Momofuku responds to backlash over David Chang's chili crisp trademark battle

Asian creators and chefs say there's plenty of room at the chili crunch table.

ByKelly McCarthy GMA logo
Friday, April 12, 2024
Chili crunch wars: Food fight over popular condiment used in Asian cooking
A top celebrity chef is in the middle of a food fight over who owns the name of a popular Asian condiment known as chili crunch

Celebrity chef David Chang is taking heat from fellow Asian food producers -- from chefs to smaller consumer packaged food brands -- who say they are disappointed by how he's chosen to try to enforce his trademark on a widely consumed, beloved chili crisp condiment, Chili Crunch.

Lawyers for Chang, the chef and founder of the Momofuku empire of restaurants and grocery goods, recently sent cease-and-desist letters to small, independent companies using the terms "chili crunch" and "chile crunch" on their products, which Chang's lawyers argued infringes on Momofuku's trademark rights, The Guardian first reported earlier this month.

Chili crisp is typically made with roasted chili-infused oil with crispy bits of fried garlic, onion, spices and herbs. The product -- for which there exist hundreds of at-home recipes -- has been produced by dozens of brands for years, is sold widely across U.S. grocery stores and specialty Asian grocery markets, can often be seen on Asian restaurant menus and is even offered in the buffet line at Delta Sky Club lounges.

Momofuku first launched its popular chili crisp, called Chili Crunch, in 2018 and began selling jars of it in 2020.

"Ever since the early days of Momofuku, we've been working on a chili oil that has heat, texture, umami, and a proper balance of flavor. The result is Momofuku Chili Crunch," the company writes on its website.

"We spent years tinkering and experimenting in our kitchens in order to create a chili oil that reflects all of our various inspirations and speaks to our specific tastes," it continues. "Ours uses the same umami base as Momofuku Seasoned Salts, plus a lot of the flavors and textures we love: crispy shallots, sesame seeds, dried garlic, and coconut sugar for a hint of sweetness."

Chang's company, under the name MomoIP LLC, obtained the rights to the term "chile crunch," spelled with an "e", in 2023 from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Momofuku acquired the rights to the term "chile crunch" from the Denver-based company Chile Colonial.

Momofuku more recently filed a trademark for chili crunch, spelled with an "i," on March 29, 2024, according to legal documents obtained by ABC News.

The company sent cease-and-desist letters to a number of companies on March 18, 2024, through the USPTO, including New York-based Malaysian food brand Homiah, which sells a product called Sambal Chili Crunch in two flavors, previously called "Crispy Sambal" and "Seaweed Sambal."

The letter stated that "Momofuku trusts that Homiah did not adopt the CHILI CRUNCH mark in bad faith or with an intent to create confusion." It went on to state that "trademark law requires brand owners to police use of their trademarks -- and because Momofuku is concerned that consumers may actually be confused here -- we write to request Homiah's cooperation."

Momofuku has demanded Homiah cease the use of the name "chili crunch" within 90 days and agree not to use or apply to register in the future "any marks that incorporate the components of chili crunch or chile crunch."

Michelle Tew, founder and CEO of Homiah, first took to LinkedIn last week after the now-viral Guardian report was published, accusing Chang of being a "trademark bully" and turning up the heat on others selling "chili crunch."

"I've always been a Momofuku fan and supporter," Tew wrote, detailing her longtime appreciation for Chang's restaurants, adding, "I've stocked my pantry and freezer with countless Momofuku products."

"Homiah's Sambal Chili Crunch product is personal and based on a family recipe from my Granny Nonie dating back to countless generations of Nyonya heritage in Penang, Malaysia," she continued. "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."

In an emailed statement to ABC News, a spokesperson for Momofuku said the company is "proud to stand alongside so many AAPI-founded brands making enormous and long-overdue changes in the space."

"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," the spokesperson said. "We worked with a family-owned company called Chile Colonial to purchase the trademark from them."

The company said it has seen "multiple businesses that sold chili crisp products rebrand themselves to use the words Chili Crunch" over the past year.

"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," the statement continued. "...Our goal is and has been to find an amicable resolution -- not to harm the competition that makes this category so vibrant."

The cease-and-desist letters have prompted other Asian chefs and food creators and founders to sound off online, particularly in defense of small businesses.

Jing Gao, founder and CEO of Fly by Jing, which sells an all-natural, small batch Sichuan chili crisp sauce crafted in Chengdu, Sichuan, reposted Tew's LinkedIn remarks last week, adding that she was "disheartened" by the cease and desist demand.

"The 'chile crunch' trademark should never have been granted. Just like 'chili crisp', it is a generic and descriptive term for a culturally specific condiment, one that has existed in Chinese culinary culture for hundreds of years," Gao stated.

"I am disheartened to hear that Momofuku is using a trademark with a validity that is tenuous at best to go after numerous brands including small minority women founded businesses," she continued. "This kind of action, if successful, sets a dangerous precedent for the squashing of fair competition, not to mention how ridiculous it is to try and take ownership of a generic cultural term."

Gao added that her company, as well as Homiah and similar Asian-owned food brands, "exist in a traditionally marginalized space" in which "investors and retailers told us that our business was too 'niche.'" She emphasized that more competition "only serves to validate the market opportunity -- there is enough space for everyone."

Neither Fly By Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp, launched in 2018, nor the widely popular Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp -- which has been around since the late 1980s, according to the Lao Gan Ma website -- are being targeted by the letters, according to The Guardian, which noted that both products use the term "chili crisp" rather than "chile crunch," which Momofuku has trademarked.

Asian food brands, chefs rally to support creators of other chili crisp condiments

Kim Pham, the first-generation Vietnamese co-founder of the sauce and noodle brand Omsom, which she started and owns with her sister Vanessa Pham, penned an entire post on Instagram reacting to the cease-and-desist letters.

As a small business owner in the Asian food space, Pham shared additional sentiments with "Good Morning America," about how "blocking young brands from using specific, easy-to-understand terms can be hurtful in getting off the ground."

"One of the foundational building blocks of marketing is the naming and positioning of your product," she said. "Getting this right can make or break consumer understanding and experience of your product."

Additionally, she shared the advice she would give to the small business owners at the center of the "chili crunch" dispute.

"Keep your head up. While it may seem like there are strong forces trying to push your business down, you have an entire community of Asian Americans behind you who believe that rising tides raise all boats," Pham said. "Your work is helping build power and mobility for other Asian food brands."

Dozens of other Asian food creators, chefs and business owners have chimed in on social media, flooding feeds with similar sentiments.

On Tuesday, Filipino chef, restaurateur and TV host Jordan Andino, took to Instagram to share his thoughts on the situation.

"Shocked, disappointed, and confused," Andino wrote in the caption. "Let's try and uplift the entire Asian diaspora. Strange way to try and make some money... especially at the expense of people who admire and look up to you."