That afternoon, Whiting posted a similar statement — with more background information but minus the apology part — at her Facebook page, which ended on a bizarre tone with two images of the parkway “Welcome to Baltimore” sign and the incongruous words “HON for ALL! HON for ALL!”
Taking Back Ownership
The movement took root and blossomed. Other people began selling Hon-related products. On Jan. 6, local designer Meredith McFall announced a limited quantity of silk screened Honbelievable shirts available at Etsy.
“This is a call to all artists and designers in the city to take back ‘ownership’ of our word,” McFall posted at Facebook. “She might go after one or two of us if we stand alone, but does she have the funds to take on hundreds?”
Another person, who went by the name Bill Hon, opened his own Printfection store to sell HON coffee mugs and t-shirts that were crude, very amusing and flagrantly infringing.
My heart was warmed.
The hontroversy continued to rage on Facebook and in the comment threads of online stories. McIntyre seemed to relish bickering with readers critical of his support of Whiting. Participants in various venues reportedly included Whiting’s son Thomas, her sister Wendy, her manager Debbie Pepper Howard, and possibly Denise or other allies writing under assumed names. One such character, named HonForall, went to lengths to appear as an anti-trademark protester but tried to engage in dialogues that were ultimately sympathetic to Whiting’s side.
“The [NOH] sticker that is your profile picture is plastered all over Hampden….That really lampoons US, in my opinion,” HonForall commented on Facebook. “Polluting Hampden doesn’t really help out OUR cause, though. Do you not agree? I mean, if WE cleaned them all up, it would make sense, maybe.”
Hon protesters declined to feed the troll, and the HonForall profile was deleted from Facebook.
Certain protesters appear to have been targets for harassment, including Steve Akers and Stacey Haza, a prolific designer of anti-HON artwork. Nasty comments were left on Facebook profiles, and some people reported receiving harassing phone calls at work. As for myself, nobody ever bothered me.
The flame wars peaked into absurdity in the comments section of a Feb. 2 City Paper story by Edward Erickson, Jr. titled “Ms. HON-derstood.” The article itself is illuminating and entertaining, with a few awkward moments. Despite the presence of consultant Paul Jaskunas — described by Erickson as a “MICA [Maryland Institute College of Art] faculty member, novelist, and public relations specialist” — Whiting comes across as manipulative and dishonest.
Tempers exploded in the comments to the City Paper story. “The Ultimate Flame War,” The City That Breeds blog said. “[S]olid Internet Gold.”
One of the major instigators was Debbie Pepper Howard, one of Whiting’s closest colleagues and manager of the HONtown store — or somebody pretending to be her. To my knowledge, Howard has never denied making the comments. Examples:
“You’re a JOKE and a stalker. Stop wasting your gas money creeping on us while we work- I have you on video Monday BTW- so you just keep on making my case….I’m still laughing at your futile attempts. You, the coward Boycott cafe Hon person, Christina Haas, Frank Noe, Frankie Morgan, Bruce Goldfarb…NOTHING accomplished- what did you sell 5 mugs??? ooooooooooooo groundbreaking. EPIC FAILURE.”
“Nobody STOLE anything from you – you sound like a crying baby. SHUT UP.”
“I have PLENTY of MONEY….you see…I make lots and lots of HON art- and I make thousands of dollars selling it all over town….Just thought I would take this opportunity and BRAG about how fucking successful I am!”
John McIntyre erucated his own dyspeptic observation of the City Paper comments.
“The outrage with which people talk about Ms. Whiting is so blatantly disproportionate to the circumstances that the comments quickly come to sound like Daffy Duck spluttering about Bugs Bunny,” he said. “A reader begins to wonder after a time what responsibility Denise Whiting has for global warming, violence in Darfur, the Ravens’ loss to the Steelers, and the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.”
“Score One for the Anti-Hons”
Café Hon caters to tourists, but can’t rely on tourists alone. A restaurant needs a steady flow of diners.
