What would a hon do in this situation? Denise Whiting, the Café Hon owner who roiled a city by trademarking its signature term of endearment, who sought to micromanage the kitsch (and free speech) at a street festival, and who at various points claimed to have more or less codified hon culture, has apologized and promised to give up her legal claim, whatever it truly was, to the commercial use of the word "hon." Would a hon turn the other heavily-rouged cheek? Probably, but it's going to take some time for Ms. Whiting to erase the ill will she needlessly brought on herself.
The latest chapter in the hon saga is a return to form for Ms. Whiting who, heretofore, had channeled a tendency toward self-promotion into good business. Witness the flamingo incident of 2009, when she turned a dispute over whether she needed a city permit for a giant bedsheet and chicken wire bird that hung over her restaurant into a municipal cause celebre and got a feather boa-decked Sheila Dixon to provide a special mayoral dispensation for the tacky fowl. The trademarking of "hon," by contrast, and her grandiose pronouncement that her appropriation of the term for her restaurant had somehow created "change, big change" for the entire city, crossed a line from savvy self-promotion to self-aggrandizement. It was about as un-honlike as you can get.
Her recent change of heart has hefty commercial and promotional implications of its own. Apparently a year of Baltimoreans yelling at Ms. Whiting wasn't enough to get her to relent, but a few days in the presence of the highly talented and famously vituperative celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay did the trick. Was it simply that she needed to hear it in a British accent, or was it that she recognized the potential to milk her repentance in the warm glow of the TV lights that accompany Mr. Ramsay wherever he goes? She initially made her mea culpa during a radio interview about the episode of Mr. Ramsay's show, "Kitchen Nightmares," which had been filming at Café Hon, and then repeated it at a news conference the show's producers organized at her newly spiffed up restaurant, which reopened to the public Wednesday. Ms. Whiting said business had dropped off 20 percent to 25 percent since the trademarking flap, and no doubt she's hoping that her highly public apology will help her make that up and more.
There's certainly a possibility that Ms. Whiting's apology is insincere, or at least that it is more an attempt at damage control than the product of a new understanding of why people were upset in the first place. Rafael Alvarez, a former Sun reporter, makes the case persuasively in an article on Patch.com in which he writes, "Denise wouldn't listen to us — the people who live here — but she had a change of heart in front of someone who will put her exploitation of real Baltimoreans in several million living rooms," adding, "Once an opportunist, always an opportunist."
Perhaps so, but the essence of hon-dom is not cynical or calculating. It is trusting and accepting — so much so that its very linguistic basis rests on assuming kinship with total strangers. If Ms. Whiting's handling of the situation up to this point betrayed a serious misunderstanding of the culture her businesses supposedly celebrate, so too would a municipal thirst for vengeance. That doesn't mean we should forget the whole incident happened, but it does mean that she should get the opportunity to demonstrate that her apology is genuine. She needs to go back to quietly running her business, and she needs to give up on her draconian rules for Honfest and other attempts to pretend ownership of the word or concept of "hon."If she does, we should accept her apology and move on. It's the hon thing to do.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun