Denise Whiting has a PR problem. Here's why
Published: February 2, 2011
Denise Whiting shows a guest to her cozy breakfast nook. The kitchen is retro-stylish yet unfussy, with old-time tile, a big double oven, and stainless-trimmed counters. She seats a reporter across from her son Thomas Whiting and next to her public relations consultant, Paul Jaskunas. “I was gonna clean things up,” she says of her kitchen, “but then it would be pretending.”
She pours coffee and graciously but guardedly answers questions for two hours.
That Whiting’s public life has come to this is shocking to those who know and like her. The owner and creator of Café Hon and impresario of HonFest, Hampden’s popular summer street fair, has for nearly two decades built her brand with a creative flair and a brassy but generous persona, seemingly without effort.
Then, in early December, disaster struck in the form of a throwaway line in community newspaper The Baltimore Messenger. Whiting acknowledged she had trademarked the venerable Baltimore endearment “hon” and asserted her right to approve the “hon” image used in a new Maryland Transit Administration advertising campaign. The uproar was immediate, inspiring boycotts and protest pickets. Writer Rafael Alvarez likened Whiting to infamous Colts absconder Robert Irsay in a dress.
Stung by the vitriol and personal attacks, Whiting repeatedly told reporters and radio listeners that she meant only to protect her brand. But the more she explained, the hotter the ridicule got.
City Paper helped fan the flames early on with a blog post (“Unclean! Unclean!” The News Hole, Dec. 9, 2010), and we called Whiting in December to ask for an in-depth interview to clear the air. She agreed to meet us in early January, but by then the controversy had gotten so intense she called in Jaskunas, a MICA faculty member, novelist, and public relations specialist who since mid-December has mediated media contact with Whiting.
“I’ve asked Denise not to talk about the trademark issue,” Jaskunas says ahead of a Jan. 18 interview, but trademark law and perceptions of it are just a sideshow now, as Whiting’s detractors dredge up any slight, real or imagined. The “hontroversy” can be read as a case study of how neighborhood politics and spite can collapse on a would-be leader. It also illustrates the stark differences in vision and ideals that animate different factions of merchants and residents in Hampden and the city as a whole. And the uproar casts unflattering light on the priorities of people (this reporter included) who have spent their time on this subject in a city with bigger problems.
So let’s say this up front: Denise Whiting is not a villain. She has done nothing illegal—not that we can find, anyway—and her sins (if they are sins) are modest. She has at times overstated her own case. She has perhaps shown some cultural insensitivity. She has not followed through promptly on every ambition, particularly her own charitable corporation.
Whiting is, in other words, human. She’s just like any of the rest of us—except with maybe more gumption, more energy, and more determination to succeed. And that, at last, may be her greatest fault.
Despite the claims of detractors who call her a carpetbagger, Whiting says she was born in Baltimore City. “I can’t remember the name of the hospital,” she says. “It’s not there anymore.”
Her son Thomas dials grandma for confirmation. A woman’s voice comes over his speakerphone. “We were living in Baltimore County,” she says. “I can’t remember . . . I think it was Lutheran Hospital. Pop Pop was overseas in Korea.”
The family eventually settled in Anne Arundel County. Denise’s father had some kind of military job (“I can’t tell you what he did because he never told us,” she says). Her mother primarily stayed at home. Denise, the oldest of three sisters, learned to cook by watching her mother, she says.
Whiting says her grandmothers both had hon tendencies—that tough-but-loving, can-do personality that grownups of today mostly cannot match. One came from Poland, through Ellis Island, at age 11. “She would crush tomato worms with her bare hands,” Whiting says. “She was stable hon stock. She was a woman’s woman.”
Whiting’s aunt was the “epitome of hon fashion in the ’60s,” she says. “She was always perfectly coiffed. I always wondered what she was going to wear next.”
