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A modest defense of Denise Whiting

The Baltimore Sun article on Denise Whiting’s trademarking the word hon for her business, Cafe Hon and its enterprises, has provoked a great outpouring of outrage.

Cafe Hon, we are informed, serves lousy, overpriced food. The annual Honfest insults Baltimore and its working-class heritage. Ms. Whiting is a greedy self-promoter who shamelessly exploits Hampden and reduces it to a tawdry stereotype. And then the comments get intemperate.

I hold no brief for Ms. Whiting. I have eaten at her restaurant a few times, finding the food and drink agreeable, and my daughter enjoys attending Honfest. But I am an auslander in Baltimore, and my daughter doesn’t count as a native either, because she was already two years old when we moved here. But I do think that I can detect something simmering beneath the unfavorable comments: envy.

Ms. Whiting is a shrewd businesswoman who has made a success of her enterprises. Her restaurant continues to have customers, and Honfest draws hundreds of people to Hampden every year. Successful entrepreneurs do not tend to have charming personalities, and if people find Ms. Whiting pushy, well, that is part of the package.

A while back, John Waters denounced Honfest as cheap and inauthentic, and that is part of the chorus of denunciations of Ms. Whiting as exploitative. But really, though Mr. Waters has portrayed Baltimore’s working-class personalities lovingly, isn’t there a degree of exploitation in his displaying those personalities for personal fame? And cash. Ms. Whiting is doing for business what writers and filmmakers do for art.

Joan Didion warned us forty years ago that writers are always selling someone out. Newspaper columnists, it appears, could not meet deadline without writing about their spouses and offspring, Novelists shamelessly work aspects of family, friends, and acquaintances into characters. Philip Roth has cannibalized himself to the point that it is difficult to tell where the characters leave off and the author begins (not that I care much for either, but the issue will no doubt breed tenure-and-promotion manuscripts in English departments for many years to come).

For that matter, who among us has not scrupled to make use of a family member or friend to get a job, a recommendation, or some other benefit?

Denise Whiting has determinedly and efficiently exploited a set of Baltimore stereotypes to make a buck, and she has been good at it. The American capitalist free enterprise system we all endorse, right? And no one compels you to be a customer. Granted, hers is a vulgar enterprise, but given idiotic merchandising like the “Baltimore, get in on it!” campaign or the popularity of reality television shows or the omnipresent Kardashian girls, it seems arbitrary to single out Ms. Whiting for abuse.

If you have a backlog of spleen that you wish to vent, let me suggest Congress.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:29 PM | | Comments (42)
        

Comments

John, I actually like the food at Cafe Hon and have mixed--though not particularly negative--feelings about HonFest. I also think John Waters is a hypocrite for attacking Ms. Whiting for something out of which he has made a lucrative career.

But this daughter of Highlandtown feels strongly that the word "Hon" belongs to us all and shouldn't be trademarked for her exclusive use. "Cafe Hon"--certainly. But not "Hon" alone.

Just wanted to point out that even non-haters can reasonably object to this situation.

Wait, the negative here is making my head spin:

"Who among us has not scrupled to make use of a family member or friend to get a job ..."

Doesn't "he did not scruple to" mean "he did it" -- his scruples were no impediment? So then do you mean "Who among us has *not not* scrupled to make use of ..."?

I'm going to go look up "scruple" now -- thanks!

The whole dust up reminds me of the guys who tried to bottle such (ultimately revealed as) public domain concepts as the pet rock, have a nice day, and the peace symbol. It never works. Because people perceive these as free ideas and not someone's intellectual property to be protected by hasty governmental imprimatur, the concepts eventually revert to vulgar use and the money blows away in the wind--or is wrest away from the impressario by packs of legal wolves who catch the scent of ill-gotten gain. Whiting should be very careful what she wishes for.

Thank you, John.

By the way, which of your relatives was sold out in this piece. (We can discuss the other pieces another time.)

I haven't scrupled to use family members or friends for such a purpose. The trouble is, it never works.

Many of the people huffing and puffing over this have plainly not read the original article, or do not understand how trademark law works. Ms. Whiting has trademarked hon for the cafe and the festival and the tchotchkes she sells, and that's as far as it goes. It has nothing to do with common speech. As someone pointed out, there are several enterprises that have trademarked y'all without provoking another scession crisis.

