Momofuku will not enforce chili crunch trademark after backlash

After a heated debate revolving around the popular Chinese condiment, Momofuku will not be enforcing its trademark of the term “chili crunch.”

Earlier this month, The Guardian reported that Momofuku, the famed food brand owned by American chef and restaurateur David Chang, had sent cease and desist letters to other US companies over the use of the term “chili crunch,” a name it was attempting to trademark in the US.

Momofuku received widespread criticism, including from Canadian actor Simu Liu, who likened the move to “trying to claim ‘ketchup’ or ‘mayo.’”

In an episode of his podcast, The Dave Chang Show, released on April 12, Chang apologized to those in the AAPI community who had been upset and hurt and shed some light on the situation alongside Marguerite Mariscal, Momofuku’s CEO.

In 2020, Momofuku launched its chili crunch, which takes inspiration from the Chinese chili crisp, with the most recognizable brand being Lao Gan Ma, as well as the Mexican condiments salsa macha and salsa seca.

“We named it ‘chili crunch’ out of respect and deference to Chinese heritage and Chinese food culture, not to take,” Chang said.

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

During the episode, Mariscal explained how Momofuku had come to hold the trademark for “chili crunch” after receiving a cease and desist from a company called Chili Colonial, who had sold their own Mexican crunchy chili condiment. Momofuku then bought the trademark from Chili Colonial.

“When we acquired this mark, it then became our job to protect it,” Mariscal explained.

“If you don’t show the USPTO [US Patent and Trademark Office] that you’re routinely defending your mark, and that’s from any size business […] then you’re at risk of losing your trademark,” she added.

In order to protect the trademark, Momofuku sent cease and desist letters to several companies, which led to the controversy.

During the episode, Chang announced that Momofuku would not be enforcing the trademark,

“The way I interpreted it and the plan moving forward with this trademark is […] doing nothing. We’re not going to enforce the trademark. We’re not going to police the trademark,” he said.

However, by not protecting the trademark, it is possible that another larger business down the line could challenge the mark ownership due to the way trademarking works in the US.

“Once we understood the power of this thing, it was like ‘Oh, we gotta get rid of it,’ this is not for us to use but we can’t give it away and we can’t destroy it,” Chang said, comparing the trademark situation to the ring in Lord of the Rings.

“We as a business can’t decide what is and what is not a trademark, but what we can do is control how we operate and how we act as the person who owns this mark,” Mariscal added.