Whiting attended public schools in Anne Arundel and went on Anne Arundel Community College and the University of Baltimore, graduating in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Her various jobs included waitressing and a stint at the Leffler Agency advertising firm. She married W. Stanwood Whiting, a lawyer who at various times worked for the state attorney general’s office and as an assistant Baltimore County attorney, along with private practice. Denise Whiting became a real estate agent, and then a small-time caterer after a neighbor asked her to supply food for a wedding. Thomas was born in 1986 and the marriage broke up a few years later, leaving Denise with a challenge. “I had 18 months of alimony,” she says. “Eighteen months to decide what I was going to do to make a living.”
She considered law school, or a master’s in public health. Real estate was an option too, as was the catering business, which grew from $5,000 in its first year to about $20,000 in its second, she says, “but I knew I’d have to pick.”
Whiting says she was driving down 36th Street around Christmas in 1991 and saw a sign that said restaurant for lease. The landlord wanted $1,200. Whiting offered $700, which he accepted. She started right out with the hometown, comfort-food vibe and the retro “hon” theme, outfitting the place with vintage appliances and decor. It was a hit, but Whiting had a bit to learn about her new neighborhood.
“Can I just say this? I never had anything to do with the trees being taken down, which I’ve been blamed for for years,” Whiting says during a second, hour-long interview at Café Hon on Jan. 24. “And here’s the thing. I had nothing to do with the May Fair, ever. It moved off 36th Street into the park and faded away. It did its own thing, completely separate from me. I also had nothing to do with the end of the baseball parade.”
Whiting was asked if she ever offended anyone. Her answer illustrates neighborhood politics at its finest, an amalgam of rumor and grudge setting hard over decades. The baseball parade was an annual rite of the 100-kid strong Hampden Small Fry Baseball League—which still plays today in part because of heavy sponsorship by Whiting, according to John Young, president of the league. The parade was a casualty of government permits and regulation, Young says, which became too expensive.
The May Fair, Whiting explained, was a Hampden tradition she discovered a few months after opening her restaurant, when she arrived one morning to discover pit beef stands lining the Avenue. The Baltimore’s Best Hon contest began two years following, on the sidewalk in front of her place, to stake out the territory. Contestants competed to come off most like a stereotypical Baltimore “hon,” complete with bouffants and gaudy outfits. Whiting brought in a 15-piece swing band for the occasion. It was a hit, but never meant as a slight to the existing festival, she says.
What became HonFest evolved in the years that followed, moving from her back parking lot onto the street by the early 2000s, then spilling over onto Sunday afternoon. As the festival grew and the café prospered, not everyone dug the act.
“She has hurt people’s feelings the way she has spoken about the community before,” Pastor Michael A. Dubsky of St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church says. “Some people call it two Hampdens—the historic blue-collar piece, and the newer piece that’s arisen over the past 10 years. I sort of bridge them. But my constituency is more the folks who lived here their whole lives . . . and she, for whatever reason, tends to fall, in appealing, to tourists. And newcomers.”
Benn Ray, an erstwhile City Paper contributor, runs Atomic Books and heads the Hampden Village Merchants Association. He says he knows of no one in the association who “resents” Whiting, but adds, “She’s long been a controversial figure in the neighborhood.”
The wild growth of HonFest has benefited many Hampden businesses but also inconvenienced residents and some merchants, Ray says, while Whiting’s kitschy vision of the hon has offended some. But while Whiting’s motivations seem straightforward, Ray says her execution, by turns, comes off as calculating and then naive. “The question I ask myself is, is she Inspector Clouseau or is she what Inspector Clouseau’s enemies think he is? Is she a bumbler or a mastermind?” Ray says. “The reason I think she might be a mastermind is the way she handled the flamingo controversy.”
