Hospitality is a gift food business owners are increasingly choosing to extend — or withdraw — based on their personal politics. Some have banned President Donald Trump from their restaurants or closed their doors for a day in solidarity with immigrant workers they see as under-appreciated.
But what about the owners who would say they were just trying to do business, not make a political statement, when they were swept up into Trump-related controversies? Chef David Burke, who made his name in New York City where he garnered starred reviews from the New York Times and other publications over the years, has been surprised that his decision to open a restaurant — BLT Prime by David Burke — in Trump’s D.C. hotel has attracted negative political vibes.
“It was a business decision, and the business is thriving,” Burke says. “But I know some people aren’t fans because we happen to be serving food inside a building with Donald Trump’s name on the front.”
It’s not always predictable which food businesses will get painted as Trump-supporting after hosting or doing business with the president. The owner of the fine-dining French restaurant Jean-Georges inside Trump International Hotel & Tower in New York City hasn’t seen the same level of vitriol aimed his direction — cough-in protests staged at the restaurant but aimed squarely at Trump aside — but that might be because the business transaction occurred long before politics engulfed the Trump brand.
In some recent scenarios, business owners and their companies have been caught in the maelstrom that can follow an interaction with Trump, while others have proved that a quick and thoughtful response can take the wind out of a supposed controversy’s sails. In an age of heightened sensitivity, do food businesses still have the freedom to shake the president’s hand or sell him a cake and remain above the fray?
“Ultimately,” says Scott Faber, vice president of government affairs for the Washington, DC-based Environmental Working Group, “consumers will be the judge.”
D.C.-based sandwich chain Taylor Gourmet’s CEO Casey Patten, for one, didn’t anticipate the backlash he’d receive on social media after accepting the president’s invitation to attend a meeting for small business owners at the White House in January. Patten was photographed shaking hands with the president and standing behind him during a ceremony connected to Trump’s signing of an executive order to sharply cut regulations for small businesses.
Patten would later describe his actions as “apolitical” and, in an interview with the Washington Post, add that he had intended only to take advantage of an audience with the president to discuss, among other things, his concern for immigrant workers. The chain known for its hoagies employs about 300 people. “My political views don’t lean to one side or another,” Patten told the Post’s Tim Carman. Patten declined to comment for this article.
But after a local blog posted a one-liner about his meeting with the president that day, Patten’s personal views didn’t seem to matter nearly as much as the public’s perception — particularly in the nation’s capital, where an overwhelming majority of residents voted for Hillary Clinton.
“The founder of @TaylorGourmet met with Trump and now there’s a hole in my heart where risotto balls used to be,” tweeted Sara Lang.
Within minutes, dozens on social media were pledging to boycott the sandwich chain and filling up its Facebook page with notes of disdain for the CEO’s decision. Though there were other small business owners in the room that January day, it seemed the Internet — or at least its D.C.-based cohort — had reserved a special dose of contempt for the sandwich maker.
Betsy Barrett, political and communications director for Food Policy Action, a nonprofit co-founded by chef Tom Colicchio to hold legislators accountable on food and farming issues, says it’s not surprising to see consumers becoming more aware of how food touches so many political issues.
“Food is connected to a lot of the issues that America’s worried about — everything from our health, economy, and immigration, to labor and the environment,” says Barrett, who doesn’t think chefs or owners should shy away from participating for that reason. “I think now, more than ever, it’s important to be at the table to bring transparency and accountability to that discussion.”
It’s no cake walk
Another small business in Washington, DC seemed to anticipate at least part of the controversy that would be baked into doing business with the new president. On the evening of January 20, chef Duff Goldman of Baltimore-based Charm City Cakes pointed out on Twitter that the cake Trump sliced at his Inauguration ball was a lookalike to one he’d made for Obama’s inauguration four years before — but Goldman didn’t make this one. He included side-by-side photos in the Tweet that was shared more than 130,000 times.
Many of the responders wondered why Trump’s team would opt for a lookalike after his wife had been accused of cribbing talking points from former First Lady Michelle Obama late last year. They also questioned why a baker would comply with the request.
