Pho Keene Controversy

Update: The Restaurant Pho Keene Won!

Sometimes, I’ll Look at the Comments on a news site’s story that I use as a source for a True story. Not very often, since most news comments are a vast wasteland, but the comments on one of the Pho Keene stories I read caught my eye. The top comment was, “Who knew that Keene lacked a sense of humor?” And there was one response: “Anyone that lives here.” Let’s start with the story, from True’s first issue of 2019:

Click to see larger. You can also share it from my Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or MeWe posts, or grab this graphic and post it elsewhere.

Seems Keene city officials aren’t clear on New Hampshire’s official state motto: Live Free or Die.

I see both sides of this, including that Keene doesn’t want such a sign on the city-owned building, even if City Manager Dragon didn’t “get” the play on words until the last minute. If a presumably educated professional such as she doesn’t see it for months, just how offensive can it be?

And really: the restaurant’s Facebook page has had their logo (also shown below) posted since last February (and their web site’s domain name was registered in 2017!), so any protestations that they “didn’t know” the restaurant planned to use it fall flat.

Chilling Effect

A larger version of the photo embedded in the story graphic. (Click to see larger. Source: the restaurant’s Facebook page.)

If pho is pronounced “fuh,” what did the owner mean that when pronounced correctly, it doesn’t sound like a profanity? In Vietnamese, she says, pho is pronounced with an upward-lilting voice, so it’s more like “Pho? Keene Great”. Because, you know, the American-born are experts at foreign language pronunciation, especially Asian tonal languages. That argument falls pretty flat too.

Yesterday, Keene Sentinel columnist John McGauley said he “had to pronounce it out loud a half-dozen times before I got the play on words.” Not too good with words, John? Well, that can’t be it, considering this outstanding bit in his column:

No matter how you parse it, Keene fights so far above its weight when it comes to stupid, weird and strange stories that somehow manage to capture the spotlight. Remember the Free Staters and the great Parking Meter Wars? How about the cops being called out because a number of people spotted a giant walking vagina downtown?

Alas, he didn’t provide pictures of the latter, and I didn’t find any with a Google search either.

“It is discriminatory to say that a Vietnamese word, a popular food item combined with the name of our city is considered offensive,” Jolie complained. And then she “threw down a gauntlet,” McGauley said: Jolie says the fight could come down to a First Amendment free speech issue.

That set him off but good: “Cue the great American pastime of making everything a big deal, a threat to our Bill of Rights, lawsuits, an oh-so aggrieved party. Everything now has a ‘chilling’ effect on the First Amendment. I am so tired of that banal dance we do.”

Yep, Americans tend to overreact indeed. But a white male blowing off a minority’s claim of discrimination by whining it’s “that banal dance” (which, well, sounds like a big overreaction) ain’t gonna fly. I can hear the charges of “white privilege” all the way here in western Colorado, and it would be hard to say they’d be wrong.

Wisdom of Solomon?

But McGauley offers a “proposal” which he thinks “possesses the wisdom of Solomon.” First, he’d ask the city, “Why did you make this an issue? Can’t you just leave well enough alone? Hey, it’s a funny play on words; it’s not as if it’s spelled-out as you-know-what. Did some pinch-mouthed pantywaist complain, and if so, why did you have to listen to them? You made it a big story now. Have you never heard the expression ‘let sleeping dogs lie?’ If you spend my money to hire an attorney to fight this, shame on you.”

Which I can get behind.

But then, “To Isabelle Jolie: Shut up about your First Amendment rights and discrimination. We’re so tired of hearing about all that perpetually aggrieved crap. Open your restaurant with your play-on-words name and we’ll decide if it’s any good. You got a lot of publicity with your stunt, and you knew it was a stunt. You got what you wanted. End of meeting. End of issue. You can all go home now.”

Yeah, that sure is wise: “Shut up about your actual Constitutional rights already!” Uh huh. And his reaction if his column were, say, censored by a government official would be, “Yes sir: I’ll shut up. My rights aren’t important.”?! I’ll just bet.

I simply don’t believe that city officials didn’t see this year-old logo until just recently — not when their offices are next door to the restaurant, which has been under renovation by Ms Jolie for months. (Source: restaurant’s web site.)