In hindsight, Flamingogate, as some called it, looks like brilliant judo marketing. It began in late September 2009, shortly after a city inspector notified Whiting that an outsized cloth-and-wood flamingo that had been hanging from Café Hon’s front fire escape for nearly seven years required a permit and an $800 annual fee. (Whiting now says the initial bill was about $1,400, including fines.) The incident was apparently part of a city policy to firm up its enforcement of permits; several other business owners got notices, according to Baltimore Sun coverage. But Whiting quickly put herself, and her flamingo, front and center.
Whiting complained to the city and the media when city officials did not respond promptly. The bird was a work of art, one in a series created by Randall A. Gornowich. It had been recently photographed and featured in The New York Times. The Sun’s Andy Green asked then Mayor Sheila Dixon to intervene on Whiting’s behalf.
Dramatically, Whiting and a small crew dismantled the flamingo on the night of Oct. 20, just ahead of a city deadline, and stoked a public backlash. She handed out fliers. Someone started a Facebook page called Give Baltimore the Bird. Dozens of protestors appeared on the City Hall mall with pink flamingos.
By Oct. 28, the city seemingly relented, cutting Whiting’s permit fee in half and offering a sign promoting Hampden on the JFX. Whiting declared victory and staged a grand unveiling of a new, improved flamingo made of sturdy fiberglass on Nov. 18.
“People really embraced it,” Thomas Whiting says. “People didn’t come by to take pictures of Café Hon, they came by to take pictures of the flamingo.”
“If I had a quarter for every photo,” Denise says, “then I really would be rich.”
“—Denise said jokingly,” Jaskunas amends for a reporter’s benefit.
“—or a quarter for every time I gave to a charitable cause,” Denise says, almost under her breath.
Asked if the incident wasn’t a case of savvy marketing, Whiting looks as though she’s been accused of a felony. She speaks slowly and carefully. “I like to look at the positive,” she says. “The glass is full, not empty, is how I view things.
“There was no mention of the Café Hon in The New York Times,” she adds. “That is the point where I realized that the pink flamingo has its own identity other than Café Hon.”
“You’re just the steward of its destiny,” Thomas adds. They both laugh.
“I should just say this,” Thomas continues. “Mom came to me and said we need to look at the flamingo, it needs to be updated—”
Denise Whiting crosses her neck with her right index finger at the other table, making the gesture for “cut!” Her son veers off the story and it peters out.
“My impression,” Jaskunas says, “is it’s kind of improvised as you go along.”
Denise Whiting: “In the restaurant business you think on your feet.”
According to Gornowich’s Flickr page, construction had begun on the new, improved fiberglass flamingo as of Oct. 20—the day after the old bird came down, more than a week before the permit dispute was supposedly settled. Whiting is asked how that squares with her narrative.
Jaskunas e-mails to acknowledge that, yes, Whiting had spoken to a consultant in the spring of 2009 who suggested the flamingo be spruced up, and yes, she and Gornowich decided during the heat of Flamingogate that a new bird was a good bet, given the public outpouring of support, and so Gornowich started working with Fox Industries on a new bird. At that point, Jaskunas writes, “Fox and Café Hon didn’t formalize anything, but Randall and the people at Fox ‘ran with it,’ according to Denise.” Gornowich did not respond to several requests for an interview.
“I misspoke,” Denise Whiting acknowledges. “And in a way that’s kind of like a misspeak on top of a misspeak on top of a misspeak. What I’m used to with reporters is telling a story. Usually it’s a fun story, about HonFest or Café Hon. There were never any legal things involved. It was just a story, and I told the story.
“Only this time, when I told the story, the story didn’t come out the way I told it.”
We’re in Whiting’s kitchen. She is explaining how the trademark story got blown out of proportion in the media.
“When you’re telling a story and not an event or an occurrence, it’s very easy and it flows,” Whiting says. “But this issue, it was . . .” she pauses.
“It’s a complicated subject, in law,” Jaskunas prompts.
“I was asked questions of law which I was not prepared, or not the best person to answer,” Whiting says. “There are lawyers, there are intellectual property lawyers that get confused on the subject of trademark law.”
