For Chinatown’s Eng family, shutting down Fong Inn Too, the oldest independently-run tofu shop in the U.S., was a painful experience. But a year after the storefront at 46 Mott St. went dark, they’re dealing with a new indignity. According to Paul Eng, one of four brothers who worked in the business over the years, they’re having to confront an imposter.
About six months ago, a new operator going by the name, “Fong On NYC” popped up in the exact same location in Chinatown, proclaiming, “We’re coming back!” While the original Mott Street store was referred to as Fong Inn Too, the Eng family’s retail and wholesale business is known more generally as “Fong On, Inc.” A production facility and store still owned by the family at 80 Division Street carries that name (the location is currently closed for renovations).
In the past couple of weeks, the Eng family sent a cease and desist letter to the new business owner and its Mott Street landlord. In a statement, Paul Eng said, For more than 80 years my family has put its sweat and love into this brand and we are prepared to do whatever it takes to stop Fong On NYC, and others, in their tracks (to) protect our customers and the public from anyone trying to get a free ride on the good will and trust we created.”
The new operator at 46 Mott St., is John Yee, a well known businessman in Chinatown (his dim sum restaurant, Joy Luck Palace, recently closed to the general public following protests from pro-union activists). Reached by telephone yesterday, Yee declined to comment about the situation. A store manager did speak briefly with a reporter from the Chinese language newspaper, Sing Tao Daily. The manager said that he didn’t see any trademark problems because the new business was able to successfully register the name, “Fong On NYC, Inc.” with the State of New York.
Christian Liedtke, the Eng family’s attorney, told us in a phone interview that this argument is indefensible. Family members say “Fong On, Inc.” was first registered in the 1930s and again recently. But even if the name wasn’t officially registered, Liedtke said, the family has built up the brand over a period of many decades and clearly owns the name.
“This is one of the most blatant trademark cases I have come across in recent years,” said Liedtke.
There was a burst of publicity at about this time last year when it became known that the Mott Street store would be closing. In a New York Times story, family members explained that sales had been slumping for several years and that the new generation had other career interests. So the family sold the building. According to Lidtke, there was a “gentleman’s agreement” with the new property owner to return Fong On logos emblazoned on the building facade. That never happened.
Paul Eng said of the new operators, “We’re in the same community. We built a legacy of 80 plus years in this community. We have deep roots. They didn’t think about the morality of using our name in the same community.” If the new owners stop using the Fong On name, said Eng, the dispute will be over. If they choose not to respond to the cease and desist letter by this coming Friday, the Eng family is promising to pursue legal action.