Whole Foods in hot water over controversial restaurant name

A pan-Asian restaurant, which recently opened inside a Whole Foods, has sparked backlash on social media.
by Julie Pennell / / Source: TODAY

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The owners of a California-based restaurant chain claim their eatery has a tongue-in-cheek name. And Whole Foods decided to partner with them.

But now, a pan-Asian cafe is causing quite the controversy on social media and many people are not happy.

On Wednesday, 365 by Whole Foods Market announced on Twitter that its Long Beach location opened a new restaurant named Yellow Fever, which serves customized rice bowls with a variety of Asian flavors.

While it’s not the first of its kind (the chain has two other locations in Torrance and Venice, California), this restaurant seemed to have opened the backlash floodgates due to its new association with the national grocer.

Yellow fever not only refers to an often fatal viral disease contracted by infected mosquitoes, but is also a racially charged term that signifies a non-Asian person being attracted to someone of Asian descent, usually with the connotation of fetishism.

Grand Opening Of The New Whole Foods Market 365 Store
Getty Images

Yellow Fever co-owner Kelly Kim, who is originally from South Korea, told Next Shark that she and her partner knew the name would be a little shocking — but that’s what they liked about it.

“When we finally came up with the concept, all the names we thought of just plain sucked. Buzzwords like 'traditional,' 'bamboo,' 'lotus,' and 'golden' weren’t memorable," she explained.

"One night, we just said 'Yellow Fever!' and it worked. It’s tongue-in-cheek, kind of shocking, and it’s not exclusive — you can fit all Asian cultures under one roof with a name like this. We just decided to go for it."

But now that Whole Foods is on board, many can’t get behind the name. Some social media users said they found it gross that a place which makes food would be named after a disease, while others saw it as racist.

However, some have looked past the controversy and are defending the restaurant's name.

Kim told The Washington Post on Saturday that she never took the name to a have deeper meaning than having "an attraction or affinity of Asian people or Asian things."

"It’s a little tongue in cheek, but I never saw it as offensive or racist or anti-feminist, she said.

A statement from the restaurant's media kit, sent via email to TODAY Food, further explains the name: "Yellow Fever...yeah, we really said that. Yes, the named [sic] definitely gets your attention. But rather than narrowly associating it with a deadly disease or with perpetuating racial stereotypes, we choose to embrace the term and reinterpret it positively for ourselves."

It added, “Words don’t offend, people do.”

The two older Yellow Fever restaurants both have four-star ratings on Yelp, with dozens of positive reviews noting the delicious food and friendly staff.

A representative for Whole Foods was not immediately available for comment.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement provided by the Yellow Fever restaurant management team from their press media kit.

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