And does he really think the city will let her open the restaurant with a big eye-catching sign on the city hall building with that name, especially considering the restaurant’s door is next to city hall’s? Doesn’t seem likely — not when they have the police at their command. (Which is one of the big issues in racial discrimination lately, yaknow?) Unless, of course, there’s a big court battle first, which pretty much will have to be based on the First Amendment.

While “Pho Keene Great” might “sound” dirty to “some pinch-mouthed pantywaist,” the fact is, it’s not, and the city would lose that battle — but then Jolie (and by extension, her restaurant) will incur the wrath of taxpayers over the legal bills, just as he suggests. That’s a lose-lose, not a wise compromise.

(And in case you wondered, pantywaist means “a man or boy considered as childish, lacking in courage, effeminate, sissy.” It’s more of a slur that’s not really as germane to the situation as, say, prig might be.)

So, He Wants a Solomonic Solution? How’s this: both sides have a valid argument here, but the city’s is much weaker, especially since the words “Pho Keene Great” are on the lease signed — presumably by Dragon — last April, even before getting to that pesky First Amendment bit.

Thus I would suggest this compromise: outside, the sign outside says “P.K.G.” Inside, the placemats, T-shirts, and whatever else can spell it out in its full glory. Everyone gets to walk away happy, and we can all let the dog lie down and go back to sleep.

Update: City was Pho Keene Beaten Down

I love that they’re careful to have the City Hall sign showing in the background. (Photo: Pho Keene Great, click to see larger.)

Pho Keene Great has their sign — with their full name spelled out in all its glory. It’s a few yards from, and slightly higher than, the City Hall sign. The restaurant leases its space from the city of Keene, N.H., in the same building that houses city offices.

“The sign was reviewed for color, size, all of the things we typically review for the zoning department,” said City Manager Elizabeth Dragon, admitting “it complies with all of the regulations.” She even went so far as to agree the restaurant’s name and logo do not violate city code, and “I’m excited to see what they might bring.” Considering they might have brought a lawsuit, this is a nice resolution.

The restaurant did have to change out the garish green, which is now only used as an accent. Otherwise the sign would considered too bright, and the city code prohibits “fluorescent signs,” which are defined as signs that reflect too much light. PKG owner Isabelle Jolie decided on a stylish black motif, which happens to go very well with the T-shirt they’ve offered all along, which has been selling like mad thanks to the controversy.

The restaurant’s official supplier reports strong sales of this Pho Keene shirt, which no doubt has helped fund the lengthy remodeling job over the past several months.

Is it shocking to learn that city officials don’t want anything in town that’s “too bright” by their standards?

But it is an interesting question. What does that mean? The city code spells it out in great detail: a fluorescent sign is defined one one “whose color reflects not only its own color, but also converts the shorter wavelengths into radiant energy causing them to appear three to four times as bright as ordinary color. These colors do not reflect light toward its source in the intense manner that reflectorized materials do, but rather in an amount similar to white painted surfaces.”

The code also prohibits “obscene signs” — but doesn’t go into any detail on what “obscene” means, making the prohibition very difficult to enforce in cases like this.

“They didn’t apologize,” Jolie said, referring to city officials.“But the city manager was gracious in her email to us, the one that was sent today approving of the sign.”

The restaurant missed its scheduled “soft opening” on March 1. Its web site now says its “working hard and diligently” to open on “March 8st.”

And how good do they promise their food will be? Why just “Pho Keene Great,” of course!

An Unrelated Update

Each year, I create a “Weirdest of the Year” document with the oddest, most telling story of each month of the year, and then I choose the “weirdest” of the year from that lineup. You can get 2018’s document with a free email subscription to This is True, which is highly recommended if you enjoyed this story. But if you really want it without having to subscribe, you can get it here (PDF, 119K):

Weirdest Stories of 2018

- - -

This page is an example of This is True’s style of “Thought-Provoking Entertainment”. True is an email newsletter that uses “weird news” as a vehicle to explore the human condition in entertaining way. If that sounds good, click here to open a subscribe form.

To really support True, please sign up for a paid subscription to the much-expanded “Premium” edition:

One Year Upgrade


(More upgrade options here.)

Q: Why would I want to pay more than the regular rate?

A: To support the publication to help it thrive and stay online: this kind of support means less future need for price increases (and smaller increases when they do happen), which enables more people to upgrade. This option was requested by existing Premium subscribers.

