New Hampshire City Deems Pho Restaurant's Punny Name 'Offensive'

The city of Keene is displaying a disappointing lack of sense of humor in its opposition to what is objectively a solid pun.

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Jan 4 2019, 3:00pm

Photo by Joanne Rathe/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Isabelle Jolie’s restaurant is supposed to open March 1, but instead of checking her inventory and proofreading the menu and doing all of those almost-last-minute things, she’s removing the restaurant’s sign from its windows and is dealing with the possibility that she’ll have to change the name entirely.

This all started because although Jolie has a sense of humor, the city of Keene, New Hampshire apparently does not. According to The Keene Sentinel, when Jolie signed her paperwork and submitted it to assorted city officials, she let them know that she’d be calling her Vietnamese joint Pho Keene Great. That’s exactly the kind of pun you’d both want and expect from a New Hampshire pho restaurant, but Keene city officials aren’t laughing.

“I have told Ms. Jolie that the name could be problematic,” city manager Elizabeth Dragon told MUNCHIES. “It is a play on words meant to be profanity. I did get some complaints when the temporary sign was put up, and it was only up for a short time.”

Jolie put a ‘Coming Soon’ sign in the restaurant’s window just before Christmas, but it has already been peeled off and pulled down. “City manager has deemed our business name as offensive and a permanent sign with our business name, will not be allowed,” Jolie wrote in a Facebook post. “The one that is pictured is a temporary sign, and it was requested that we take it down due to her opinion that it is offensive name and a contract violation as it relates to City ordinance.” (MUNCHIES reached out to Jolie but she declined to comment until after she could meet with her legal counsel.)

But Dragon explained that, in addition to the name, Jolie didn’t get the proper approval before she hung her temporary sign in the window. “The restaurant lease has a requirement to get property owner’s permission before installing any signage, lettering, posters or window treatments visible from the exterior,” she said, adding that in this case, the city is the property owner. “She is leasing a commercial space which is attached to City Hall.”

Dragon said that she hopes to meet with Jolie to discuss the next steps in this Pho Keene process. The two were originally scheduled to meet on Friday, but Jolie has asked for that chat to be postponed until February to give her time to seek legal advice.

In an interview with the Sentinel, Jolie said that she believes that the city might be discriminating against her Vietnamese heritage. “It is discriminatory to say that a Vietnamese word, a popular food item combined with the name of our city is considered offensive,” she said. “If the city denies us a permit now due to our business name, which they have known since lease signing, that is a major issue since we have spent a lot of money.”

In the meantime, Jolie is selling Pho Keene Great t-shirts online, and has taken an informal Facebook poll to determine whether or not the name really is inappropriate. “We had 3,400 votes that our business name is NOT OFFENSIVE and 117 votes for YES OFFENSIVE,” she wrote on Monday.

Regardless of what name ultimately ends up on the signage, Dragon says that the city wants the restaurant to be a success. “All the media attention is great advertisement for her restaurant, which will also hopefully positively impact other businesses in the Keene community, since we may see more out of town visitors,” she said. “That is a plus!”

So what she’s saying is, the whole thing could be….Pho Keene Great for the city, yeah?