The old adage that "politics and the dinner table don’t mix" has become one so ingrained in American culture that it’s difficult to pinpoint when it began slipping away. Today, it isn’t just Aunt Phyllis who is unafraid to spout her love for a particular candidate. Even some of the biggest corporations in the country aren’t afraid to talk politics — or weave them into the way they do business.
It’s rare for a corporation to expressly endorse a candidate, even during a heated Presidential campaign. But brands do flex their political muscle in a number of other ways: through employee programs, support of certain pieces of legislation, or even new products inspired by or modeled after candidates.
Does mixing politics and business yield a recipe for disaster? According to restaurant consultant Aaron Allen, that depends on "the company, the tonality, and the issue."
Below, a list of the most politically-minded restaurant and food brands in recent history.
Ben & Jerry’s
Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen have never shied away from politics. In January, Cohen released a limited-edition ice cream flavor (unaffiliated with the Ben & Jerry's company) called "Bernie's Yearning." The frozen treat — a mint ice cream base below a "one percent" layer of chocolate that forces eaters to break through the upper crust to get to the good stuff — was named for Vermont Senator and former Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Greenfield is politically active, too. In fact, earlier this year, both men were arrested in D.C. during a march organized by liberal-leaning organization Democracy Awakening. That might seem like it would be bad for business but because of Ben & Jerry's history with politics, the stunt didn't make much of a difference.
"With Ben & Jerry’s, there's a certain irreverence to that brand," says Allen. "Their brand was built on that [kind of behavior]. There can be a lot of positive to controversies like those, actually. The challenge is to make sure it reflects back on the company."
Chick-fil-A first burst on to the political scene when its CEO Dan Cathy proclaimed his opposition to marriage equality back in 2012. The comments came on the heels of reports revealing that the chicken chain’s charitable endeavor, the WinShape Foundation, had donated millions of dollars to organizations hostile to LGBT causes.
The move was incredibly divisive, with politicians on either side of the aisle coming out against or in support of Cathy's comments. And while some activists called for boycotts of the chain, counter-protesters rallied behind Chick-fil-A.
"That move actually worked for them," says Allen, "and I’ve heard that they even saw an increase of 29 percent in sales at some locations in the wake of the scandal." Chick-fil-A doesn’t release its financials (it’s not publicly traded), but a consulting firm estimated that "the average Chick-fil-A had a 29.9 percent spike in sales" during the first big event it held after Cathy’s quotes were reported.
Chick-fil-A sales may have gone up, but Allen warns CEOs should still shy away from being too vocal when it comes to controversial topics. "It’s important to note that it was tricky for them in the beginning," he adds. "It took them a few weeks to steer the message in the right direction. And, they ended up walking several of those statements back."
The company responded to the controversy in a statement released in July 2012: "Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena."
In the end, the move served as a cautionary tale for many other restaurants: Don’t get involved explicitly in politics unless you’re willing to get some flack for it. "When you get into politics — whether you're Republican or Democrat — you’ll end up alienating half of your customers," says Allen.
Chipotle was the first restaurant chain to announce it would say farewell to genetically-modified ingredients, back in 2015. Though the company’s anti-GMO stance was viewed by some as pretty bold, it had its critics, too. Was the announcement further proof that the company was serving "food with integrity," or was it just a marketing ploy — much like its Pixar-style ads which turned the chain into a poster child for sustainability?
Marketing ploy or not, the move resonated with millennials, an important component of Chipotle’s customer base. "Millennials are much more responsive to sustainability than the average customer," says Allen. "Things that deal with the supply chain, the humanity of animals, sustainability, supporting species extinction — those are all things that are positive and make sense for a restaurant."
Of course, many scientific studies have found that GMOs have no adverse effect on human health. Some critics have even argued that Chipotle’s stance against genetically-modified ingredients further muddies the waters by using questionable science to sell food.
A 2016 suit filed in U.S. District Court alleged the company’s anti-GMO stance wasn’t exactly all it was cracked up to be. According to the suit, the animals Chipotle uses have been fed genetically modified foods, making the menu not entirely free of GMOs.
The company’s "food with integrity" promise was further called into question during its 2015 E. coli outbreak, which sickened dozens of customers and caused Chipotle’s stock to plummet.
Still, the company has managed to attract customers back to its restaurants — and the subtle political messaging is still there, though some of it might not be planned. (Case in point: That time Hillary Clinton went all-but-unnoticed while she grabbed a burrito bowl in April of last year.)