31 Comments on “Pho Keene Controversy

  1. If she opens a branch in East Anglia, England, she could call it Norfolk ‘n’ Good. (Even if it IS a very old joke.)

  2. All the pho puns, and there are so many, remind me of this….

    Ah yes, Saturday Night Live’s “Sofa King” sketch from 2007. And that was broadcast TV! -rc

  3. The story is full of irony from every corner. Can this really be worth fighting over? Is shutting down the restaurant name going to be the high point of Dragon’s tenure as city manager? Did a journalist really tell somebody to shut up about the first amendment? Is there, God forbid, any place that specializes in Nigerian cuisine in the city? Somebody might pronounce it wrong.

    Heh! It’s definitely worth fighting over for Jolie: she’s spent months and probably tens of thousands of dollars on renovations, branding, T-shirt printing, and more. Her business life is on the line. -rc

  4. That was a very wise compromise! Well done! It will be interesting to see the outcome, please keep us posted.

    I’ll update this page with interesting updates I hear about, and will point to them from the newsletter. -rc

  5. Regarding fighting for: For Joile, yes. For the city, they must be the most problem-free city in America if that’s where their resources are directed. Personally, if I lived there, I’d go to a city council meeting and say they have too much taxpayer money if this is what they are wasting it on.

  6. Maybe she should just have people line up to protest the city management’s decision, blocking traffic to the area in a big pho queue to the city.

    Well, maybe not….

  7. In San Luis Obispo, CA there used to be a Chinese restaurant named Mee Hang Low. I don’t see the Pho Keene problem.

  8. Personally, I love pho. I was told, by a native Vietnamese speaker, that it is pronounced FO, with a long O sound. Still, I like the name and would try their noodle soup anytime I was in town. Considering the town’s sense of humor, I’m more likely to avoid it though.

    Keene officials, are you listening? This is what you’re doing to your businesses! -rc

  9. The story says she didn’t have city permission for “a sign” (as in, any sign at all?), but why does she even need permission for that? If you’ve leased a venue to open a restaurant isn’t there implied permission to put a sign with the business name in the window, even if it is in the same building as city hall? Otherwise how do customers find you?

    Regarding the owner’s comments on the name, she seems to be rather disingenuously trying to pretend it’s not actually a deliberate play on words, which makes me less sympathetic towards her when I would otherwise have been on her side.

    One of the details that didn’t make it to my story summary was, the lease has stronger sign requirements than the city’s municipal code, probably specifically because it’s the city hall building. One of the specific prohibitions is signs in the windows. -rc

  10. There’s a restaurant called Pho King. A friend of mine told me about it.

    I love plays on words.

    I think there are a lot of restaurants called Pho King! -rc

  11. Me Heng Low is still a noodle house on Palm Street in San Luis Obispo, CA. It was open when I moved here in the 1970’s and is still open in 2019.

  12. This is the definition of First Amendment: the government is trying to decide what the owner can name the business. It’s not Billy and his crew boycotting, it’s the town. That town can use the two best Arabic letters, Fa and Qaf.

  13. I watch cooking shows with my wife, and I’ve always heard celebrities such as Guy Fieri and Ann Burrell pronounce pho as “fah”, as in “Bah, Humbug”. If she can’t place a sign in the window, would a sandwich board on the sidewalk be prohibited?

    Probably. -rc

  14. This controversy reminds me of the story from the 1980s of Bob Guccioni’s magazine “Omni,” which featured science articles and science fiction. It was originally going to be called “Nova,” but they got objections from public television, which had, and still has, a science program of that name. Guccioni decided not to get into a fight with PBS and instead changed the name to “Omni.” The first issue featured a centerfold ad for the Dodge Omni, which apparently didn’t mind the name.

  15. I think PHO would work better than P.K.G. Most people that would like the food would instantly recognize the type of restaurant, whereas P.K.G. would be meaningless to anyone not already familiar with the restaurant.

    I’m not suggesting that it only say P.K.G. and nothing else, just that the name show as P.K.G. There’d presumably be plenty of room to say more about what they offer. -rc

  16. I live close enough to Keene to make a trip to visit Pho Keene Great and support the owner by being a patron. Sometimes people in Keene do cool things, but not always. Too bad the city government so clearly has no sense of humor.

  17. It’s interesting from a linguistic point of view about because if it was P.K. Delicious, it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact of P.K. Great.

