Business LawTrademarksDavid Chang’s Apology and the Chili Crunch Trademark: Lessons in Culinary Intellectual Property

April 16, 2024

David Chang, renowned chef and founder of the Momofuku restaurant, recently addressed a stir he caused by attempting to trademark “chili crunch.” Recently, on his podcast, “The Dave Chang Show,” he issued an apology to the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community and others who felt restricted by his actions. This move came after his team sent out cease-and-desist letters to protect the trademark — a common business strategy to maintain a brand’s unique identity.

Chang explained that “chili crunch” was intended to differentiate his product from similar ones, like the famed Lao Gan Ma’s chili crisp, citing it as a major inspiration. However, the community backlash revealed a misstep in understanding how closely the two terms were related, which Chang openly regretted.

The backstory involves a legal tussle where Momofuku acquired the trademark from a Colorado-based company, Chile Colonial, which had also issued a cease-and-desist to Momofuku. This situation highlighted the aggressive cycle of trademark protection where businesses must continually defend their marks or risk losing them.

In a surprising pivot, Chang announced that Momofuku would stop enforcing the “chili crunch” trademark. He suggested that by not enforcing it, the term might become generic — used freely by all — removing proprietary barriers and potentially enhancing community engagement over exclusive rights. A generic trademark occurs when a specific brand name becomes so widely associated with a product type that it loses its association with the brand itself, becoming the standard term for the product or service (like “escalator” or “aspirin”). Chang’s decision could lead “chili crunch” down this path, reflecting a bold step towards inclusive business practices rather than stringent brand control.

Chang’s approach underscores a vital balance in intellectual property management — protecting a brand while fostering goodwill and innovation within the community. This case serves as an insightful example for other entrepreneurs navigating the complex landscape of trademarks and brand identity, and seeking goodwill within a community over monetary gain. If you would like assistance with filing a trademark application, contact us at Joseph Legal.
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