Whiting’s “hontroversy” narrative is that she misspoke, and that people misunderstood her, and that the media—including this newspaper—piled on. She retained attorney Ned Himmelrich to give the press “sort of an overview of trademark law,” Himmelrich says.
At the core of the dispute are the “hon” trademarks. There are five of them, including her original 1992 mark for the Café Hon logo and her HonFest trademark, each claiming a different exclusive use of the term. But filing a trademark is not the most important thing, Himmelrich says: “The important thing is use.” In order for Whiting to assert a trademark on, say, Hon mugs, she has to have been making, selling, or otherwise purveying mugs with the word “hon” printed on them before anyone else. The same goes for every other use: bumper stickers, T-shirts, license plate surrounds, lampshades, what have you. And if you want to have a gift store with the word “hon” in its name, then, from now on, you’ve got to either cut Whiting in or you can’t do it.
That’s not just because she now has a gift store called HONtown, in the former Hometown Girl space across the street from Café Hon. In 2005, when Whiting’s lawyer, Kathryn Miller Goldman, sent a cease-and-desist letter to the owners of Thanks, Hon in Towson, Whiting had no such store. Thanks, Hon was not selling “hon”-branded stuff, either, Brenda Prevas, one of the founders, says.
Prevas and two partners opened Thanks, Hon in Towson as a funky, upscale gift shop. “The inspiration was a British shop called Thanks, Darlin’,” Prevas says.
“So we were all upset when we got the letter,” she continues. “We were still struggling, we had just opened.” The partners contacted a law firm and were advised that they could win a trademark suit, if it came to that, but that it would likely cost them $20,000 to defend their name. “It appeared that at the time she had only trademarked the three capital letters in Helvetica—HON,” Prevas says.
Even so, Himmelrich now says, Whiting has had “commonlaw rights” to the word “hon”—as a word alone—ever since she opened Café Hon. His view is rejected by other lawyers, most notably Jim Astrachan, a local trademark lawyer, who says it’s unlikely, given the ubiquity of the word in Baltimore, that Whiting’s was the first commercial use. But he offers no specific evidence of prior use.
Prevas says she and her partners met with Whiting to try to work something out, but “she just wouldn’t budge. She said, ‘This is nothing personal, it’s just business. If the City of Baltimore wanted to use the word “hon” I’d sue them too.’”
Whiting also told her and her partner that she wouldn’t mind if they protested publicly, according to Prevas: “She told us any publicity is good publicity—so if you want to change your name and make a racket in the press, drag my name into it, that’s fine.”
Whiting says she doesn’t remember the details of her meeting with Prevas, but she denies telling them she didn’t care if they dragged her name into the press and she says she never told them she would sue. “I think we had a pleasant, amicable conversation,” Whiting says. “I asked them if they would sell Hon merchandise. They never got back to me on it.”
Whiting says she had by that time established the “Hon Boutique” inside her café. “There is no name on record. You won’t find it anywhere,” she says. But it was her gift shop nonetheless, requiring that she guard against imitators. “When you’re in business and someone opens something that looks like it could be yours, you do what a responsible business owner would do.”
Prevas says they never changed the shop’s name and went out of business for other reasons. But she has neither forgiven nor forgotten the incident. “She’s had six years to sort of build up her darling image,” Prevas says. “You know they say the bigger they come the harder they fall. The bigger the hair I guess the harder they fall, ya know?”
On Jan. 18, Whiting, through Jaskunas, released a two-page public clarification of her position titled “Denise Whiting Apologizes for ‘Hontroversy.’” She said she was sorry for leaving the impression that she thinks she “owns” the word “hon,” adding, “I know that my trademark is limited in scope and I have failed to convey that in recent comments to the media.” The story set off another round of Whiting bashing on the Sun’s online reader forum.
Whiting’s detractors hold her in such contempt that they criticize even her charitable works, saying she gives opportunistically. Whiting seemingly invites this criticism. “On the day of the first protest in front of her restaurant,” Pastor Michael Dubsky says, “all of a sudden it was Hon Charity Day and she has the Salvation Army ringing out there.”