The food at Café Hon was never spectacular, so if a group of people were in Hampden deciding where to eat, the hontroversy was plenty of reason to choose somewhere else.
By all accounts, locals were staying away from Café Hon in droves. Observers used Facebook to gleefully report empty tables and idle wait staff on reconnaissance missions down The Avenue.
Attention turned next to the effect a protest might have on Honfest. As if on cue, outrage was stirred anew by a flyer listing the “Rules of Honfest” that Whiting began distributing in mid-May to vendors and Hampden shops.
Among the restrictions: no hair spray and no cat’s eye sunglasses. “Prohibited items also include any and all items or products that may infringe on the Federally registered trademarked logo and names of HONfest, Café HON, Baltimore’s Best HON, HONtown or HON,” the flyer said.
“Hampden merchants were taken aback,” Rosen reported in the Sun.
Rosen did another story on the eve of Honfest, reporting that Charlene Osborne was among protesters and boycotters who said they were going to skip the festival this year.
The next day, McIntyre wrote a blog post titled “Let it go, hon, let it go” in which he wondered aloud about Honfest. “[I]t will be interesting to see what effect — if any — [the protest] has on attendance.”
“This is a language blog, and I can offer one piece of advice about how you should use language if you take part in any of these heated but trivial exchanges,” McIntyre wrote. “It’s the same advice Mobtown Shank gave last year: It’s not a boycott if you never went there in the first place.”
Boycotting language? Wait, what? I don’t even…
Later the same day, McIntyre wrote another blog post explaining why he doesn’t take the protests seriously:
The Sun’s account of this year’s Honfest indicates that, despite rain and muggy weather, the usual crowds turned out again, with no indication that talk of boycotting the festival has had any appreciable effect.
I have suspected that the anti-Whiting crowd is a negligible group using the Internet as a megaphone, and now it appears to be confirmed that they are several surges short of a groundswell.
McIntyre followed that up with a lengthy post the following day, June 12.
“I’ve got to let go of this hon stuff,” he wrote. “For my non-Baltimorean readers, it is boring and pointless. For my Baltimorean readers, apart from the small group of people rabid about Denise Whiting (and I wonder sometimes if that usage is metaphoric), I’m wasting time on a synthetic controversy.”
McIntyre responded to critics individually, and then went on to explain, once again, that Whiting was just a shrewd business person.
“I don’t see than (sic) anyone has been injured by the trademarking or by the Honfest activities,” he said.
On June 13, Baltimore Business Journal reported that the 2011 Honfest attendance was more than 40,000 — substantially lower than the crowd of 60-65,000 people estimated at the 2010 event. That’s off by a third or more, a significant hit. That had to hurt profit margins.
“Score one for the anti-hons,” McIntyre wrote in a June 15 blog post.
“It is clear that attendance this year was reduced….” he wrote. “While it wold (sic) be churlish to deny 94-degree weather some of the credit for discouraging attendance, the anti-hon campaign can count its efforts at least a partial success. The event went on but was diminished.”
Done with Hon
Although protesters by and large did not disrupt Honfest, there was one incident. On June 12, according to court papers filed by Whiting, Steve Akers opened the front door of Café Hon and yelled, “No one owns hon” into the restaurant.
“That act ‘terrorized’ customers and left children crying,” the Sun reported that Whiting wrote in her complaint.
Whiting also said that, during an earlier protest, Akers “trespassed into one of her businesses to hand out ‘hate’ fliers and ended up throwing a stack of them at one of her staff members,” the Sun reported.
Whiting accused Akers of harassment, cyberbullying and using social media to incite violence, according to the paper.
“Our customers and staff at Cafe Hon, Hon Bar and Hontown are in fear of Steven Akers and his harassing, terrorizing, unpredictable, obsessive, stalkerlike behavior,” Whiting wrote in applying for the order.
One week later, on Monday, June 27, Baltimore City District Court Judge Joan B. Gordon issued a peace order forbidding Akers from being in or around Whiting’s businesses on The Avenue, and from contacting or harassing her. Akers was effectively barred from walking down The Avenue.
