Demonstrators protest 'Hon' trademark in Hampden

The idea — the very idea! — that one woman could legally own a word so deeply entrenched in Baltimore's lexicon, a term that seems to touch on the city's very blue-collar, audacious essence, did not sit well with many Baltimoreans.

On Sunday, capping a week of outrage about Cafe Hon owner Denise Whiting's trademarking the word "Hon," about 50 people gathered in Hampden to protest.

The demonstration was organized through social media, particularly a Facebook page called "Boycott Cafe Hon." It was one of several sites that sprang up last week after Baltimoreans found out that Whiting had established legal rights to the word "Hon."

The subdued demonstration lasted an hour. Participants mainly paced around in the cold along The Avenue, some holding posters with slogans such as "Honicide: Life on 36th Street," "You Can't Trademark Our Culture Hon" and "Boycott Cafe Hon Now … so we can go home and watch the Ravens like we oughta."

A number of people also gathered in the same spot to support Whiting, who was on the scene in an animal-print faux fur coat and her customary bejeweled cat's-eye spectacles.

"They've taken that word away from us," said the rally's organizer, Steve Akers, 25, an optician who grew up in Hampden but now lives in Severn. "They're making money off of a culture that's not theirs. It's my grandmother's and my mom's."

Whiting said the controversy has not hurt her business, but she seemed perplexed by the level of vitriol directed at her. Though Sunday's protesters were mild-mannered, online Whiting has been called "disgusting," "phony" and "a vulture." Perhaps worst of all, she has been compared to Robert Irsay, who in 1984 moved the Colts out of Baltimore under cover of night. For a Baltimorean, that is the lowest of blows.

"I don't know why they're bullying me," Whiting said. "I'm just protecting the business I started 19 years ago. It's that simple."

Whiting, who owns Cafe Hon, Honbar and Hontown, also founded Honfest, the annual homage to an apocryphal sort of Baltimore character, heavily lipsticked, with tall hair and a fondness for housecoats. She began trademarking plays on the word "Hon" in 1992 after opening the restaurant. Most people didn't find out, however, until last week, when news reports pointed it out.

People were surprised that Whiting not only owns the rights to using "Hon" on items such as napkins, note cards, calendars, pens, shirts, hats, underwear, ties and shorts, but individuals and organizations that want to use the word for anything commercial probably need her permission.

This fall, when the Maryland Transit Administration wanted to incorporate a few beehived and bespectacled Hons into its campaign for a new fare card along with the phrase "Get yours, Hon," the agency had to go through Whiting. She didn't charge money, but she did insist on approving each ad, poster and television commercial.

And a few years ago, when Whiting found out that someone was selling Hon merchandise at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, she confronted him, demanding he turn over all of the goods and pay her attorney fees. He did.

The community, particularly online, wasted no time doling out swift and harsh judgment last week. The fact that Whiting said she wouldn't be going after diner waitresses who sweet-talk customers or little girls with Hon-centric Halloween costumes didn't seem to matter.

Someone inverted Whiting's well-known oval "Hon" bumper sticker to read "NOH." Someone else redrafted the famous Christmas song to "12 Days of Copyrights" ("On the fourth day of Christmas, copyrighted by me, four formstones, three Poe poems, two crab cakes and a ditty by Francis Scott Key.") Quite a few people with Facebook accounts adjusted their settings to make "Hon" their middle name.

By Sunday, a Facebook page called "No one Owns Hon, Hon" had accumulated 2,324 fans — more than Cafe Hon itself, which has 1,983.

At the demonstration in Hampden, most protesters questioned said they wanted to make a statement about greed — but even more about what they perceived as the unfairness of an individual trying to claim something they think belongs to the city as a whole.

"This three-letter word is so deeply associated with Baltimore," said Jack Purdy, who's 62 and a 10-year Hampden resident. "She wants to turn an honest, working-class image into a tourist-park sort of thing."

Ken Gruz of Remington, who's 54 and does freelance film production work, questioned whether Whiting's claim would stand up to a legal challenge.

"Everyone in the city thought it was theirs," he said of the word. "Now someone is saying, 'It's mine.' "

As protesters marched outside, folks inside Whiting's Hon businesses ordered "Jest regler, Hon! Hamburgers" and "Murlin Style Lump Crab Cakes." They paid $1 for Hon stickers and filled pink Hon bags with Hon gear such as logo T-shirts, trinkets and boas.

A few of the shoppers and diners made a point to hug Whiting on their way out.

When asked if she found all of the venom aimed at Whiting upsetting, Whiting's sister Wendy Ammenheuser welled up with tears, explaining that her teenage daughters had come across some of the ugly stuff on Facebook.

Ammenheuser said she wanted to be there Sunday to support her sister, but she had nothing to say to the protesters, whom she said she simply couldn't understand.

"To address the issues of these people …" she said, her voice trailing off. "I just don't know."

Whiting, however, had quite a bit to say.

"There was no malicious intent here — it's basic trademark law. That's it," she said. " 'Hon' is fun. It's a wonderful word.

"We will continue to celebrate 'Hon' and we welcome everyone into Cafe Hon and into Hontown if they're protesters or lovers or haters, neighborhood people, poor or rich. Everyone is welcome, Hon."