Noodling Over A Name: Spat Over Restaurant Owner’s Wordplay Is A Landlord/Tenant Issue

EDITORIAL
The Keene Sentinel, N.H.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) This editorial out of the Keene Sentinel contends the argument between a restaurant owner and City Hall is “just a spat over whether the tenant’s middle-school-level humor violates the terms of the lease. And it can be resolved if the two sides want to see the restaurant open soon.”

Keene, New Hampshire

The biggest story of the year in the Elm City, by far, is the ire with which local residents are responding to Keene City Manager Elizabeth Dragon’s refusal to allow a new Vietnamese/French restaurant, slyly dubbed Pho Keene Great, to put up a sign.

The restaurant, which began as a food truck two years ago under the name Bon Vivant — Gourmet Street Food, is planned for the space formerly occupied by the Market at Luca’s at 11 Central Square. That space happens to be owned by the city, and sits next to City Hall’s front entrance.

Thus, when Dragon saw a “coming soon” sign in the window and, realizing how the new name would be sounded out — in Vietnamese, “pho” is pronounced “fuh” — she balked.

Citing a stipulation in the lease that mandates the restaurant owner get the city’s permission before putting up any signs, posters or window dressing — really, altering the outside look in any way — Dragon had owner Isabelle Jolie take the window sign down.

The lease was signed in April, and Jolie contends the city should have raised any issues with the name then.

Dragon counters that Jolie signed it for her business — Pho Keene Great LLC — but that a corporate name doesn’t necessarily reflect what the restaurant itself will be called. She adds that the city’s facilities director, Andy Bohannon, warned Jolie the name could be a problem down the road.

Dragon says she doesn’t think it would be an issue if it weren’t a publicly owned space, and even if it were, she might not object if it didn’t sit next to City Hall.

A scheduled Jan. 11 meeting between Jolie and the city was pushed up to Friday morning by Dragon, then postponed by Jolie.

That what is essentially a manufactured controversy has become such a big thing is unfortunate.

Keene does have a reputation for being a hard place for businesses to locate, fair or not, and to the extent that it’s deserved it has much to do with wielding its authority over signs and building appearance like a club, in pursuit of some “cozy New England town” aesthetic.

But this is not that. This is a landlord saying: “No. I don’t want that on this property.” We suppose the whole thing could wind up in court, being parsed based on the language of the lease or some other legal footing.

But so far, it’s just a spat over whether the tenant’s middle-school-level humor violates the terms of the lease. And it can be resolved if the two sides want to see the restaurant open soon.

First, let’s dispose of the ridiculous: The name is clearly meant to be a play on a profanity, a “Do you get it?” joke.

Both the name itself and the “It’s all in how you pronounce pho” defense are straight from the “I’m too clever for you” playbook of adolescent argument.

Neither should anyone buy the protestations of those who say the vulgar term never even occurred to them.

Even for those pronouncing the dish as it might be sounded out in English — as “foe” — would be hard-pressed not to note the joke after saying it a few times.

If Jolie set up shop in another, nearby community, would the name be Pho Surry Great or Pho Hinsdale Great? Not a chance.

As for the contention that refusing to allow the phrase on a sign is a violation of the First Amendment, that’s simply laughable.

This isn’t governmental suppression of speech in order to snuff out dissent. It’s a landlord/tenant dispute over how the property is viewed.

Because it owns the building, the city, in effect, “owns” the signage. So, fairly or not, it’s on the hook for any complaints. If the name evoked the n-word or another more-blatantly offensive term, we’d be surprised if anyone in the city were calling for City Hall to “lighten up.”

We’ve no doubt that the restaurant itself stands to be a fine addition to the city, and that the city manager fully realizes this. Furthermore, there’s nothing to be gained in rejecting or alienating a prospective tenant whose business otherwise seems a perfect fit for the former cafe space.

At the same time, Jolie has gotten everything an entrepreneur might have wanted from the controversy — an inordinate degree of attention for her new venture and the interest and support of a large segment of the community. She ought to quit while she’s ahead and compromise with Dragon and the city so she can open while that interest remains high.

We suggest renaming the operation to something less antagonistic and sophomoric, but perhaps keeping the pun as a slogan that could adorn placemats, T-shirts — there’s a side revenue stream — and such inside the establishment.

After all, any restaurant is ultimately going to thrive or die based on the quality of its food and service, not whether people giggle when they pass by.

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