Throughout the recent unpleasantness, those defending Whiting have also referred to her charity work. Whiting has cheerfully allowed herself to be dunked to raise money for the Special Olympics, for example. Jaskunas e-mails City Paper to say Café Hon “contributed $11,600 to 65 different charitable organizations” in 2010.
In a two-page “background information” release accompanying her apology, Whiting pledged to deposit the $25 licensing fee a caterer recently paid her for using the “hon” mark “into the account of a nonprofit she had founded to support public education in Baltimore.” Called Project Twelve, the nonprofit has allegedly been the beneficiary of HonFest revenue for several years. Calls for volunteers have gone out and donors have publicly taken credit for their donations to the charity, which ostensibly works to keep youths in school.
But Project Twelve, founded in March 2007, has no web site, and has filed only one tax return, according to the Internal Revenue Service: a 2009 e-postcard that says only that the charity raised less than $25,000 that year.
Asking Whiting what Project Twelve is brings a welter of conflicting answers. First she says it’s “so new it doesn’t have a history.”
Reminded that it is four years old, Whiting launches into a speech, saying that she has had a “vision” of having a nonprofit foundation since 1995. “It’s written down. I write things down of what the future will hold. It’s eerie,” Whiting says, her voice cracking. “It all happened. I once had a vision for what the street would look like, the businesses that would be here. When I started understanding what 36th Street had been, I started imagining it could get back to that—”
Jaskunas interrupts: “Project Twelve is in the statement?”
“It’s done a few things,” Whiting continues. “I have visions for things. I’m passionate about education, as my son knows . . . I want to fund projects that encourage kids to graduate.”
Thomas Whiting jumps in at this point, volunteering that he is in charge of the charity. “I’m actually doing it,” he says. “We have two waitresses this year who are on our makeshift board.”
He says the funds will go to help kids graduate from high school and move on to college or start careers. “We are funding an initiative currently. We have one [intern] in here two hours per week,” he says, promising that soon there will be more from a nearby Learning Inc., a nonprofit after-school program for children at risk. (Learning Inc.’s Emily Wilson confirms the budding relationship.)
Project Twelve’s budget is currently “right around $4,000,” Thomas Whiting says. Asked for Project Twelve’s tax returns, which are public documents by law, Thomas Whiting says he has “a whole file of tax returns.”
“Tax returns for nonprofits can cost as much as $3,000 per year,” Denise Whiting says, adding that the charity had no budget for its first two years. “In 2009, $10,000 got put into Project Twelve from HonFest,” she says.
The money, Denise Whiting says, paid for “tax returns, lawyers’ fees. Project Twelve funded the art project in Café Hon.”
Thomas Whiting jumps in again, saying Project Twelve has been off to a slow start, but will be ramping up activity soon: “I would like you to see where we are in six months. I’m really excited. We have six full pages of curriculum.” He sends a reporter the curriculum the next day. But not the charity’s tax returns. (Just before this story went to press, Jaskunas e-mailed to say that Project Twelve “did not receive official non-profit status from the government until Sept. 8, 2008,” explaining why there were no 2007 or 2008 returns. He adds that HonFest has donated thousands of dollars to charity during each of the past four years.)
Whiting’s detractors will no doubt use this account against her, citing it as proof of her poor character, her grasping, her “greed.” She seems to know there’s nothing she can do about that, and so she will keep on doing what she does, feeding people, celebrating the hon, helping to keep the neighborhood baseball teams on their diamonds, and, one suspects, occasionally stirring Baltimore’s pot.
Whether one sees her as charitable or selfish, a hometown girl or a carpetbagger, her concept of the Baltimore hon as loving tribute or crass mockery, Denise Whiting is here for the long haul. “I’m not going to give any less,” she says. “Any less of myself to the community.”
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.