Thank you for this. I'd also like to point out that her Honfest has helped Baltimore and Hampden. It has been helpful to local businesses and artists. Even Cafe Hon itself has helped Hampden businesses. A lot of people from other neighborhoods visit Hampden for her restaurant, then end up doing some shopping while they are in the area. Many of these people are those who wouldn't have even been in the area if it weren't for Cafe Hon.

Really CherryTeresa? Honfest has " helped Baltimore and Hampden. It has been helpful to local businesses and artists. Even Cafe Hon itself has helped Hampden businesses"??! Now that is hilarious. She has done none of the sort. She has merely created an embarassment of a "festival", a tempest surrounding her oh-so-important right to dangle a dangerous flamingo over our heads and slowly usurp an everyday local phrase for her own interest. Denise Whiting is about one thing and one thing only: Denise Whiting's pocketbook and profile. Your final sentence is even more laughable. Yeah right- no one would have come into the neighborhood if not for her McHon Cafe. Yeah. Never heard of Hampden or went into it before that. And outsiders just flock miles to 36th street so they can hopefully get an opportunity to walk into her sacred sanctums. I'm sure all the other businesses (coffee shops, clothing stores, vintage and collector shops, bars, restaurants, specialty stores of all shapes and colors, etc.) along 36th who have been there longer (or not) hold your.....opinion.

Always a chuckle when journalists try to talk marketing--which they are all trying to do this week about Hon, Inc. It's like listening to dentists discuss high finance or women discuss football.

Hons want to be free.

Doug--
LOL and so true.
--or priests trying to talk about sex.

She describes it herself inaccurately.

""I took ownership of it," she says of the word "Hon." "No one along the line has celebrated it or created as much with it as I have. When I started doing Cafe Hon in 1992, 18 and a half years ago, where was the city then? Where was Hampden? So you could say I took a little word, celebrated it and created change. Big change.""

People respond to the way she describes it -- as Denise Whitman "OWNING" the word.

Not to mention she's calling Hampden a nothing place in 1992.

She has only herself to blame for the reaction.

Sounds an awful lot like the commentary over Elaine, the proprietor of Elaine's Restaurant in NYC. Elaine died a week ago after a brilliant career as a curmudgeon who could be brash with customers at times. Her food was/is mediocre. Her hospitality was erratic, depending upon her mood. The rich and famous got preference (sometimes) and visitors/tourists were sometimes turned away just because she didn't want them in he restaurant. But the place is famously successful. It takes all kinds to make up this world. Sounds like Hon is Baltimore's version of Elaine.

The philosophy behind your argument is flawed. We're all comfortable with Whiting profiting off of the word "Hon" - Nobody argues that she shouldn't have the restaurant. It's the fact that the trademark limits the freedoms of others to use the word without paying her that makes us angry. Your examples of novelists and movie makers don't equate - Their actions don't limit the freedoms of others.

"Ms. Whiting has trademarked hon for the cafe and the festival and the tchotchkes she sells, and that's as far as it goes. It has nothing to do with common speech.."

Really? That is your defense? Obviously no one can sue me for using a trademarked phrase in common speech. I am free to scream "I'm lovin' it" as I walk down the street and McDonalds can't sue me. However, if I used it to promote my business, they have a point. In this case, if a car dealership in Hampden wants to use the phrase, for example, "Come on down to Hampden and get a good deal, hon.", this Denise woman can bring legal action against them and this is the problem. That word and phrase belongs to the city and for this callous and exploitative "entrepreneur" to OWN a piece of linguistic culture, a piece of the blue-collar everyman that make up Hampden is a travesty. I live in Portland, Oregon now but I was born, raised and lived the first 30 years of my life in Baltimore, Maryland and I lived in Hampden for 2 years. Denise Whiting should be ashamed of herself from profiting off of the originality and history of others.

Actually, not so much my defense as an explanation of how capitalism and the law operate cooperatively. You have a problem with that?

Envy? What a cop out. I am a SUCCESSFUL business owner in Hampden. It is her greed, insensitivity, and self importance that has so many upset. Not to mention the audacity of trademarking the word HON. That would be like someone trademarking the word crab so that no one could use that in Maryland, or Charm City. And let's talk of her greed. She actually charged a nonprofit $25 so they could use the word Hon for their fundraiser. And after the Clipper Mill fire there was a fund raiser downtown and she stood at the door handing out fliers for her restaurant. Many of the business owners in Hampden do not want to be known as the kitschy neighborhood. We have nice restaurants, boutiques, nice hair salons we have moved past the days of kitsch.

