| | Print
Social media trolling and improved sales reported by some politically active restaurants

A receipt from a restaurant is hardly remarkable, not something you’d normally see go viral. But when a guest at Kiwiana tweeted a photo of her brunch receipt, it made waves.

But it wasn’t the specials that caught fire. It was the political statement. Under the itemized total, the chef and owner, Mark Simmons, had printed the following message: “Immigrants make America great (they also cooked your food and served you today).”

“It wasn’t my intention to have it blow up the way it did, and I know that not everyone is going to agree with me, but hopefully we can have a frank conversation about it.”

The tweet netted notices in local and national publications. Several days after the story took off, Simmons says things still haven’t calmed down. “It’s been overwhelming the amount of phone calls and emails we’ve been getting,” Simmons says. “It wasn’t my intention to have it blow up the way it did, and I know that not everyone is going to agree with me, but hopefully we can have a frank conversation about it.”

Restaurateurs often avoid taking a political stand or posting messages that take a side in a political dogfight. But in the current heightened climate, many restaurants are choosing to wear their political heart on their sleeve. On the walls, windows, social media pages and lips of restaurants from Maine to California politics is finding itself on the menu — even though this stance can come with costs like social media harassment and angry customers.

Simmons’ message arrived after President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. (The order was stayed by federal courts.) The controversial order didn’t just spark a response in the Brooklyn food scene. In Chicago, The Publican and Goddess and Grocer donated food to the immigration lawyers who rushed to O’Hare International Airport to assist travelers detained under the ban. Dark Matter Coffee and Metropolis Coffee Company also provided free caffeine.

“We keep our mouth shut a lot and try to do what we can on the side, but this was too important,” says Tony Dreyfuss, the co-owner of Metropolis Coffee Company. “I grew up with people from all over the world and I have a strong belief that no human being is illegal. Our tagline is great coffee is for everyone. I think our customers for the most part believe that, so we’re speaking to the base.”

Nando's Store Window with Statement (1)

This has hardly been the first flare-up of food industry activism this year. Just last week thousands of restaurant workers organized a walkout and restaurants across the country closed in solidarity. In the lead-up to inauguration weekend, Nando’s Peri-Peri launched an “#EveryoneIsWelcome” campaign, printing 60,000 free posters distributed throughout Washington, DC. A group of Portland bakers also made an inauguration statement with a “Cookie Grab” sale with the proceeds donated to Planned Parenthood. David Chang, the chef and owner behind Momofuku, tweeted out his plans to introduce menu items from the seven countries listed in President Trump’s original executive order.

“We keep our mouth shut a lot and try to do what we can on the side, but this was too important.”

Those are the famous examples. In cities and small towns, quieter examples of political activism are happening in restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops and more.

But at what costs? Often restaurant owners and operators choose to keep their political opinions quiet and their activism under wraps, not wishing to alienate customers or create a backlash in social or mainstream media.

“Oh, we’re already getting trolled on Yelp,” says Dreyfuss. Metropolis’s airport actions — as well as its recent fundraiser for the ACLU and status as a Sanctuary Restaurant — have caused some reviewers to write, “Am I welcome in your coffee shop having voted for our now President? As an American, I certainly don’t feel like I am. #VoteWithDollars.”

Mike Sherwood, the owner of Pizza Nea in Minneapolis, received similar Yelp reviews after posting an anti-Trump statement from Jeremy Mitchell on his restaurant’s Facebook page. “There were some trolls who had never even been here, and they even admitted it,” he says. “There were also a few real customers I lost, maybe two or three that I know of. What I told the customers who were respectful but said they wouldn’t be coming back is I can’t afford to line the pockets of senators, so this is my only place to speak from, and I’ll do it.”

“We do pretty extensive communication support,” says Sheila Maddali, spokesperson for Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which has supplied Sanctuary Restaurants signs to more than 250 restaurants. Some restaurants do express concern about the reaction of customers, Maddali says. But the group says it urges restaurants to explain the political stance is meant to be welcoming to all, rather than alienating to some.

“I don’t think it’s the place of a business to dictate political beliefs but I think it’s certainly okay to talk about basic human rights…”

Despite some backlash on social media and review sites like Yelp!, some restaurateurs like Dreyfuss and Sherwood say business has actually improved as a result of their public political statements. Metropolis experienced a record-breaking weekend during its ACLU fundraiser, and business at Pizza Nea is the best it’s been in 12 years, according to Sherwood.

Regardless of the potential consequences — whether they’re angry phone calls or unexpected sales boosts — Simmons doesn’t think restaurant owners should shy away from speaking their mind. “As a person it’s good to talk and get stuff off your chest,” he says. “Is it a good or bad thing? I think it’s neither. Just a statement.”

Dreyfuss agrees. “I don’t think it’s the place of a business to dictate political beliefs but I think it’s certainly okay to talk about basic human rights,” he says. “No human being is illegal and everyone has a seat at the table [at Metropolis], whether they voted for Trump or Donald Duck.”

Sound Off: Do You Believe Politics Belong In The Restaurant? Take The Survey.

Written by   |  
Kristin Hunt is a writer living in Brooklyn. She has very strong opinions about chili, cheesecake, and Old Bay seasoning.