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The Politics (and PR) of Restaurants Banning Donald Trump

Should restaurant owners refuse service based on political ideologies?

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Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

On July 1, 2015, Mark Henegan put up a poster of Donald Trump outside his restaurant Madiba, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Below the image of America’s most tan and polarizing figure, a statement read in bold white text: "This is a toupe free [sic] zone. Donald Trump is banned from Madiba restaurant."

Henegan, the executive chef and owner of the South African restaurant, is well-versed in blending politics with running a business. Madiba itself is a nickname for South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela, and Henegan has previously held parties celebrating Obama’s campaign victories. Both political figures promoted the social ideals and virtues that Henegan shares, and he believes it’s an obligation to use his business as a vehicle to promote his political views. For Henegan, this entails informing current guests of Trump’s agenda, as well as hoping to encourage a form of political camaraderie among his customers.

"People need to know that we cannot support or live in a country that has a guy [running for President] that says terrible things about women, about gay people, about Muslims," said Henegan, an immigrant from South Africa whose family fled racism and apartheid. "The guy is not what I came to this country for."

Signage at Madiba restaurant in Brooklyn. Photo: Facebook

Over the course of the current election cycle, things have begun to heat up in the restaurant industry. Despite the fact that many business owners tend to separate work from politics, restaurateurs like Cleveland’s Michael Symon, Greg Martin of Minneapolis’ Urban Bean Coffee, and Jeff Ruby of Jeff Ruby Steakhouse in Louisville, Kentucky, have all banned Donald Trump from eating at their venues. Ruby eventually revoked his Trump ban after receiving a death threat from Trump supporters, while Martin recently expanded the ban to include Trump supporters, as well. Other dining establishments, largely thanks to media coverage and their owners’ public statements, have found themselves swept up by the hairy partisan whirlwind. Around the nation, a number of restaurants have become hotbeds for political tension.

Restaurant owners and executives admittedly have a longstanding history of engaging in politics, albeit in more nuanced manners. As Eater reported earlier this year, several presidential candidates have received monetary or "in-kind" donations (like catering services) from both restaurant owners and restaurant chains' political action committees. "The restaurant association or individual restaurant companies, whether they’re public or private, get heavily involved in politics," said Warren Ellish, president and CEO of restaurant consultant firm Ellish Marketing Group. "Not necessarily for one party or another, but they try to support candidates that are pro-business and pro-restaurant."

Henegan of Madiba took political action in a less subtle manner than simply donating his food or money; still, he says he was implementing his own philosophy of "what’s good for business" when announcing his restaurant’s ban. For him, Madiba’s kitchen staff, largely undocumented immigrants from Mexico, felt the sharp burn of Trump’s insults denigrating Mexican citizens and calling to build a wall between the States and Mexico.

"A very high percentage of the people who come in on a regular basis are going to support what we said."

"He talked badly about Mexicans. They’re the backbone of the restaurant industry, and they were really hurt," Henegan said, referring to both his own restaurant’s employees as well as others’. He isn’t too concerned about losing his longstanding customer base over this act of political protest. According to Henegan, he couldn’t imagine someone being racist in Fort Greene, and as a result, he carries out these statements "for fun" and "to bring awareness."

Although New York City is known for its citizens’ political outspokenness, this same debate has erupted at businesses across the country. In Minneapolis, Greg Martin’s Urban Bean Coffee micro-franchise announced in mid-June that Trump, as well as Trump supporters, were banned from patronizing either of the brand’s two locations. "I don't know that it's even that controversial," Martin told local magazine City Pages shortly after announcing the ban, suggesting that most of his customer base agrees with his sentiment. "We're an independent coffee shop," Martin said at the time. "A very high percentage of the people who come in on a regular basis are going to support what we said."

In the case of Urban Bean (and other restaurants with similar bans), one is left to speculate how employees detect Trump supporters — although individuals garbed in any Trump apparel bearing his infamous "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan are probably easy pickings. This was the case this past June in Colonial Heights, Virginia, when employees at the local fast-food chain Cook Out refused to serve two supporters dressed in pro-Trump attire. (After the incident took place, Cook Out's management told local CBS affiliate WTVR that "the situation has been resolved and was resolved that night per Cook Out policy.")

Some establishments have gone so far as to ban Trump supporters. Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

Several angry Trump supporters have compared this refusal of service to a discrimination lawsuit filed last year by a Portland, Oregon gay couple when a local bakery refused to bake their wedding cake. Nasir Pasha, a lawyer at Pasha Law, a legal firm specializing in business protection, explained that while refusing service to an individual based on their sexual orientation can result in a lawsuit in some states, political ideologies are much less likely to hold any weight. The reason for this differentiation lies in what is considered a "protected class," or a characteristic against which it is illegal to discriminate. Well-known protected classes include race, color, age, national origin, sex, religion, disability status, and citizenship.

Pasha explained that states, however, are allowed to create their own protected classes like sexual orientation — this is the case in California and Oregon — and that whichever law provides more protection is the one that will be used. A person’s political beliefs, on the other hand, are rarely given this sort of status. Washington, DC, the epicenter of America’s political forays, is one of the few areas where political affiliation is in fact a protected class.