"Traditionally, there’s more of a liberal bias in restaurants," says Allen. "And Chipotle is, I think, viewed as the most liberal of the group. That’s maybe why it wasn’t exactly coincidental that someone like Hillary Clinton shows up there to grab lunch."
Shake Shack’s politics might be the most subtle of the bunch, and hinge mainly on the way the company pays its employees. Last year, CEO Danny Meyer announced he would ban tipping at all his restaurants (including Shake Shack). He raised prices to make up the difference.
Meyer has taken business cues from the social landscape before — at Union Square Cafe, he banned smoking more than a decade before the city put it into law — but the no-tipping policy was seen as especially controversial. Meyer’s reasoning is that tipping isn’t consistent. Different people do it differently, in some countries not at all, and it tends to be discriminatory toward people of color.
The tipped minimum wage (which is lower than the standard minimum wage) has been heavily disputed over the past few years, especially as many cities and states have worked to raise wages. Meyer injecting his own company into that dialogue could have been risky but so far, customers don’t seem to mind.
"For restaurants, there are just so many other battles that it’s usually best to stay away from fighting political ones," says Allen. "But when it has to do with helping the Earth or helping workers or other people who are disadvantaged, those things tend to actually drive revenue increases."
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has worked to inject his company into many political dialogues in the past. Some — like Starbucks’ emphasis on raising wages for its employees — have been successful. Others have not. Take the company's attempt at opening a national dialogue on race relations, for instance, which wound up being a flop.
The coffee chain recently announced it would be raising wages for thousands of employees, adopting a more lax dress code, and evolving its online benefits platform. Those sorts of announcements are overwhelmingly viewed as positive, says Allen, even if they aren’t that massive a change for employees: "If Starbucks is speaking out, generally it’s for the welfare of the people working in their organizations and a worldview that resonates with their customers."
Starbucks has also become an important part of the conversation on global warming. It's invested heavily in studying beans that can thrive in hotter climates and distributing rust-resistant coffee plants to areas affected by rising temperatures.
"There was a study of the 50,000 top publicly traded companies," says Allen. "And the top 50 most profitable shared something in common: They have a sense of purpose." In other words, that sense of "purpose," no matter how vague, can often translate to higher sales.
From the outside, Whole Foods seems to be a fairly liberal company. After all, the grocer offers generous wages to its employees and has progressive environmental policies in place. But CEO John Mackey’s politics (he's called himself a libertarian in the past) might not be what one would expect.
Whole Foods shares some commonalities with Starbucks: Both are viewed as having a similar sense of purpose, worldview, and care for their employees. The similarities don't stop there, says Allen, "They also have terrific communications teams that will help them craft their message in an opinionated but still measured response."
That message doesn’t always turn out the way the team had hoped, though.
In an op-ed penned for theWall Street Journal in 2009, Mackey argued against the Affordable Care Act, writing, "the last thing our country needs is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system."
The backlash was almost immediate and led Mackey to allege that editors at the Journal had changed many of his words and that Whole Foods as a company didn’t have an official position on the matter. But the CEO has become so outspoken on political issues it is often difficult to distinguish between his personal politics and those of Whole Foods.
Since his op-ed was published, Mackey continued to speak out on the health law, even calling it a form of "fascism" in an interview with NPR (like portions of his op-ed, he eventually walked back those comments, too).
Allen says that getting too specific — endorsing a specific candidate, or speaking out against a piece of legislation in an op-ed — isn’t the best route for a company CEO to take. Instead, companies like Whole Foods are often better served by letting lobbyists lead the fight. "That’s really the better way to go so you don't have people resenting the company," says Allen. "It’s best to stay away from things that are so controversial in the political realm — not just because you could alienate customers, but you could also create political enemies."
During the height of the Mad Cow scare in the ‘90s, Oprah Winfrey famously devoted an episode to some of the beef industry’s more controversial practices, saying at one point they had "stopped [her] cold from eating another hamburger." Beef prices plunged, and the cattle industry came after Winfrey with a $10.3 million lawsuit. She eventually won, but the beef people will likely hold a grudge against her for a long time.
And that is perhaps the biggest drawback with getting too political, says Allen. "Restaurateurs that overstep their bounds run the risk of being viewed differently in the marketplace. Hospitality is really about empathy, inclusion, and tolerance. Taking political battles out in the public realm is kind of like using your beach photos as your LinkedIn profile pic — it’s not appropriate."
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