Akers said he would comply with the order. He told WBAL radio that he was done with the HON protest.
Months passed. I was kept busy with Arbutus Patch but had my ear to the ground among Hon protesters. A few unworkable and unreasonable proposals for Hon were floated, including transferring the trademark to a nonprofit organization that would act as some kind of clearinghouse. The ideas didn’t make sense, and were all predicated on Whiting’s unlikely cooperation. When time permitted, I picked at the petition for cancellation project like a wound that wouldn’t heal.
In late October, 2011, news emerged that the Fox television program Kitchen Nightmares and its famously foul-mouthed host, Gordon Ramsay, were coming to Baltimore to film an episode at Café Hon during the first weekend of November. Twitter and Facebook erupted with cheers.
It was more than a blink, it was a stunning public admission that the protests and boycott had been lethally effective. Ramsay’s show features troubled restaurants on the brink of failure. Most of the restaurants on Kitchen Nightmares are doomed. Sixty to 90 percent of them end up shuttered.
The news saddened me. It was a shame that a disagreement over a stupid trademark led to this. There was no pleasure in the thought that Café Hon might be forced to close. Besides, even if the restaurant closed, that doesn’t mean that Hon is free and clear. The trademark registration would still exist.
I didn’t give the Kitchen Nightmares thing much thought until around dinnertime on Saturday, Nov. 5, when I received an email from Hayden Mauk, a producer for the program.
“Chef Ramsay has asked me to reach out to you in regards to meeting with him and a few other passionate people who understand the controversy of the trademark and the restaurant owner,” Mauk said.
Kitchen Nightmares wanted to assemble a focus group to meet with Ramsay the next day, Sunday afternoon. And I can’t tell anybody.
“Please do not share this information as we do not want it to be public knowledge,” Hayden said. “We do want to reiterate that this is a very small/select group as we don’t want this meeting to be known to the masses or our restaurant owner.”
If Kitchen Nightmares wants to keep it under wraps, I certainly can’t tip off any of my journalist colleagues, and absolutely most definitely can’t tell my boss.
But first, I had to see what Bridgett had to say. I thought it might be an easy sell, since Kitchen Nightmares is one of her favorite programs.
“I’ll keep a low profile,” I said. “I won’t say anything negative. Somebody has to get the cease-and-desist letter into Gordon Ramsay’s hands.”
“If you’re going, I’m going with you,” she said.
“They aren’t allowing that,” I said. “We can’t bring anybody with us.”
“You’re going,” she said.
“You Realize You Made a Mistake?”
We were told to be at the Doubletree Inn on University Parkway at 2 p.m. I was pleased to find Charlene Osborne and Patrick Tandy when I arrived. Kitchen Nightmares had assembled an eclectic group that included long-time Hampden residents, a cultural anthropologist, and P.M. Forni, founder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University and author of Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct.
After signing releases and having our photos taken, we were ushered into a conference room where 20 seats were arranged in rows. One of the first into the conference room, I took a seat in the front row and guided Osborne and Tandy to seats on either side of me.
We chatted with Mauk and among ourselves for a few minutes while waiting for Ramsay. At no time were we coached or told what to say. The only direction we were given was to not look at the cameras. Just ignore them, Mauk said. None of us knew what was going to happen.
Ramsay walked through the double glass door of the conference room accompanied by two cameramen, a still photographer with a large boxy camera, and a sound man who suspended a boom microphone over our heads. There was nothing in the way of preliminaries. Ramsay strode into the room and began talking, adeptly guiding an almost hour-long discussion about Whiting, Café Hon, Hampden and the HON trademark.
Ramsay seemed to have a good grasp of the issue and what had been happening in Baltimore over the past year, and a sensitivity for the word’s cultural and colloquial significance. He’d done his homework. He gave every person in the room a chance to speak, giving thought to our responses and frequently asking follow-up questions.
Among the group, nobody disputed that Whiting was entitled to exclusive use of the word for her restaurant and to keep competing restaurants from using it. But claiming any kind of rights beyond that poses serious problems to the larger community.
