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After Weeks in the Spotlight, Decision Coming Soon on 'Pho Keene Great' Sign

The city of Keene has been in the spotlight over the name of a new Vietnamese restaurant coming to town.

Some find it offensive, some find it funny, and others are wondering if there’s more to the story than meets the eye. 

Editor’s Note: We recommend listening to this story.

Isabelle Jolie is one of the restaurant’s owners. She used to run a local food truck on the outskirts of Keene. But she and a couple business partners signed a lease last year to open a new, full restaurant downtown. She said it’s been a big project -- all the renovations and planning.

“Oh yea, we put a lot of money into it,” she said.

She chose the name for this new venture almost by happenstance. She knew she wanted the word “pho,” a popular Vietnamese soup, in there, plus Keene, where the restaurant would be located. But beyond that, she wasn’t sure.

She ran the idea past a friend.

“He said, why don’t you put something like ‘good’ or ‘great,’ because I’ve never had Vietnamese food and it was great,” she said. “And when he repeated the whole thing, I thought -- wait a minute -- so funny.”

So that was it: Pho Keene Great. There’s even t-shirts she made as a marketing tool last year, the name in bold lettering below a cartoon of a Vietnamese woman eating noodle soup.

A local gift shop was selling hundreds of Pho Keene Great t-shirts a day as of last week.

Jolie says it’s really not offensive -- after all, it doesn’t sound bad at all if you say it with the proper inflection.

But not everyone agrees.   

When Jolie put up a temporary Pho Keene Great coming soon sign in the window in December, the city asked her to take it down.

The rules applying to this restaurant are different than most other businesses in town, said Keene City Manager Elizabeth Dragon. That’s because Jolie’s not leasing from a private landlord, but actually the city itself. The space she leased is actually in the same building as city hall.

The terms of that lease give the city the right to approve or deny what goes up on window lettering or signs, Dragon said, including something that could cause complaints or be offensive.

“I think a lot of people are confusing it with first amendment rights, but it’s really just about the lease,” she said.

The whole kerfuffle, though, hit the news around the holiday and then went viral, spreading to news outlets across the country.

Jolie’s t-shirts started flying off the shelves, several hundred a day as of last week. A group of eight American soldiers in Afghanistan even put in an order, she said.  

The thing is, if you’ve been living in New Hampshire for a while, you know this isn’t the first time an off-beat story from Keene has hit the national news.

Late night host Seth Meyers included a bit on 'Pho Keene Great' in his show January 9.

There was the time the city’s traditional fall pumpkin festival devolved into riots. There’s local characters like the ‘Crying Nazi,’ the ‘Redneck Muslim,’ and the libertarian ‘Robin Hooders’ who went after meter maids downtown to keep them from issuing parking tickets. 

Connected to a lot of these stories in some way is a man named Ian Freeman, a general gadfly of many in city government.

He’s the same guy, it turns out, who’s behind the organization that owns the property where Jolie had her original food truck and where the gift store sits that’s now selling her t-shirts.

Freeman’s a vocal libertarian, a former Free Stater, who hosts a radio show, Free Talk Live, and runs a blog, Free Keene -- now titled Free Keene Great. Jolie’s t-shirts are linked to, by the way, quite prominently on that site.

So, all that, combined with the fact that the Pho Keene Great sign would, to some, appear to mock the city while sitting right next to City Hall, is leading to questions about whether the whole thing is an elaborate set-up, a prank of some kind.

Local Keene radio host Dan Mitchell grilled Isabelle Jolie on it last week.

“There’s been a lot of discussion since all of this has been going on -- some of the people who came to your support immediately are people who’re connected with Free Keene movement in town,” he said. “You don’t have any connection other than that you have friendships and relationships like anybody else would have with some of the people that happen to belong to that political aspiration, I guess, in town, right?”

“No, absolutely not,” she responded.

Freeman, for his part, said any suggestion along these lines is a conspiracy theory, ridiculous. And Jolie agrees. She’s just trying to open a restaurant, she said, and she’s already invested a lot of time and money in the process.

City Manager Elizabeth Dragon declined to comment on any connection to the local libertarian movement. She’s gotten a lot of response on both sides of the issue from far beyond Keene. The city will likely come to a decision on the restaurant’s application for a sign, hopefully settling the name issue, later this week, she said.

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