A person’s political beliefs are rarely given protected-class status under anti-discrimination laws.

Still, Pasha said, lawyers can find a way to bring such a lawsuit forward. "If Obama was running, and you’re banning Obama supporters, and all of the sudden statistics show that you’re routinely refusing service to black males, or black women… you can see that also poses a problem," Pasha said, describing how easily barring a particular group of political supporters could intentionally or unintentionally lead to discrimination. "You can ban Obama supporters, but if it has that effect [of infringing upon a protected class], then you still end up border-lining into an illegal act." That anti-discrimination protection would extend to supporters of any race.

While the ban is technically legal and morally questionable, in the court of public opinion, several online social media users have proven themselves divided in their posts and comments. Urban Bean Coffee’s official Facebook and Instagram accounts have become a breeding ground for mudslinging political banter. Over the past two weeks, both visitors and account moderators have left posts noting their two cents. Urban Bean has stoked the fiery tension by posting articles and photos denouncing Trump, while individuals from both inside and outside the Twin Cities area have posted both positive and negative opinions regarding the ban. Social psychologist Regina Tuma told Eater last year that the spike in traffic on the café’s social media pages like Facebook and Yelp are in themselves acts of protest. As such, attention towards the coffee shop has not yet completely ceased.

(Martin of Urban Bean declined to speak with Eater for this article, directing it to a press release posted on its Facebook page on June 23: "Months after banning The Donald from it’s [sic] Minneapolis stores Urban Bean instructed [Trump] supporters not to like or follow the shop on social media. Urban Bean has always focused on the community. Urban Bean seeks to create a community free from the hate and bigotry that has been a mainstay in the media through this election.")

Photo: Facebook

Urban Bean coffee, where commenters have overtaken the business' Facebook page after it announced a ban on Trump supporters. Photo: Facebook

Despite a huge spike in partisan tensions following Urban Bean’s ban, there’s the silver lining that many local residents who had no idea the coffee shop existed at least now know the name. "Even bad publicity, in many cases, can be good publicity depending on how you deal with it," Ellish said. "So I do think sometimes people are looking for publicity, and when there’s something that they could latch onto that allows them to get publicity, they will do that."

Of course, not every restaurant noted in the media for their Trump reactions intended for their business to become a political flame war. Still, many have benefited from the aforementioned fact that any publicity can be good.

He noted that the people attacking his business are "a really loud minority, and they can be influential."

Earlier this March, Betty Rivas, co-owner of Sammy’s Mexican Grill in Catalina, Arizona, attended a Trump rally in Tucson while holding a sign that said "Latinas Support D. Trump." (Rivas actually was on the fence in terms of politicians she'd support and had attended a Bernie Sanders rally earlier that week.) Trump brought the entrepreneur onstage, where Rivas informed the public of her restaurant back in Catalina. Immediately after the rally, she began receiving slanderous Yelp reviews from seemingly anti-Trump individuals nowhere near her business. At the same time, however, people in the pro-Trump camps lauded Rivas' decision to speak and even drove miles out of their way to support the restaurant.

Dan Ouellette, a resident of the nearby town of Casa Grande, Arizona, heard the news, read the Yelp reviews, and visited the establishment soon after "to see what all the BS is about," he wrote in his own subsequent Yelp review. To his surprise, Sammy’s had a jam-packed crowd with a line out the door around late-lunch time. Although Ouellette enjoyed his meal, the Casa Grande native admitted he isn't a huge fan of entrepreneurs mixing politics with business.

"As far as businesses, restaurants, movie stars, anyone like that, I think they need to keep their opinion to themselves," Ouellette said. "I mean, when you’re thinking about a business… that’s an individual’s opinion. Yeah, they are the owner and they’re entitled to their opinion, but I dunno, it’s a fine line."

Although negative press can be turned into positive, in this vitriolic political environment, even a sign that can be misinterpreted as partisanship can lead to a decrease in customers visiting the business. Chef/owner Walter Jahncke of Northside Cafe in Winterset, Iowa, decided to include a "Trump Burger" on his menu in light of the Republican candidate's short visit to Winterset this past January. While Jenkins thought the burger was a fun, middle-of-the-road stance towards the presidential candidate and would be an easy way to capture some extra business, locals saw the move differently.

"We started to pick up some chatter on [the community online forum] all about the Trump thing, and I think we probably lost some local business, maybe 10 to 20 people," Jenkins said. Although it was not a significant loss, he noted that the people attacking his business are "a really loud minority, and they can be influential."

Like several of his fellow anti-Trump restaurateurs, Henegan shows no sign in backing down on the sentiment in his restaurant. He cheekily noted that in opposition to Trump's "Make America Great Again" hats, his restaurant’s staff flaunts baseball caps reading "FUCK TRUMP." For him, there's no such thing as separating the restaurant business from politics. "I think it’s important, whatever you’re doing in life, to be political," Henegan said. "It’s important to be socially aware and socially active. Because if we’re not political and we’re not voting, and we’re not out there, it affects our lives."

Matt Sedacca is a writer based in New York City.
Editor: Erin DeJesus