“It transcends the restaurant industry,” Tandy said. “She had gone to the Maryland Transit Administration for their Hon ad campaign and forced them to give her creative control. Basically, the state of Maryland has to go to Denise Whiting for approval.”
“She’s acting like a bully,” I said. “”Anybody who would like to use the word is at risk of receiving a cease-and-desist letter from her lawyers saying change your name or else.”
Ramsay asked whether Café Hon could survive.
“The damage is done,” Osborne said. “All the citizens of Baltimore have stopped going.”
“What would it take for this community to to embrace Café Hon again?” Ramsay asked.
“She has to walk away from the trademark,” I said. “She has to abandon it, give up all claim to it. Say it was it a mistake; she doesn’t own it. It doesn’t belong to anybody.”
After more than 45 minutes, he thanked us for coming and shook our hands as we filed out of the conference room. There were no re-takes, no reverse angle shots, nothing staged.
Osborne gave Ramsay a copy of her book, and Tandy handed him a copy of HON: Past, Present & Future, an issue of Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore! with works by fifteen contributors who wrote about various aspects of what “hon” meant to them. I sized Ramsay up as I shook his hand. He was slightly taller than my six-foot height, but wider and very solid. He wasn’t wearing any makeup, and came across in person pretty much as he appears on television.
We were ushered back down the corridor to the hotel’s lounge, where we were held for an inordinately long time. Mauk told us that they had to shoot some exterior video of the hotel. In the meantime, Mauk invited all of us to attend the “reveal” dinner at Café Hon that evening, with Ramsay’s revamped menu. We could bring a spouse or date, but had to pay for our meals. As tempting as a Ramsay-approved meal sounded, few in the group accepted the offer.
Unbeknownst to us, Whiting was an SUV by the front door of the hotel the whole time, watching a live feed of the group. Ramsay confronted Whiting with the cease-and-desist letter.
“You did send out letters where people were absolutely freaking out,” he said. “When you threaten people, or they feel threatened, they’re going to revolt. You realize you made a mistake? You have to do something. You have to take responsibility and make a gesture. Do you agree?”
“I absolutely agree,” Whiting said.
By the time we were released from the hotel, Ramsay, Whiting and the crew were gone. We didn’t know that she had been eavesdropping until Kitchen Nightmares aired.
“It Was Never Mine in the First Place”
Monday morning was the beginning of the work week. I was busy working on stories and updating Arbutus Patch when I received a text from Osborne.
“OMG! Turn on Mix 106.5 RIGHT NOW,” she said.
Ramsay and Whiting went to the radio station during the morning Jojo and Reagan Show to announce that she would abandon the HON trademark.
“Trademarking the word has not only almost killed me but has just about killed the business,” Whiting said. “I was only doing what business people do. It was a misstep.”
Hon “was never mine in the first place,” she said. “It’s just a word….Please forgive me for everything I’ve done.”
Whiting and Ramsay returned to Café Hon and held a press conference in front of television cameras. In a disjointed, meandering statement no doubt under the influence of fatigue and the stress of having Gordon Ramsay breathing down your neck for four days, Whiting once again apologized profusely and vowed to make amends to Baltimore.
“I didn’t mean to steal something, to take something,” Whiting said. “I apologize from the bottom of my heart for all of the pain I’ve caused for everyone out there.”
“A miscalculation, that’s what it was,” Ramsay said. “It’s not as if Denise was cashing in and making millions on it. Far from it. But it’s caused a lot of frustration, a lot of anger, and it’s helped to damage the restaurant. But she realizes she made a mistake, and we’ve all done that in our lives.”
Richard Gorelick, the Sun’s food blogger, credited the focus group for bringing Whiting to her senses. “Whiting told me that it was the comments from the focus group, and not anything Gordon Ramsay said, that ultimately persuaded her to give up the trademark,” he wrote.
WBAL radio called me for comment. “It’s good for everybody,” I said. “The word will be liberated and in the public domain the way it should be.”
