HomeBad Ass AsiansModern day David standing up to the Momofuku giant

Modern day David standing up to the Momofuku giant

By Janelle Kono

Michelle Tew grew up in Malaysia with the flavorful and delicious food of her grandmother, or Nonie. She began sharing the Malaysian dishes of Nonie, to those around her through pop-ups and supper clubs. This was the early start to the brand she founded, named Homiah.

As a one-woman business, it was surprising on March 18th when she received a cease-and-desist letter from Momofuku, a giant food brand and restaurant owned by David Chang, based out of Las Vegas. The letter gave Homiah 5 business days to affirmatively respond that it would rebrand the Sambal Chili Crunch sauce within the next 90 days. Momofuku has controversially trademarked both the term “Chili Crunch”and “Chile Crunch,” and it claimed that Homiah’s popular sauce infringed on this trademark.

It stated “While Momofuku welcomes healthy competition, it believes Homiah’s use of CHILI CRUNCH infringes its valuable trademark rights by creating an obvious risk that consumers will mistakenly believe that Homiah’s CHILI CRUNCH goods are associated with Momofuku and/ or Momofuku’s CHILI CRUNCH or licensed CHILI CRUNCH products given that the generic term for the category is “CHILI CRISP.”

In an Instagram post about the incident, Tew is quoted as saying that the letter felt like a “punch in the gut.” She explained to AsAmNews that prior to this incident, she was always a huge supporter of Momofuku, from the brand to the restaurant. “If the letter had been from a big company, I would have been like oh man, that sucks. But because it was from Momofuku, it felt like a betrayal.” On LinkedIn, Tew writes, “I was shocked and disappointed that a well-known and respected player in the Asian food industry would legally threaten me — a one-woman show operating on a much smaller scale — from selling a product that is part of my family’s history and culture”

Michelle Tew holds her Chili Crunch
Courtesy Michelle Tew

 After receiving this aggressive letter, Tew felt like this had been done before. She set out online and reached out to about 10 other companies with similar chili crunch oil products and asked if they had also received a similar letter. Tew told AsAmNews, “I was so shocked that more than half of the companies, really all the companies except for two, which was myself and [another company that would not like to be named for fear of legal ramifications], had already responded… apologizing. And I think that’s the response they were betting on.”

Despite the threat of a possible legal trademark battle looming overhead, Michelle didn’t send an apology to Momofuku for infringing on their trademark. She felt that even though she was a small business, she had a responsibility to make a stand.

“It was that strong feeling of like, if I just roll over right now, then I will just have followed the path that they expect… it just felt kind of wrong”

“It was that strong feeling of like, if I just roll over right now, then I will just have followed the path that they expect… it just felt kind of wrong.”

 Instead, she reached out to a freelance journalist she knew, Nina Roberts, who then picked up the story and pitched it to the Guardian. On April 4th The Guardian released the story “David Chang’s Momofuku draws heat over its ‘chile crunch’ trademark,” and from there it blew up.

Many in the Asian American community have taken to social media to chastise Chang and Momofuku for being what Stephen Coats, the lawyer for Homiah, calls a “trademark bully.”

Chef Jon Kung, writer of Kung Food, condemns Momofuku for its tone deaf move.
Kevin Lee, creator of Immi instant ramen calls out Momofuku for being a bully.
Even Marvel star Simu Liu chimed in on the issue.

After this reaction, Tew says the Asian American community should be very proud of itself. “I knew I was part of a very supportive community, but I don’t think I understood how powerful that community was.”

“I knew i was part of a very supportive community, but I don’t think i understood how powerful that community was.”

Though Momofuku declined to respond to AsAmNews’s request for an interview, they released a statement reported on by ABC News which said, “When we created our product, we wanted a name we could own and intentionally picked ‘Chili Crunch’ to further differentiate it from the broader chili crisp category, reflecting the uniqueness of Chili Crunch, which blends flavors from multiple culinary traditions.” Furthermore, the statement continued, “Failure to defend our trademark against any size company would leave us without recourse against these larger players who often try to enter categories on the rise…Our goal is and has been to find an amicable resolution — not to harm the competition that makes this category so vibrant.”

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.


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