Tiffany MacIsaac, owner of Buttercream Bakeshop, which had created the second cake, responded with a thorough explanation on Instagram the next morning: “Excited to share the cake we got to make for one of last night’s inaugural balls,” she wrote under a photo of the cake. “While we most love creating original designs, when we are asked to replicate someone else’s work we are thrilled when it is a masterpiece like this one.”
MacIsaac, who declined to speak for this article, told the Washington Post she had encouraged the client to use the 2013 cake as “inspiration,” but Trump’s team said they wanted the cake to look the same. She also said she didn’t think the cake would garner this much attention.
In today’s partisan environment, Barrett says more business owners are learning that their decisions might unintentionally be viewed through a political lens. “As a service provider, you have to be careful about what you do and what you say and how that could be interpreted,” she says.
Perhaps anticipating that the next round of criticism might be more political in nature, given her D.C. base, MacIsaac added that she had donated the profits from the cake to the Human Rights Campaign. The nonprofit advocates for the LGBTQ community and had previously declared Trump “unfit for presidency.”
A few days later, Buttercream Bakeshop posted to Instagram a donation receipt for $1,200 sent to the organization, saying it “felt great to support the fight for basic human rights. While a few online responders wrote that they thought the business shouldn’t “take sides,” MacIsaac’s customers overall reacted favorably to the swift response: “Will definitely continue to purchase all my baked goods from you guys!” one commented on the post. (So did Duff Goldman, who later wrote on Twitter that the chef who recreated his cake had done a great job. “Group hug, y’all,” he tweeted.)
Eating as ‘a political statement’
Patten might not have wanted to get political — “Less Politics, More Hoagies,” reads one of the company’s billboards in D.C. — but there are plenty of chefs and business owners who do.
Celebrity chef José Andrés is among the restaurant industry’s most prominent Trump antagonists, both on social media and in ongoing lawsuits between the two men. Andrés pulled plans to open a restaurant in D.C.’s Trump Hotel in 2015 after the then-candidate made disparaging remarks about Mexican immigrants. The legal fallout is ongoing.
But, after watching Patten take heat for his meeting with the president, Andrés took to social media to defend him. He urged his Twitter audience to “leave Taylor Gourmet alone!” adding that to meet with the president “is an honor. It doesn’t mean you support the person.”
EWG’s Faber disagrees. “Smart companies have learned the difference between using their brand in a photo op in ways that normalize a deeply unpopular president and sharing their ideas with a new administration,” he says. “I’m not at all surprised that some companies are taking it on the chin for lending the power of their brands in support of an agenda that will make our air and water dirtier, and that jeopardizes all of our basic consumer protections.”
Faber specifically mentioned the executive order written during Trump’s meeting with Patten and other small business owners: It has the potential to roll back regulations protecting both the environment and consumers.
For his part, Patten was surprised by the pushback. There was no similar fallout from potential customers when he met with President Barack Obama in 2012 during a roundtable discussion with small business leaders at one of Taylor Gourmet’s D.C. locations. He told the Post that the only difference between the two meetings was where they were held (and with whom).
Danielle Nierenberg, president and co-founder of the nonprofit Food Tank, said at its conference in D.C. in February that she hoped to see food become more of a meeting ground for opposing political parties, particularly when it comes to policies upon which they might be able to agree. Two Republican lawmakers who had planned to appear at the conference “dedicated to bringing together a confluence of ideas,” could not, however, attend at the last minute, though two Democrats did speak at the event.
“One of the reasons we wanted to have this summit in D.C. now is that we believe food and agriculture policies can transcend politics,” she said at the event. “There are issues I think Republicans and Democrats alike can support.”
Andrés also spoke at the event and seemed to agree. “The truth is that eating is becoming a political statement,” he says. “That sometimes should not have anything to do with the right or the left.”
But, sometimes, it does. Just last week, Andrés made headlines again when he tore off his white chef’s coat during a speech at the annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami to reveal a black T-shirt with words that could only be interpreted as political given the president’s executive orders blocking some immigrants from entering the country.
Written across Andrés’ shirt: “I am an immigrant.”
Whitney Pipkin writes about food, agriculture, and the environment from the Washington, DC, area. Her work appears in the Washington Post, National Geographic, and Civil Eats, among other publications.
Editor: Daniela Galarza