HonFest caps a rocky year for founder Denise Whiting

Denise Whiting, pictured in this 2010 photo, is preparing for this year's HonFest after a tumultuous year.
Denise Whiting, pictured in this 2010 photo, is preparing for this year's HonFest after a tumultuous year. (File photo by Jed Kirschbaum)

It's been a cathartic 12 months for Denise Whiting. She gave up her frowned-upon 'Hon' trademark, and apologized publicly for thinking that she could own a common term of endearment.

She cried on national television, as the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, of Fox-TV's 'Kitchen Nightmares,' ripped her restaurant, Café Hon, and her staff chided her as an overbearing boss.


She let Ramsay revamp the restaurant and its menu, softened her edges, laid low and rode out months of public rebuke.

And somehow, Whiting found time to plan HonFest, the regionally popular festival she founded in 1993. The 19th annual fest is June 9-10 on The Avenue in Hampden.


After a year of taking her lumps in the public eye, Whiting says, "We're back to business as usual."

In an interview May 31, the native Baltimorean, 53, pleaded to the public to "just let me run the restaurant and let me be creative and let me be a part of Hampden and let me be a part of Baltimore."

All the traditional enticements can be found at this year's festival, including Best Hon, Honette and Lil Hon contests, a full lineup of local bands, and acts such as The Fabulettes and The Singing Lucies.

New this year are the Mashed Potato Dance Contest on Sunday and the Glyndon Area Players performing songs from John Waters' Baltimore-inspired musical, "Hairspray," on Saturday.

Sponsors include Miller Light, Bacardi with its open-air drink lounge, M&T Bank, radio station 98 Rock, WBAL-TV, CBS Radio, Chick-fil-A, Long & Foster and Anderson Automotive.

"I think it's going to be the best HonFest ever," Whiting said.

Looking back

Last year, Whiting, a Kernewood resident, was in bad graces with Hampden merchants after she issued a decree, later withdrawn, that prohibited them from selling merchandise that might infringe upon her trademark.

A year ago this week, at a contentious meeting of the Hampden Village Merchants Association, there were questions about HonFest's impact on merchants and whether the festival was good for the business community.

Last November, Whiting dropped her trademark, and acknowledged, "It was never mine to have in the first place."

In an episode taped last fall that aired in February, the Ramsay show shined a national spotlight on Whiting. Kitchen Nightmares characterized the controversy as a public relations nightmare for her.

Employees told Whiting to her face she was a micro-manager with a big ego.

Whiting told Ramsay that Café Hon's business was off as much as 50 percent and that she feared for her life because of hate directed at her.

She also told the kitchen staff to "86" numerous menu items, as Ramsay watched aghast.

"I don't like cooking this menu," head chef Greg Jones told Ramsay.

The show described Café Hon as being "at war with its community," and Ramsay gave the restaurant bad marks, calling the meatloaf "mushy," and the fish and chips "greasy."

He singled out the Big Bay Club, a shrimp salad and crab cake sandwich, for criticism, calling it unwieldy and the shrimp refrigerated and possibly "tainted."

Revamped restaurant

Ramsay gave the restaurant a makeover and retooled the menu with Whiting's blessing.

Whiting used the show as an opportunity to apologize for trademarking 'Hon.'

Whiting said she has since "tweaked" the Café Hon menu, bringing back some items Ramsay had cut.

"People wanted the Big Bay Club," she said. "Now, we bring it back as a special. And of course we have to have the dill vinaigrette dressing."

Replacing the sandwich on the regular menu is a crab and shrimp salad.

Last week, Ramsay revisited Café Hon, calling the restaurant more energetic and the food "delicious," according to Whiting.

Whiting said Ramsay gave her two gifts. One, which she showed, was a tiny pink flamingo on a pedestal, on which he wrote, "Love, Gordon."

The other was a lead on a local chef to succeed Jones, who has quit as Café Hon's head chef since the show aired. Whiting said she would interview the candidate this week. In the meantime, the sous chef and the kitchen manager "have stepped up," Whiting said.

There's been no lack of applicants for the head chef position, although one promising candidate showed up drunk for his second interview, she said.

'It's gone now'

Whiting has nothing but praise for Ramsay, saying he was instrumental in helping her make peace with her staff and quiet her trademark critics.

"He helped us get out from under that," she said. "It's lifted. It's gone now."

Honfest 2012 material for potential festival vendors still includes a reference to the old trademark, due to an employee error, Whiting said.

And she was still in late-hour negotiations last week with Baltimore City over the style of stages the city will supply for HonFest.

But she said, "It wouldn't be HonFest if we didn't have some little blip."

Whiting has become active with the Hampden Community Council again, and has worked with council treasurer Genny Dill to organize Hampden HiFi, an eight-week concert series in Roosevelt Park. HiFi kicks off June 8, the night before HonFest starts.

Whiting said she feeds lunch Tuesdays at Cafe Hon to students from the Hampden-based Academy for College and Career Exploration, in exchange for ACCE students picking up trash in the park each week.

Dill said Whiting has always given back to the area, donating money to the Roosevelt Recreation Center for its Halloween Haunted House and serving mac and cheese with two employees during last fall's HampdenFest, among other good deeds.

That community involvement was overshadowed by the trademarking controversy, Dill said.

"She made a huge mistake, I mean a real doozy, but you know what? She did the right thing in the end, and I sincerely believe that she did the right thing for the right reasons," Dill said.

Lessons learned

Whiting is also making rapprochement with Avenue merchants and this year has waived a $100 "spillout" fee for merchants who sell merchandise outside their stores during HonFest.

"It's an olive branch," she said. "We want HonFest to be for everyone."

Any fallout from trademarking and Ramsay's visits doesn't appear to have affected the popularity of the festival, Whiting said.

"As a matter of fact, we've had more calls from potential sponsors than we ever have," she said.

And she dismisses any notion that HonFest is bad for the business community.

The fest draws an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 people a year, based on beer sales, Whiting said.

"I'd like to calculate the economic impact of HonFest" for the city, she said. She bets it's about $2 million, based on comparisons to Artscape.

What has she learned from her rocky year?

"I think the come-away is really the passion people have for the city of Baltimore," Whiting said. "And when they felt like something was being taken away from them, they were passionate about it. And they were right to do that."

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