    Side note — it wasn’t obvious that Ms. Jolie is Vietnamese. I suppose I could assume that a Vietnamese person would open a Vietnamese restaurant, or that a person with a French surname opening a Vietnamese restaurant must be Vietnamese. Mmmm, don’t know. Judging by the other comments on this post, there’s a tradition to use Pho this way. I love Pho, btw. First time I ever had it, my Asian friend said, it’s pronounced ‘fuh’, just like fuhk.

    I did read Jolie’s bio: she was born in Vietnam, but it didn’t go into the details of her genetic makeup. -rc

  18. A Pho restaurant opened near me named “What the Pho” but it later changed its name. I’m not aware of any drama around that but I’m sure there was.

    Randy, this kind of nonsense keeps you in business and me with a premium subscription.

  19. I have many coworkers with the last name of Phuc (properly pronounced Foo), but, well — you know what happens. We are always amused at meetings (like the mandatory sex discrimination meeting) where the proctor is trying to get audience participation and calls on one of them, reading their unfamiliar name off a pre-printed sign-up sheet.

  20. My feeling is that the name just doesn’t make sense. It can only be there for the pun. If it was really about Keene Pho being great, she would have said something like “Keene Pho Great!”

    Is it worth a lawsuit? no. But she did it for the pun, and it’s not a good pun. And no restaurant should label itself “f*ing great” because that just begs for customers on social media to say “not really”.

    Guess I’m a sourpuss.

    Well, if that’s the most strenuous objection of anyone who visited this page, that’s pretty mild! -rc

  21. In the early 70’s college math classes had FU and FUBAR functions. Wonder if they need to change now? Anybody a recent math major?

  22. This reminds me of the slogan for the furniture store Sofa King (in Brisbane, Australia). They used it for years before someone complained & the council forced them to remove it. The slogan in question – “Sofa King Comfortable”.

  23. I get the pun and really, those puns help a person recall the name and potentially visit more often. That said, would the name be allowed on a vehicle license plate? I still hold the opinion that decency in speech is a good thing and the use of profanity detracts from what someone may have to say.

  24. “Titillate your taste buds; the tender noodles’ flavor explodes in your mouth with only minimal mastication.”

    If I masticate, will I go blind? -rc

  25. She should go with Randy’s suggestion. Also, she should advertise her t-shirts in the window.

    The prohibition noted in the first comment would probably preclude that. -rc

  26. I remember when the French Connection clothing store chain wanted to open stores in Toronto, Ontario, Canada with their new brand French Connection United Kingdom. The store sign only used its initials, FCUK. The city had its “knickers in a knot” for a long time over that one.

  27. I agree that there are valid arguments to be made on both sides but I still lament the dumbing down of the culture to the point where this type of pun is considered humorous. We look back at the early days of slapstick comedy and wonder why it was ever considered funny. Then we got to the golden age of intelligent comedy where because the audience was becoming more sophisticated, clever, intelligent writing replaced reliance on slapstick. This was also due in smaller measure because of overly restrictive censorship. Lucy wasn’t “pregnant” but “with child”, and Rob & Laura Petrie had to sleep in separate beds because even the implication that married couples had sex was forbidden. But for the most part it was because people had higher expectations. Then we entered the “new age” where most of the humour has to be about sex (and not in a witty way). It had to shock. Gifted comedians like Trevor Noah and John Oliver make unnecessary but frequent references to the creepy guy on the subway (you all know the reference). Richard Jeni was funny and clever. Most of his humour was also clean. Dane Cook is just crude.

    It seems to be the same thing with everything today. A slogan can’t be just an amusing play on words. It has to be shocking. Sofa King Comfortable may be a clever pun in one-on-one conversation but it is not appropriate in public places. Same with Pho Keene Great. Just because something is legal does not mean it is appropriate, or even desirable.

    Sure, but then the question becomes: should government restrict such speech, or should the market — its customers — decide if it’s appropriate? -rc

  28. I remember when the Unitarian Church in Kensington, CA named themselves the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley because the First Unitarian Church of Kensington just wouldn’t do. This was in the early 70s, IIRC.There was already a First Unitarian Church of Berkeley in Berkeley, by the way.

    I too love pho, which is insanely popular in the Pacific Northwest. We go out for pho often. Haven’t seen anything quite *that* punny in a name locally, but there’s probably something in or around Seattle. If I lived near or was visiting near Keene, I’d make it a point to try their pho. I’d only like to say to Ms Jolie that not only can one fight city hall, it may even be possible to win. The Institute for Justice relishes cases like this.

Leave a Comment