David Chang and the case of the chili crunch trademark

Marketing Bites: The celebrity chef is getting some less-than-positive press this week. Plus, Chipotle burritos don the green jacket and Wow Bao’s metaverse debut.
David Chang
Celebrity chef David Chang and his Momofuku brand are facing controversy around a pending trademark. | Photo: Shutterstock.
Marketing Bites

It hasn’t been a great week, I’d assume, for the person navigating the social media mentions of celebrity chef David Chang, his four restaurants under the Momofuku umbrella and his assortment of consumer-packaged goods such as noodles, seasoned salts and, of course, chili crunch.

The public-relations brouhaha started about a week ago, with an article in The Guardian headlined “‘Trademark bully’: Momofuku turns up heat on others selling ‘chili crunch,’” the basic facts of which have since been rehashed in The New York Times, Washington Post and loads of other publications.

According to the reports, Momofuku recently sent cease-and-desist letters to food manufacturers who call their crunchy-spicy chili oil-based condiment “chili crunch” or “chile crunch.”

Momofuku acquired trademark rights to “chile crunch” last year from Denver-based Chile Colonial, according to The Guardian. Chang’s company filed to trademark “chili crunch” on March 29.

Many of the chili crunch brands currently on the market, however, are crafted by mom-and-pop makers, many of whom have roots in China, where the condiment is popular.

(We reached out to Chang and Momofuku this week via multiple avenues but received no response.)

Merits of trademarking a widely used and manufactured condiment aside, this is a marketing column, not a legal one. And it’s safe to say the press and social media response towards Chang and Momofuku this week have been anything but glowing.

“You should cease and desist yourself,” one Facebook user commented on a Momofuku post about beer-braised brisket noodles from February 27. “Leave the other AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) brands alone.”

Others posted #boycottmomofuku and said they would stop purchasing from the company.

Small food producers, meanwhile, have rallied around their fellow condiment makers on social media and in the press, with some calling on Momofuku to retract its cease-and-desist orders.

Homiah Foods, an emerging condiment brand, called the letter a “punch in the gut” on Instagram, where it’s asking fans to rename its product.

Suggested one commenter: “David’s Favorite Chili Crunch.”

What’s that thing they say about all publicity being good publicity?

Chipotle burritos don the green jacket

Chipotle Mexican Grill, in a nod to the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club that runs through Sunday, is shaking up its burrito swaddling. (The tournament’s winners receive a trademark green jacket.)

The fast casual will sell burritos wrapped in green foil at its Augusta, Georgia, restaurant during the tournament.

Chipotle green foil

Chipotle Mexican Grill is selling burritos wrapped in green foil in Augusta, Georgia, this week. | Photo courtesy of Chipotle.

“During the week of an event, it’s common to see various players at the closest Chipotle because we’ve become a go-to meal for pro golfers,” Chief Brand Officer Chris Brandt said.

Golfer Max Homa, a longtime Chipotle fan, will carry a golf bag with the burrito chain’s logo on it throughout 2024, the chain said.

Welcome to the metaverse, Wow Bao

Chicago-based fast-casual chain Wow Bao, which also has a robust retail business, is merging its digital and physical channels with a new campaign on gaming platform Roblox.

Members of its Hot Buns Club rewards program who visit Wow Bao’s virtual experience (called Dim Sum Palace) on Roblox can search for clues to unlock a free bao-themed accessory in the game, free Wow Bao products from grocery stores and a chance to win food from the chain for a year.

“By connecting gamers with our online ordering channels and rewards program, we are inviting new customers to experience our brand, rewarding our most frequent guests, and embarking on something that has never been done,” Wow Bao President and CEO Geoff Alexander said.

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