I agree with Ladyhawk52 as another business owner in Hampden, I object to Mrs. Whiting's continued pronouncement of her responsibility for the existence of Hampden. I dislike her continued promotion of Hampden as kitchy and nothing til she came along. We are all business persons and I for one feel no need to hang relentlessly on to an era that clearly Hampden has outgrown. I am not envious of Mrs. Whiting, I am tired of her. I stood up in support of the big pink flamingo because I kind of find it pretty but Trademarking "Hon" is just a bridge too far.

"Actually, not so much my defense as an explanation of how capitalism and the law operate cooperatively. You have a problem with that?"

Actually John, there are Trademark attorneys who have commented on this and do not agree with your interpretation of the law. One can be found in the original Sun article.

Oh, and John, you said this in your last article: "She does not want someone else to sell “hon” merchandise like hers or set up a rival Honfest. The question, really, is how far one can go to trademark a word in the vernacular."

That is inaccurate. She will go after ANYONE who uses the word, "hon" on their merchandise, whether it looks like hers or not. She has made this quite clear.

OMG let us rejoice that a small business in this economy could thrive what is so wrong about making a profit? shut your pie holes and stop being jealous love you Denise you are the bomb you go girl for all this free press and they keep it going bowchickawowwow

That you, Denise?

Sue, we are NOT jealous. No one is jealous. I have a thriving business and what she is doing is revolting. there are more ethical ways to market your business. She represents everything wrong with the world

The food is overpriced, so I have not eaten there, though I have heard it is nothing to be impressed by. I am not amused by the stereotype that is portrayed there either, so have not been a patron. The Golden west serves good food and has a nice atmosphere, I have enjoyed music there and at Frazier's. I like Hampden, I have had coffee there, but would not think of setting foot into cafe hon. I have seen Honfest, and it sucks. All the same, props to her for marketing a successful enterprise out of kitsch Baltimore culture.

But for the writer to claim envy when it is clearly a sense of disgust and outrage we feel just proves he has absolutely no grasp of the situation. She made her business based on an existing part of Baltimore history, exploiting it and cheapening it sure, but the real problem is that she did not create it, it existed long before her, and for her to attempt to deny Baltimore the right to use a facet of its culture is not only appalling, but arrogant. She has no valid claim on the word, its associated images, or their fair use in business. You want to trademark the name of your business, fine. But to trademark a one-word endearment, an abbreviation, which exemplifies Baltimore culture is ludicrous. You didn't invent the word, and you didn't brand it either. John Waters did, if anyone can claim to, and all you did was ride his coattails. 1972, Pink Flamingos, 1988, Hairspray, 1992 Cafe Hon. Get the picture? You should be ashamed for taking the airport vendors merchandise. Why don't you go to New York and try and trademark the phrase 'The Big Apple' and charge every big apple pizza joint you find? Because that would be ridiculous, that's why. This will not stand, these trademarks will be taken away. I do not envy your arrogant exploitation, your quixotic delusions of grandeur (Oprah!?) or your mistaken belief that your crappy dive is the center of Hampden. You seem to think that Hampden did not exist before you got there, you are incorrect. You have no right to claim something that is owned by everyone. You lobbied for a wall mart that will hurt the neighborhood you claim to be a part of, you turn the image of our once working class into an even greater mockery, and your shame and greed seem to know no bounds. And if you haven't noticed, pretty much all of Baltimore seems to be at your throat right now. That can't be good for business in the coming weeks and months. Denise Whiting, apologize to the city and relinquish the trademark and keep running your diner that I will never go to in peace. You have taken the fun out of saying 'Hon' so why don't you trademark 'Charm City' instead. You are an embarrassment to Baltimore, and your flamingo is an eyesore.

"Denise Whiting has determinedly and efficiently exploited a set of Baltimore stereotypes to make a buck, and she has been good at it. The American capitalist free enterprise system we all endorse, right?"

