Brooklyn Restaurant’s Name Hits a Sour Note

Posted by Alexandra Watkins on April 5, 2009

From the New York Times...
Published: April 3, 2009
To the list of lofty names that glamorize the city’s fried chicken stands, like Crown, Royal and Kennedy, one Brooklyn restaurant owner decided to add another: Obama.
From the restaurant’s perspective, the name change grew out of pride in the new president and a keen sense of commerce. From other perspectives, it was tone-deaf at best, and racist at worst. When the restaurant, Royal Fried Chicken on Rutland Road in Brownsville, changed its name last week to Obama Fried Chicken, the reaction was swift.
“Community leaders came. They told us we have to change the name,” said Mohammad Jabbar, 33, the manager. “They said if you don’t change it they will take action.”
It was the latest outbreak of commercial enthusiasm for President Obama and his family. An Illinois company tried to sell dolls that looked like the president’s daughters, and a Brooklyn brewery, Sixpoint Craft Ales, named a beer Hop Obama in honor of the community organizer in chief.
A few minutes’ drive from Obama Fried Chicken, Obama Beauty Supply opened its doors several months ago. Its owner, Mohammed Seraji, said he was inspired by his children’s enthusiasm for the president, along with Mr. Obama’s popularity in the neighborhood. A Michelle Obama wig he sells, for $49.99, is emerging as a popular item.
A White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said in an e-mail message, “The White House has a longstanding policy of disapproving uses of the president’s name and likeness for commercial purposes.”
At the restaurant, Mr. Jabbar, who said he had been a lawyer and university instructor in his native Bangladesh before moving here in January, has, apart from serving food, become Obama Fried Chicken’s spokesman. The owner, he said, did not wish to speak to reporters.
Explaining the decision to rename the restaurant, Mr. Jabbar said that not only was the owner fond of President Obama but that the entire neighborhood also “loved” him.
“From this love, everything is happening,” Mr. Jabbar said, weary from all the attention.
There were support and derision for the unnamed owner along Rutland Road, where most every store hangs a picture of the president, and where, on a rainy Friday, passers-by took cellphone pictures of the rebranded fried chicken stand.
Chantel Harewood, 18, a college student who grew up in the neighborhood, ordered food from Mr. Jabbar and said she liked the new name. “Why not? It’s history,” she said. “All these stereotypes. People got to relax.”
However, Mr. Jabbar said that the restaurant was bowing to the pressure, and that it would be renamed Popular Fried Chicken by the weekend. Ms. Harewood did not think much of the new name. “That’s so blah, predictable, typical,” she said. The current name, she added, gave her “pride.”
In the Au Monde Chic barbershop, where Mr. Obama’s portrait hung on a back wall, Alnord Benoit cut a customer’s hair and called the name change “disrespectful.”
“Did he get permission from Obama?” Mr. Benoit asked.
In a nearby computer store, the manager, Earl Dennis, jokingly said he should rename his place Obama’s Computer Store. “It’s publicity,” Mr. Dennis said. Of the chicken restaurant, he said, “I’m not eating there.”
Competition might have played some role in the new name. Crown Fried Chicken is across the street, owned by Osman Mohibi, 47, an Afghan immigrant. He keeps pictures of Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. taped to the plexiglass divider by the cash register.
Mr. Mohibi said his competitor’s misstep was winning new customers for Crown Fried Chicken. “He used the name,” Mr. Mohibi said of the owner. “He used black people.”
Kevin McCall, one of the community organizers who confronted Obama Fried Chicken’s owner, said he received calls from residents disturbed by the sign, and quickly contacted the owner to tell him it was “very offensive to African-Americans.”
The owner told him it would be taken down the next day, Mr. McCall said. When it was not, he contacted the owner again. “I said we would be out there having a rally,” Mr. McCall said.
City Councilman Charles Barron, who was also involved in the effort to change the name, said it was possible that the owner was simply trying to exploit the president’s name. “Fried chicken, watermelon and minstrels are part of the racist stereotyping of black people in America,” he said. “It’s outrageous. You have to be sensitive and knowledgeable.”
At the store on Friday afternoon, Mr. Jabbar served ice cream to teenagers and chicken wings to regulars. He said he did not really understand the pressure to bring down the sign, since everyone who came in the store seemed to like the idea. And he was concerned about what would happen if the community advocates returned.
“I’m new to this country,” he said. “I don’t really know what they could do.”

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