Hey HON, how did a trademark become a Kitchen Nightmare?

There was lots of excitement in Baltimore on Monday when Cafe Hon owner Denise Whiting held a news conference with TV reality show chef/provocateur Gordon Ramsay, in which she announced that she was relinquishing her trademark in the word “Hon”. The news conference was timed to coincide with the filming of an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s reality TV show Kitchen Nightmares, which should be something to see (speculation runs high that it will not be a promotional video for the Cafe Hon). 

Actually, Cafe Hon, Inc. owns numerous trademark registrations: CAFE HON was registered in 1992 for restaurant services. HONFEST was registered in 2007 for community cultural festivals. Presumably those will not be affected by the announcement on Monday. Cafe Hon, Inc. also owns federal trademark registrations for the word HON… alone: in Class 43 for restaurant services; in Class 16 for bumper stickers, napkins, note cards, gift cards, greeting cards, stationery, wrapping paper, gift bags, note pads, note paper, calendars, and pens; in Class 25 for t-shirts, sweatshirts, tank tops, hats, caps, boas, short sleeved shirts, shorts, capri pants, underwear, ties, and halter tops; and in Class 35 for retail gift shops.

Apparently, Ms Whiting’s contrition and willingness to loosen her grip on the word “HON” reflects a sudden change of heart. Earlier this year, Cafe Hon, Inc. filed a “Section 15” Affidavit in the U.S. Trademark Office to elevate its first HON registration to “incontestible” status. As of this morning, no cancellations of any of these registrations turned up in an online search of the Trademark Office database, but with the decision made only Monday, that is no surprise. Still, it will be interesting to see exactly what actions are taken with respect to each of these registrations.

What fascinates me about this is how rare it is. I don’t recall a case where the public cared so much about a trademark registration. So many words from popular culture are the subject of trademark registrations: DARLIN, HOCKEY MOMS, BIG DOG, BAD BOY, LETS GET IT ON, LIFE’S A BEACH, etc. etc. … In fact, thousands of words or phrases from the vernacular are federally registered trademarks for exclusive use in connection with the goods or services recited in their registrations. No one ever protests. I can’t recall seeing a similar situation, where a community connected so viscerally with a word, that when a business person does what trademark attorneys generally advise business persons to do (register the mark you use on the products you sell so you can fend off imitators), the community reaction was one of overwhelming revulsion and disgust. It is equally surprising that Ms. Whiting didn’t do a cost-benefit analysis much sooner and realize that the cost to her business in community relations and goodwill far outweighed any economic benefit she would ever derive from “owning” the word Hon.