Speak for yourself, not everyone in this town celebrates predatory capitalism. In fact, this town has a proud history of workers standing united against the "anything for a buck" crowd. Perhaps as an "Auslander" you should look into this and stop making presumptions. By the way, blaming everything on Congress transcended hacky somewhere circa 1994.

MikeyB, you just said it all, Hon. I especially agree that the charge of envy falls quite wide of the mark as being the reason underlying the widespread condemnation.

All right, "envy" was speculation. Take it off the table. But here's what I still don't understand. There are plenty of local business people who go in for vulgar trumpeting of their products. Look at local RV ads. And there are plenty of local restaurants serving mediocre food at a high markup and making pretentious claims for themselves. And there are a number of local figures and organizations that back that Wal-Mart in Remington, including a couple of neighborhood organizations.

Why does this one person provoke this fusillade of insults, this apoplectiv rage, this SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS? This degree of emotion coimes from somewhere, and I can't see that offended civic pride can account for all of it.

But what if the spleen we wish to vent is toward Congress?

As for "Hon," it didn't bother me because just about everyone else I correspond with outside of Baltimore spells it "hun."

PS@Doug Loch: Don't think your misogynistic little shot went unnoticed, pal.

John, it's not at all the same as a columnist using their family for inspiration. And the RV commercial analogy makes no sense to me at all.

A far better analogy would be if FOX Chevrolet declared that nobody can use the wordy "fox" any longer without their permission. It's just madness.

"I am free to scream "I'm lovin' it" as I walk down the street and McDonalds can't sue me. However, if I used it to promote my business, they have a point. In this case, if a car dealership in Hampden wants to use the phrase, for example, "Come on down to Hampden and get a good deal, hon.", this Denise woman can bring legal action against them and this is the problem. "

You are a moron. Turn your argument around and it looks just the same.
You can scream "i'm lovin it" all you want
But little joe's coffee shop would get sued into bankruptcy if they tried to use the phrase in their advertising.
its called BUSINESS You have to protect your brand because there are people out there who will take advantage of it and exploit it in every way possible.
God forbid someone be successful and try to maintain their success.
You would make a good communist

If you please, we use our indoor voices on this blog.

And there are plenty of local restaurants serving mediocre food at a high markup and making pretentious claims for themselves. And there are a number of local figures and organizations that back "that Wal-Mart in Remington, including a couple of neighborhood organizations.

Why does this one person provoke this fusillade of insults, this apoplectiv rage, this SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS? This degree of emotion coimes from somewhere, and I can't see that offended civic pride can account for all of it."


John, Denise Whiting FOR YEARS has alienated the community. She shows disdains for the working class people whose image (manufactured, for the most part, in my opinion) she has profited from. She gave discounts to the residents of Roland Park and Guilford (yeah, they really need them) to get them into her establishment. She has told other business owners that they cannot sell items from their porches (their OWN porches, not the sidewalks) without paying her a fee.

yes, others have supported the Wal-Mart, but now that she has opened this candy store across the street rom Cafe Hon, she is cynically pimping out the phrase "buy local" to get people into her new store.

"Buy local" is a very legitimate movement in this country to counter big box stores and Wal-Mart and the damage that they do to the environment and workers' wages and rights. All of a sudden, now that her tiny store is opened, she is about "buy local" a philisophy she only espouses when it suits her.

This woman has disrespected and disregarded the Hampden community for years.

and McDonalds can coin "I'm lovin' it. But this is no comparison: they are not taking ownership o, "I'm" "lovin'" or "it" none of those individual words. Now THAT would be the same as what Denise has done. If she wanted to trademark the specific design that is on her stickers and stationary, or trademark "Cafe Hon" that is fine, but she is stealing what is already in the public domain (or should be). If anyone should get royalties (and I think that no one should in this case) it should be John Waters and they should be paid by Denise as if there were no Waters movies, there would be no Cafe Hon.

And no I do NOT support capitalism, so red-bait me all you want, William Reese.

Question is: where does this end? I am a visual artist, if I use a single English word in my design, am I going to have to look it up and see if someone owns it, like I currently do with old photos of early 20th century film stars? Absurd!

"She has told other business owners that they cannot sell items from their porches (their OWN porches, not the sidewalks) without paying her a fee."


---during HOnfest, for clarification

Why does this one person provoke this fusillade of insults, this apoplectiv rage, this SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS? This degree of emotion coimes from somewhere, and I can't see that offended civic pride can account for all of it.

