David Chang and Momofuku say they won’t enforce ‘chile crunch’ trademark

After days of public backlash over enforcing their trademark for “chile crunch,” a term widely viewed as generic among producers of the Asian condiment, celebrity chef David Chang and his Momofuku company have reversed course and announced they will no longer enforce it.

Momofuku’s new policy, as chief executive Marguerite Mariscal explained in a podcast with Chang on Friday, runs the risk that a larger company, such as Costco or Trader Joe’s, could sweep in and produce a similar product under the “chile crunch” or “chili crunch” names, effectively undermining the value of the trademark.

In an announcement sent to The Washington Post on Friday, a Momofuku spokesman noted that the company had believed its “chili crunch” brand name reflected the uniqueness of its product in the broader “chili crisp” condiment category. But over “the past week, we have heard the feedback from our community and now understand that the term ‘chili crunch’ carries broader meaning for many. We have no interest in ‘owning’ a culture’s terminology and we will not be enforcing the trademark going forward,” the spokesman wrote in the statement.

“This situation has created a painful divide between Momofuku, the AAPI community we care deeply about, and other companies sharing grocery store shelves,” the company spokesman wrote, referring to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. “But the truth is, we all want the same things: to grow, to succeed and to make America’s pantries and grocery stores a more diverse place.”

As first reported in the Guardian on April 4, Momofuku had sent cease-and-desist letters to manufacturers that were using chili crunch in their product names. The news came as a slap to members of the AAPI community — and beyond.

Chang and Momofuku were accused of bullying mom-and-pop producers with ancestral connections to the spicy-oily-crispy condiment, which is popular in China and other Asian countries. Chang and his company were denounced for trying to stifle competition with a trademark that many viewed as not distinctive enough to earn legal protection. Momofuku’s trademark has been repeatedly criticized as “merely descriptive,” which the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office says “describes an ingredient, quality, characteristic, function, feature, purpose, or use of the specified goods or services.”

Momofuku’s trademark reversal was welcome news for Michelle Tew, the founder and chief executive of Homiah, a company based in New York City. If Homiah had been forced to change the name of her sambal chili crunch — a condiment that traces back generations of her Nyonya heritage in Malaysia — she ran the risk of losing new contracts that she had signed with Whole Foods and Target, she said.

“I am pleased to hear that the Momofuku has taken a step in the right direction and appreciate their commitment not to enforce these phrases,” Tew said in a text message to The Post.

At the same time, Tew would like to see Momofuku go one step further by retiring its current trademark for “chile crunch” and withdrawing its application for the alternate spelling of “chili crunch,” which the company applied for on March 29. Trademark lawyers and Momofuku have said the company has common law rights to both terms even if it only has one federally registered at the moment.

On his podcast on Friday, Chang said he realized that some might have viewed as “asinine” the distinction they drew between “crunch” and “crisp” when they secured the trademark. This week, he said, he discovered from the outcry that the terms “crunchy” and “crisp” are essentially the same thing in Mandarin.

“In holding the term crunch as a trademark, Momofuku can be seen as trying to own a piece of Chinese culture and heritage, which is exactly the opposite of what we wanted to achieve,” he said on the podcast. “It can also be seen that we’re trying to squeeze people out of the space and have, you know, trying to be a monopoly and not playing nice.”

Momofuku had purchased the “chile crunch” trademark from Chile Colonial, a Denver-based company that had owned the trademark since 2015. Colonial had sent a cease-and-desist letter to Momofuku not long after Momofuku debuted its “chili crunch” in 2020, but rather than fight it, the company worked with Colonial to purchase the trademark. Momofuku attained the trademark last year, according to the patent office.

“Had I known or Momofuku known that ‘chili crunch’ was a tautology, basically the same as chili crisp, we would never have named that chili crunch,” Chang said on the podcast.

But Chang said that he had heard from fellow chefs and customers who were angered by the effort to protect the trademark. “I want to apologize to everyone in the AAPI community who has been hurt or feels like I’ve marginalize them or put a ceiling on them by our actions,” he said.

Despite the request of Tew and others, Momofuku will retain the “chile crunch” trademark. On the podcast, Mariscal said that Momofuku can’t just deem the term “chile crunch” to be generic. She also said it could create a problem by just not enforcing it.

“If we were to let the trademark go, the term chili crunch can be claimed tomorrow by anyone — more likely another company that with the resources and the desire to actually litigate everyone who’s using the mark,” Mariscal said. “So while that option sounds great, it’s hard to actually execute in practice.”

Momofuku had been considering a number of ways to handle the trademark, but ultimately the company decided to simply not enforce it, even if that could result in a larger company trying to pick it up. “The risk to the business is that someone comes and says that we’re not defending it and tries to take the mark. But it’s a risk we’re willing to take,” she said.

Chang likened the trademark to the ring in “Lord of the Rings” — nearly impossible to get rid of. “Once we understood the power of this thing, it was like, we’ve got to get rid of it. This is not for us to use,” he said. “But we can’t give it away and we can’t destroy it.”

In taking this action, Chang hopes that people will realize that Momofuku is not an “evil, evil company.”

“So to all the Trader Joe’s and other chili crunch producers out there,” Chang added, “We’re not going to stand in the way of anyone using this name. It’s not going to happen. That being said, I’m fairly competitive person, and I truly believe that our product is unique and delicious. But I’m wishing all of you guys the best of luck. We’ll see you out there, whether it’s in the grocery stores or somewhere else.”

Chang added that if anyone else has a better plan, “we’re all ears.”

“If there’s a charity that wants it, great,” he said. “If we can figure out how to do this and prevent multibillion-dollar corporations from doing this, fantastic.”

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