New restaurant

A sign in the window of Pho Keene Great, a soon-to-open restaurant on Central Square in Keene, was removed recently after city officials alleged that the name could be interpreted as offensive and that the sign violated a lease agreement.

A soon-to-open restaurant removed its sign this week after city officials alleged its name could be interpreted as offensive and violated a lease agreement.

Pho Keene Great is a French-Vietnamese eatery that plans to open March 1 at 11 Central Square, according to owner Isabelle Jolie. The space is adjacent to City Hall, in a publicly owned building.

Jolie placed a “coming soon” sign in the window of the Central Square space with the business logo and name on Dec. 21. In a Facebook message, Jolie wrote that City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon called her Monday morning and asked her to remove the sign, citing a contract violation as well as “a concern about the appropriateness of the ‘intended play on words’ on a city building.”

Pho, a Vietnamese soup, is pronounced “fuh.”

Dragon told The Sentinel she asked Jolie to remove the sign because the business’ lease with the city requires it to get permission before putting up signs.

She noted that the lease is more restrictive than Keene’s sign ordinance.

“... And it was intentionally written that way because it’s a publicly owned building, and we do have to be concerned about anything that could be interpreted by the public as offensive or use of profanity,” Dragon said.

Dragon called the name a “clever marketing strategy” that’s bringing attention to the restaurant, and that’s good for a new business.

“We really do want them to be successful. I’m personally looking forward to frequenting her restaurant, but I do want to have a conversation with her about the sign and make sure that we are all comfortable moving forward,” Dragon said.

Jolie said she complied with Dragon’s request and removed the sign “as a good faith gesture, because we wanted to work with the city on this issue.”

But Jolie, who’s of Vietnamese descent, contended that the business name isn’t vulgar.

“It is a wordplay on Vietnamese vernacular and there were not intentions of creating harm or to offend anyone,” she wrote. “It was intended to be fun and lighthearted.”

When “pho” is pronounced with the language’s proper upward inflection, as if asking a question, Jolie said there shouldn’t be a problem with the business name.

Putting the pronunciation aside, she argued that it’s a potential First Amendment issue and said there’s a cultural aspect, too.

“It is discriminatory to say that a Vietnamese word, a popular food item combined with the name of our city is considered offensive,” Jolie wrote.

Regardless of her disagreement with Dragon about the name, Jolie pointed out that she signed the lease in April and hasn’t heard objections until now.

“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 …,” she wrote.

Dragon said she contacted Jolie a few months ago about the name and the profanity that could be heard in it. Jolie disputed that, but she said someone from a “government office,” not City Hall, called to warn her the business name might be an issue.

But how the name sounds doesn’t matter, Jolie wrote, because it’s protected by the First Amendment.

Jolie and Dragon are scheduled to meet Jan. 11 to discuss the matter. Jolie said she has no intentions of dropping the Pho Keene Great brand.

“We do not understand why it is inappropriate and hopefully, they will explain that in the meeting,” she wrote. “We plan on opening the business and not changing our name.”

Dragon said she hopes they can find an amicable solution that works for everyone.

“I want to make sure that the message is clear that we’re very supportive of the business, and opening, and really hopeful that she’ll be very successful,” Dragon said. “So, you know, we’re not trying to impede her success in any way.”

Sierra Hubbard can be reached at 355-8546 or at shubbard@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @SierraHubbardKS.