* * *
Monday, Nov. 7, was the last time McIntyre mentioned the HON issue in his language blog, in a post entitled “Hon ho-hum“:
“So now, what was a manufactured controversy a year ago over a matter of minuscule significance* can be, one dares to hope, an extinct controversy. (I suspect, though, that the people who were so weirdly intemperate a year ago yet harbor considerable spleen to vent.)…
*No, I’m not going to link back to posts about it. If you are ignorant of the Hontroversy, consider yourself fortunate.”
A Date With Denise
Whiting was true to her word and filed the paperwork to cancel the registrations for the troublesome HON trademark that covered things like stickers, t-shirts and coffee mugs — and also HON as it may be used by restaurants and retail shops.
On Nov. 11, she posted a statement about the cancellations to the Honfest page on Facebook.
“How about Baltimore’s Best Hon and Honfest?” I said in a comment.
“How about dinner?” Whiting replied.
I was very interested in speaking with Whiting, but didn’t want to be used as a prop. I wanted to gauge her sincerity firsthand, and to talk about the Kitchen Nightmares production. I also wanted to negotiate the release of a prisoner of war — Steve Akers.
Meeting at Café Hon would be a distraction, so we settled on neutral territory at the Towson Diner. We’d meet alone, just the two of us — no PR people and no cameras.
I promised not to record the conversation or report on what we discussed. However, since Whiting has already disclosed our meeting to the press (“He’s a nice man“), I am no longer bound by confidentiality. Here’s what went down:
We met at Towson Diner and talked for about 90 minutes. She began by thanking me for participating in the focus group. She wanted to meet me, she said, to see for herself that I’m not a scary Hon terrorist.
Although she was a little guarded at first, we warmed up and I found her pleasant and personable. We chatted about the program, and her experience was similar to mine in that there was nothing staged, no coaching, no second takes. Nothing was faked.
I asked about rumors that she made changes to Ramsay’s menu. She admitted that she had; the chef’s crab cake recipe included sauteed onions, but customers expected a traditional Maryland crab cake so she went back to the old recipe.
Whiting told me that the hontroversy was one of the worst experiences of her life. Ironically, the HON trademark never generated a significant amount of money. “It’s nickels and dimes,” she said. “It almost cost me everything.”
“About Steve Akers,” I said. “Things got intense there for a while. I know Steve. He does volunteer work in Haiti. He’s a harmless optician. How about lifting that restraining order so he can walk down The Avenue?”
“I’ll think about reaching out to him,” Whiting said.
All in all, it was a very pleasant conversation. We parted on friendly terms. Before leaving, Whiting hugged me. She felt small in my arms, almost fragile. She is a real person.
“No One Ever Protests”
Since the dispute erupted a year earlier, Whiting told me during our meeting, she’d talked with people around the world. She said that she heard from business school instructors from across the country who are discussing Café Hon as a case study of how a trademark can almost ruin a business.
For lawyers, business people, public relations consultants, lovers of language and others who watched it unfold, the hontroversy was an object lesson in the hazards of over-reaching.
“[E]xpansion of the mark into gift shops, clothing, and paper goods, when the mark was clearly used on promotional goods or as ornamental designs, took Whiting out of the realm of proper trademark registration into a place where she attempted to monopolize a colloquial term,” said intellectual property attorney Kelley Clements Keller.
“[T]he purpose of trademark law is for a mark to be a source-identifier to the public, not for a trademark holder to own or monopolize a particular word or phrase for the mere sake of ‘owning’ it. Also, a trademark is only as valuable as its goodwill – the breadth of protection sought by Whiting had the opposite effect causing ‘bad-will’ and resulting in the boycotting of Whiting’s restaurant. Ultimately, Whiting cancelled her registrations to restore Café Hon’s relationship with Baltimoreans. To all trademark holders – let this be the perfect case to support our belief that it is important to know not only where your rights begin, but where they should end.”
The hontroversy isn’t the sort of thing that happens every day. In fact, some say that nothing like it has ever happened before.
