Cafe Hon owner: Trademark was about protecting a business, not co-opting a Baltimore tradition

December 19, 2010|By Denise Whiting

Welcome to my office. Once a supply closet, it's crammed with tools, merchandise and paraphernalia left over from this summer's HonFest. I've about five cubic feet of space for me, my desk and the finicky computer that helps me run this little gift shop I've opened, HONtown. The shop and Café Hon across the street employ 54 good souls. They're working hard through the holiday rush, though our morale took quite a hit from all the frustration vented last week, on these pages and elsewhere, about our trademarks.

In case you missed it, here's the controversy in a nutshell: the federal government has granted my business several trademarks associated with the word "hon," which means that we enjoy exclusive rights to the sale of certain classes of merchandise and services bearing that word. I exaggerated and mischaracterized the meaning of these trademarks to a few reporters last week, and now, understandably, I stand accused of "stealing" a term of endearment long associated with my native town.

I hear you, Baltimore. Some of you think that I believe I "own" the word "hon." Well, of course I don't own it, and I didn't invent it. But I did name my first restaurant in 1992 "It's a Café, Hon," which easily shortened to Café Hon. All my company was trying to do by trademarking specific uses of the word was to protect us from merchandise knock-offs by those who wanted to capitalize on the commercial side of the concept enhancement work we had done. It was not meant to take possession of the word or the culture from the public.

Trademark law exists for a reason. We have it so that ordinary people can create and brand companies and products. Without trademark law, you have a business culture like China's, in which intellectual property "pirates" can disrespect, with impunity, the sweat equity of entrepreneurs by copying trademarked goods. That's not how America works, and we're all better off for it. Because small business owners can build brands and protect them, they can prosper and ultimately contribute to their community.

HonFest is a case in point. Most of the commercial benefits of the festival go to others. This past summer more than 50,000 people participated and spent plenty of money at Hampden businesses. Money made at the beer stalls went to Hampden Baseball. Over the years, Café Hon and HonFest have given away thousands of dollars to local organizations that are bettering Baltimore.

I am not raking in grand profits with my trademarks. I'm not flexing the brand to make myself rich. I am simply protecting it so that the business can endure, continue to employ the people who work here, and provide me and my family with a decent living.

I am a small business owner who started a café almost 20 years ago with $700 to my name. I do the best I can to run my business in accordance with the lessons I learned years ago as a student at the University of Baltimore and Anne Arundel Community College. Building and protecting your brand is the soul of Marketing 101; trademark law is what makes branding possible.

But now a website has been created to promote the cause of putting us out of business and pushing more than 50 citizens onto the unemployment rolls — this at a time when unemployment is over 9 percent.

Well, even if you're angry at us, you're welcome to come down to see us for some pie. Just be nice to the waitresses! Twenty percent of all proceeds today will be donated to Special Olympics Maryland. Happy holidays, folks.

Denise Whiting is the owner of Café Hon. Her e-mail is whiting319@aol.com.

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