People get testy when you tell them words (not phrases) but mere words can be owned.

Her move isn't just greedy; it's Mr.-Burns-trying-to-block-the-sun kinda greedy.

"She has told other business owners that they cannot sell items from their porches (their OWN porches, not the sidewalks) without paying her a fee."

Just curious what their response was. I would have said, "___ off. Good luck collecting that fee."

sorry john, you just don't get it. I'd like to say you're just not a Baltimoron and cant appreciate the value of Hon to the culture here, but I don't think thats the case.

The insideous nature of aquiring pieces of popular culture for personal profit is apparently lost on you. It makes me think you jealous for not thinking of it first.

Culture is not and never should be for sale or profit,

Invent or create, But for god's sake dont steal from americana and justify it as business.

I am not a native of Baltimore, but i have grown to love the city, and I happen to really enjoy the food at Cafe Hon. I haven't had a single bad experience there. As for this trademark, while it sounds silly, any business oriented person should be able to understand her need to trademark Hon to prevent from other business capitalizing on her ideas. She could have just as easily chosen another word, built a brand around it, and trademarked that word.
Obviously, she doesn't expect people to stop saying hon, because its "hers". That would be like someone expecting you not to use the name "Denny" just because its a restaurant name. She just doesn't want another restaurant or similar business to use her brand. What business owner wouldn't protect themselves?
So, don't worry Baltimore. One woman isn't rewriting or stealing away your history. She's probably just trying to ad her own little stamp to it. Don't we all want that in some small way or another?

Has any one who is tearing apart actually sat down with Denise? Has anyone even tried to get the full story rather than just looking at the articles that make her into this monster? She's does more charitable work behind the scenes than anyone I've come into contact with. While she works to earn money,she also strives to make a better life for others. Although she can be pushy and yes, wants to earn money, she would probably help all these naysayers if they really needed it. While I realize my comment won't make a difference, perhaps you should stop in and ask her about the people she has helped and the work she is doing in the community. Underneath the businesswoman exterior, she has a kind and generous heart. People are always so willing to believe only the worst. Denise- keep doing your thing, Hon!

Ms. Whiting's attempt to trademark "hon" is the last straw for many of us. The original article showed up many of Ms. Whiting's negative characteristics --- the lack of appreciation of anybody's else's position (e.g., the belief that the Honfest is an unmixed blessing for Hampden; the lack of self awareness when she brags about shutting down the airport vendor; her thinking bringing more parking to Hampden would be a good thing for its residents as opposed to her business interests); the condescending manner in which she exploits an inauthentic rendition of someone else's heritage and neighborhood. Honestly, I would encourage her to move on.

I think it is the attitude that has hurt Ms. Whiting more than the actual ridiculous trademark. She has this holier than tho attitude that Hampden would be nothing if it were not for her. That is very offensive to people who used to live there and who currently live there. She has the attitude that it is all about her, she's the Queen of 36th Street (perhaps in her own mind.) For her to charge any amount of money to a non profit for their use of the word Hon, is sinful and I don't care what anyone says ... if she was not in this for money she would have forgiven them that charge and allowed them to use the term. Should Johns Hopkins decide to put an advertisement out there saying, "Don't forget your mammogram Hon" they would now have to pay Ms. Whiting for the privilege. They are not in it for the money, they are in it to save lives. Denise Whiting is the worst kind of predator in my mind, she worships the almighty dollar at any cost, without a care in the world as to who she hurts in the process. I hope this comes back to bite her. She will deserve it. You cannot take a word away from the people and tell them I own it and therefore I own you. I hope the other Hampden businesses give this greedy woman the cold shoulder ... there are more of you than there are of her ... get together and do something about it.

The thing about trademarks is that the burden of protection falls on the holder of the trademark--not on the public to avoid abuse.

The holder must lay claim to the property.

The holder must write the "cease and desist" letters.

The holder must prosecute.

The holder must go blind on the paperwork involved in the settlements.

The holder must work to keep people off the lawn.

Th holder must go crazy trying to--hold.

That's why aspirin, zipper, cellophane, and many other common nouns are no longer trademarked.

Over time, their holders, well, just let go.

Denny's did NOT trademark to word, "Denny" they trademarked their LOGO with their name.

Denise Whiting trademarked the word: big difference.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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