By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun
8:18 PM EST, November 7, 2011
After almost a year of simmering controversy, Cafe Hon owner Denise Whiting said Monday that she will relinquish her "Hon" trademark. "I'll take it off the register," she said. "It was never mine to have in the first place."
Her trademark announcement, which she made on a morning radio program with reality TV chef Gordon Ramsay, was wrapped in an apology. "I am sorry for the animosity and the hatred and everything that trademarking a word has done," Whiting said. "Trademarking the word has not only almost killed me but has just about killed the business."
Cafe Hon, a Hampden fixture since 1992, has been the subject of negative publicity since last December, when the news media first reported that Whiting had trademarked the word "Hon" — a term of endearment Baltimoreans consider part of the Formstone.
Whiting has repeatedly tried to explain the scope and intent of the trademark to her detractors, who felt that she had helped herself to a cherished hunk of Baltimore culture. They have organized pickets in front of Cafe Hon — at least once resulting in a restraining order — and have roasted Whiting continuously on social media websites and in print.
The ongoing backlash even caught the attention of the Fox show "Kitchen Nightmares," which seeks to make over troubled restaurants. Ramsay and his crew arrived last week to help revamp Cafe Hon's menu, decor — and most importantly its public image.
The depth of the community's feelings about "Hon" and Whiting appeared to have surprised Ramsay. "There was a level of hatred that was almost untouchable. I've never known a restaurant to have such a huge issue," Ramsay said.
Whiting repeated the apology and decision later at Cafe Hon, at an unusual press conference, coordinated by the producers of "Kitchen Nightmares." The backdrop was a freshly refurbished Cafe Hon, where 15 years of bric-a-brac has been replaced by leopard-print banquettes and bold graphics.
While the typical "Kitchen Nightmares" delights viewers with slovenly kitchens and indolent staffs, the Cafe Hon episode appears to focus on a unique public relations issue — one woman vs. a city.
Bad public relations weren't Cafe Hon's only problems. The show also addressed its cuisine and decor. But Ramsay repeatedly praised the cafe's loyal staff and even had some faint praise for the comfort food menu, while acknowledging it had grown stale.
Whiting said that the controversy had taken a toll on her business' health and her own. She estimated there had been a drop off of "20 or 25 percent" at Cafe Hon since the Hon trademark first made news in December 2010. "I had to sell my IRAs to make payroll," she said.
The new Cafe Hon was to be revealed to an invited audience on Monday night. The public gets its first look, and taste, on Wednesday.
Whether her detractors accept her olive branch, Whiting said that her decision to extend it has already paid off. "I've had the first good night's sleep I had in a year," Whiting told the gathering at Cafe Hon.
"I feel like she's finally getting super smart to try to clean up her image," said Glenn Beverly Bennett Jr., manager at In the Details, a boutique on the Avenue, who has taken issue in the past with Cafe Hon and Honfest.
Bennett said that Cafe Hon's problems had a ripple effect on the neighborhood, with crowds down at this year's Honfest. "A lot of local people did not come to the event. It really hurt everybody else."
James B. Astrachan, a trademark law professor, described the relinquishing of a trademark as a routine matter and said Whiting made the right move.
"She's not an ax murderer," Astrachan said. "I think this will go a long way in settling this silly matter."
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