Ed Cornell and Pat Griffith, founders of ice cream business Milk Cult, developed a vegan coconut milk version laced with Southeast Asian flavors last year. They named it Bangkok Brothel.
For a while, no one seemed to notice. Until they did.
After a photo of a pint of the ice cream, which is not in stores at the moment, went up on social media recently, critics charged the business with making light of sex trafficking and prostitution.
But it won’t be changed.
The idea is not to retreat on the concerns that have been raised, Cornell said.
Instead, they’ve decided to use the ice cream to support the work of two advocacy groups. Local nonprofit HIPS provides health and social services to people in the so-called “street economy,” such as sex workers and drug users. The Empower Foundation, a Thailand-based nonprofit group, advocates on behalf of sex workers.
Cornell said he didn’t receive pressure from either group to change the name.
“I know that there are definitely people in the community who are pushing that,” said HIPS executive director Cyndee Clay. “Do I think it’s a really bad idea for a name? Yes.”
But, she added, “The goal for us is create a public dialogue around brothels, sex worker rights and human rights and anti-exploitation work. . . . If they stay true to their word and do that with this ice cream, that’s a win for us. We think that’s great.”
When they came up with the name, Cornell and Griffith didn’t think people would ever associate them or ice cream with sex trafficking or the stigmatization of sex workers.
“It was kind of matter-of-fact,” Cornell said. “We trusted most people to kind of not take us too seriously.
“Our goal was not that kind of edgy, in-your-face kind of thing,” he said. “I think that’s kind of cheap.”
But they apologized in a statement released Tuesday. Cornell said they’ve learned from the situation. A meeting with HIPS, after Clay reached out to Cornell and Griffith, emphasized the importance of context.
“Brothels don’t have to be bad places,” Clay said. “There are lots of places that are empowering and sex-worker run. The goal is to point out the exploitative ones and improve the more positive ones that work.”
Milk Cult plans to incorporate into its packaging a way for customers to connect with HIPS and Empower with a QR code, Web site or social media information, Cornell said. Additionally, 5 percent of the profits of Bangkok Brothel pints will be donated to the two groups. Specifics are still being worked out.
The whole situation has also taught them that there is “still a degree of unpredictability” in social media, Cornell said. The duo had not done much to promote the flavor other than a few social media posts.
Milk Cult isn’t the first local food business to face charges of cultural insensitivity over a name.
Before even opening, restaurateur Aaron Gordon changed the name of his now-shuttered doughnut shop from Cool Disco Donut to Zeke’s D.C. Donutz after catching flak from those who accused him of improperly appropriating the name of D.C. graffiti artist Cool “Disco” Dan. And a hip-hop themed menu at Mike Isabella’s Graffiato generated a firestorm late last year.
As to Bangkok Brothel, Milk Cult intends to keep the flavor indefinitely, as they would like to have a non-dairy flavor in their line.
“Regardless of what happens, I think this was a good example of a local business responding, wanting to respond to screwing up,” Clay said.