“I couldn’t recall another instance where a trademark registrant had voluntarily surrendered federal registrations in response to community protests,” said attorney E. Scott Johnson in the IP Watch blog.
“What fascinates me about this is how rare it is,” Johnson said.
“I don’t recall a case where the public cared so much about a trademark registration. So many words from popular culture are the subject of trademark registrations: DARLIN, HOCKEY MOMS, BIG DOG, BAD BOY, LETS GET IT ON, LIFE’S A BEACH, etc. etc. … In fact, thousands of words or phrases from the vernacular are federally registered trademarks for exclusive use in connection with the goods or services recited in their registrations. No one ever protests. I can’t recall seeing a similar situation, where a community connected so viscerally with a word, that when a business person does what trademark attorneys generally advise business persons to do (register the mark you use on the products you sell so you can fend off imitators), the community reaction was one of overwhelming revulsion and disgust. It is equally surprising that Ms. Whiting didn’t do a cost-benefit analysis much sooner and realize that the cost to her business in community relations and goodwill far outweighed any economic benefit she would ever derive from ‘owning’ the word Hon.”
“Hon” is back in the public domain. The hontroversy faded into the past, except for a couple of missteps. Attendance at Honfest seems to have bounced back. Stacey Hurley reigns this year as Baltimore’s Best Hon. The court found no evidence in Whiting’s complaint against Akers, and the incident was expunged from his record. Life goes on.
Locals are returning to Café Hon, but in what numbers nobody but Denise Whiting knows. Will Café Hon beat the Kitchen Nightmares odds and survive? Only time will tell. Baltimoreans tend to tolerate our oddballs, characters and others who behave badly. John Waters, after all, elevated bad behavior to art.
I wasn’t fired by Patch. In fact, there never was any further fallout. And I’ll say on the record now, when it doesn’t make a difference, that Dana Walker and Tim Windsor are top-notch editors who were wonderful to work for. They could have been hardasses, but they weren’t.
There were no admonitions when Kitchen Nightmares returned at the end of May, 2012, to do a follow-up segment on Café Hon. Just as he did the first time, Mauk contacted me late on the day before filming.
“We were wondering if you’d meet with Chef Ramsay tomorrow and talk with him on camera about what’s been happening since the program aired,” Mauk said.
“Jeez, I don’t know,” I said. “I shouldn’t get involved now that things have quieted down.”
“You can bring along four guests for lunch,” he said.
“What time?” I said.
The next day, Wednesday, May 30, I drove to Café Hon after covering a press conference for Arbutus Patch. By the time I arrived, Bridgett was already there along with her aunt, Janet Hale. They were seated at a table, giddy with the delight of eating a meal prepared under Ramsay’s supervision while watching the television star interview Café Hon personnel two tables away.
As it turned out, they ran out of time and decided that they didn’t need me to speak on camera with Ramsay. That was fine with me. Mauk asked me to sit at the counter and serve as backdrop, next to freshman city councilman Nick Mosby, who was there to present a proclamation. Just keep your back to the camera, Mauk told us. Don’t turn around. All of the action was at the table right behind us. I wanted to see, so I reversed the camera on my iPhone and leaned it against a salt shaker between Mosby and me so we could watch what was going on behind our backs.
After Mosby spoke, Ramsay thanked us for participating in the lunch. Then Ramsay spent some time at Cafe Hon, going from table to table to speak with people, hugging the ladies, posing for photos when asked.
Bridgett says he smelled great.
Maybe that’s how it ends; we forgive and move on. Maybe it’s a honderful life for everybody after all.
Except…for one little thing…
When the Kitchen Nightmares crew redecorated Café Hon, custom pop art was designed for the back wall. And there, much larger than life — used without permission or compensation — is an image of Charlene Osborne as Blaze Char.
Just kidding. It’s been painted over.
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Flickr images used under Creative Commons license.
Bruce Goldfarb is an award-winning writer specializing in science, medicine and health care. Bruce is the founder of the popular website Welcome to Baltimore, Hon!