What’s in a name? A lot, it turns out.
This month, Tom Colicchio changed the name of his New York City restaurant from Fowler & Wells to Temple Court, after learning that the restaurant’s namesakes (Edward Fowler and Samuel Wells) were advocates of phrenology, the racist idea that the shape of a person’s skull informs intelligence.
Colicchio is not the first chef to face controversy when naming a restaurant. Unlike the Top Chef host, however, many chefs and owners have intentionally chosen provocative names, and others have stuck by controversial names in the face of intense scrutiny. Here are just a few of the most buzzed-about restaurant controversies and what we can learn from them.
FOWLER & WELLS
Colicchio’s New York restaurant is located in the Beekman Hotel, the same building where Edward Fowler and Samuel Wells’ pseudoscientific institute studied and advanced the idea of phrenology, which many people used to justify slavery and discrimination against African-Americans. After the New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells pointed out the connection in January, Colicchio began the months-long process of changing its name.
“I don’t think it was a bad idea to start with because we didn’t have any of the information we have now,” he told the Times. “I have a fairly liberal persona and never in a million years would consider myself a racist, so it never crossed my mind.” Somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 later, the restaurant is now called Temple Court.
Lesson: It’s never too late to switch gears.
Before it even opened its doors in 2015, an Arizona restaurant called Illegal Pete’s came under fire. (The first location of the franchise opened in Boulder, Colorado in 1995.) While the founder, Pete Turner, called the restaurant’s name “mysterious and playful,” members of the University of Arizona’s chapter of Movimento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan, (M.E.Ch.A), insisted on a name change, even penning a Change.org petition.
“… [We] are not like other communities where your business exists, and we are more than willing to show you that,” read the group’s letter. “We are here to tell you that no longer will you be able to claim blissful ignorance and profit from racism.”
The Tucson restaurant, however, is still open—and still named Illegal Pete’s, despite the initial backlash.
Lesson: You can get away with most things.
The L.A.-based mini chain, which attracts hours-long lines, opened a three-month residency in New York’s SoHo neighborhood this summer (and is now located in the city permanently.) While their stellar egg sandwiches are virtually impossible to criticize, many people have taken issue with the store’s risqué name—and that of their most popular sandwich, which is called “The Slut.”
Yet it seems like their bold naming strategy has worked in their favor. A 2013 survey by KCET found that 65 percent of people are even more likely to visit a restaurant with a provocative or sexually-suggestive name (think: Greasy Weiner and Pink Taco.)
Lesson: The risk could pay off.
Founded in 1999, the Los Angeles restaurant chain name evokes the slang term for, erm, female genitalia. They first hit major controversy in 2006, when attempting to open a second location in Scottsdale, Arizona; mayor Mary Manross said she was offended and asked the owner to change the name. (He refused.) While the restaurant went forward as planned—despite one resident saying the name “demeans and degrades women” at Scottsdale City Council, according to the East Valley Tribune—it closed in 2009. Currently, the restaurant has locations in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
Lesson: Anything goes in Vegas and L.A.
Brewers are notorious for giving their beers cheeky, inappropriate names (think “Double D” and “Leg Spreader”), but one of MobCraft Beer’s 2016 releases caused an especially large backlash. Last December, they announced a new crowd-sourced brew recipe called “Date Grape,” made with dates and grapes, on their website. After immediate and widespread outrage, the beer’s name was removed from the site.
"I feel horrible that this oversight happened," said the company’s founder Henry Schwartz. "The beer name has been changed and we now have a process where our team vets names before they ever appear publicly."
Lesson: Never leave the Internet commenting public unchecked.
A Portland, Maine bar opened earlier this year called Opium faced serious backlash from critics who said that the name made light of the state’s very serious (and worsening) opioid addiction crisis. In response, the bar’s Facebook account wrote a post trying to explain their reasoning behind the name. “It’s a metaphor for relaxing and having a happy time,” the owner wrote. “Not in any way do we promote drug use or drug addiction.”
According to The Portland Press Herald, a commenter named Kevin McCarthy wrote on the bar’s Facebook page: “Why are you exploiting and celebrating the addictive powers of opium while deadly overdoses are occurring daily all around you? Is it ignorance? Cynicism? A weird concept of cool? This is a horrible idea.”
The lounge is still open and still named Opium, even though they continue to face criticism. A commenter recently wrote on their page, “376 Maine lives lost to overdose, just this year so far. Not so cool, I’m thinking.”
Lesson: Listen to your critics, and consider switching gears.