Somewhere along the way, the owner of a popular Baltimore eatery created incredibly bad ill-will. Café Hon, open since 1992, takes its name from a term of endearment that I personally haven’t heard since I was an undergraduate and the lady with the bun hairdo looked at me and said, “would you like some fried okra, hon?” But apparently the term is more common in Baltimore.
So Café Hon owner Denise Whiting filled out a trademark registration form for the word “hon” and duly registered it with the Federal
Trademark Commission. No one cared until Whiting decided to open a retail store called HONtown across the street from Café Hon and let it be known that she was determined to enforce her rights to “hon.” Whiting was known for self-promotion and a certain chutzpah, but in this case she went, very un-honlike over the line. By saying that the trademarking of “hon” created “change, big change” for the city of Baltimore, Whiting was seen to have crossed a line from self-promotion to self-aggrandizement.
Baltimore went crazy. You’d think she had tried to corner the market on soft shell crabs. Many citizens of Baltimore were so outraged they actually demonstrated to express their anger and disappointment.
Her first attempts at apology were amateurish and ineffective. In a letter to the newspaper, she wrote:
I am sorry that our basic assertion of commercial rights was taken the wrong way.
That’s a huge hedge and not an apology at all. It blames her critics for not seeing things her way. Her lawyer didn’t do her any favors when he told the Baltimore Messenger: “The apology doesn’t change her legal position. She’s been taking sound business practices.” (That’s silly. The legal advice was as tone-deaf as the PR advice.)
She had said she would oppose the use of the word “hon” by others and threatened to issue cease and desist orders in cases where others attempted to capitalize on the expression. She later backed away from that stance and said she just wanted to make sure the expression was used properly. The apology got better:
I didn’t mean to steal something, to take something. No one can ever steal or take or own the spirit of Baltimore and I apologize from the bottom of my heart for all of the pain that I have caused everyone out there and I vow to make amends if given
the opportunity. It was never mine to own in the first place.
It took a year of protest and boycotts to get Whiting to relent and start heeding the fundamental tenets of crisis management: Apologize fully. Accept responsibility. Make sure everybody knows. Apologize again. Stop doing whatever it was that made people mad. Be humble. Say you’ve learned, that you will not repeat the offending behavior, and make a gesture of restitution.
Maybe Whiting saw the error of her ways, and maybe the loss of a quarter of her business had something to do with it, but she decided to make a highly public apology. Whiting went on a popular Baltimore radio program, Mix 106.5 FM’s Jo Jo and Reagan Show, to renounce her trademark on the colloquialism “hon” and to apologize and ask for forgiveness. Even then she couldn’t get the apology quite right, although it was better. On the verge of tears, an emotional Whiting said:
Today I get a second chance. I just want to say I am sorry for the animosity and hatred and
everything that trademarking a word, just a word, has done. I’ve always
promoted the city in a positive way. Trademarking the word has just about
killed the business. I didn’t understand the culture and how passionate
everyone is about “hon,” a term of endearment, a way that we express ourselves.
It’s wonderful to have this opportunity to have this second chance. It was a misstep.
It was a misstep by me and so it was misunderstood by everyone. The only thing
that matters is what I did to upset an entire town. I want to reach out to
everyone [and make it right.] Please forgive me for everything I’ve done.
She also said that she would “give the trademark back,” by which I took her to mean that she would withdraw her application for the word. “I’ll just take it off the register, I can do that,” Whiting said, which impressed the radio hosts. “Really, you can do that?” they asked.
Was her decision to apologize sincere? Or was it, as some of her critics charged, just a matter of money?
“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,” says an editorial in The Baltimore Sun. The editorial continues:
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
Whiting is not what you’d call a quick study. This was a silly situation that a simple apology would have quickly defused. Instead she fought (for what?) for over a year. Even when she saw she was in a no-win situation, it took multiple attempts to issue an apology that stuck. Let me just point a few of the defects of her serial apologies:
- Blaming the victim
- Lack of specificity
- Shifting responsibility
- Passive voice (“It was a misstep by me”)
- Lack of restitution
I wish Denise Whiting and Café Hon well. I’m told she’s a better restaurateur than crisis manager. I may even visit her
establishment the next time I’m in Baltimore. Maybe she’ll be serving fried okra.