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Whole Foods debut of Yellow Fever concept stirs controversy

Racism? Re-appropriation? Or creative marketing?

The Southern California-based operator of an Asian fast-casual build-your-own-bowl concept was rocketed onto the national stage with the opening of its third location in a Whole Foods Market last week.

Yellow Fever debuted at a Whole Foods 365 unit in Long Beach, Calif., sparking a national debate about the name in social media, and prompting a story Monday in The New York Times.

The concept, co-founded by Korean-American chef Kelly Kim, first launched in Torrance, Calif. about four years ago.

The phrase “yellow fever” describes a mosquito-spread virus, but is also a slang term for white people with an Asian fetish, often applied to white men who have a preference for Asian women.

Kim for years has described the concept as a tongue-in-cheek attempt to be memorable, saying it represented “re-appropriation,” taking ownership of the term “yellow fever” and redefining it. On the wall at the Torrance location, a signature neon sign states, “Be yellow” and the menu celebrates flavors and ingredients from across Asia, Hawaii and California.

As news of the Whole Foods opening spread, however, critics attacked both the chain and Whole Foods on Twitter, and not only because of what many described as racist implications.

Some defended the restaurant concept’s name choice, saying the implied racism is perhaps in the eye of the beholder.

The restaurant, however, has stirred the pot for years with boundary-pushing marketing tactics.

A Halloween promotion on Facebook, for example, featured the phrase “Five dolla make u holla,” a line from the movie “Full Metal Jacket” in which a Vietnamese prostitute offers her services.

On Facebook last week, Yellow Fever officials did not address the controversy directly, but noted that “hate is heavy,” and thanked fans for their support.

In a statement to the New York Times on Saturday, Kim said, “Yellow Fever celebrates all things Asian: the food, the culture and the people, and our menu reflects that featuring cuisine from Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, Thailand and Hawaii.”

Kim and Whole Foods officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Whole Foods Market 365 location in Long Beach opened April 25, and the 28,000-square-foot smaller-footprint store is the eighth in the U.S.

The market location will be Yellow Fever’s first to serve beer and wine, according to Whole Foods.

The concept offers a menu of customizable bowls served on a choice of rice, noodles or greens.

The Seoul bowl, for example, has grilled beef with Asian slaw, mushrooms, kale and a fried egg with gochu sauce; while the Bangkok bowl features grilled chicken breast, mushrooms, Asian slaw, almonds, Thai basil and green coconut curry.

The proteins are raised antibiotic free and without added hormones, the produce is local and often organic, and sauces are made in house.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

TAGS: Marketing
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