Three Restaurants That Didn’t Shy Away From Social Activism (And What it Meant for Business)

More than ever, businesses are being called upon to respond to social movements.

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George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department in late May galvanized the country. With unilateral support for Black Lives Matter (BLM) and polls reporting the majority of Americans supported the resulting protests, businesses small and large were suddenly faced with calls to respond to a complex and politically-charged issue. Since June, police mistreatment of Black citizens including Jacob Blake (who remains paralyzed after being shot seven times in the back) and Daniel Prude (whose horrifying ordeal in March 2020 was only widely covered beginning in September) has continued to light up the news. 

Issuing a public response can be tricky business. There’s the desire to act in alignment with personal beliefs, to avoid alienating customers and harming business, to position a brand in the best light possible, and to ward off accusations of insincerity, complicity, or even racism itself. Despite the potential minefields, these Denver metro area restaurant owners don’t have any regrets about speaking up in the days following Floyd’s death.

Bo Porytko owns Misfit Snackbar, a compact kitchen with a single serving window that’s tucked inside Middleman in South City Park. On Tuesday, June 2 (dubbed Blackout Tuesday), he joined legions of Instagram users and posted a blank, black square to Misfit’s feed to express his support for the protests. The next day he posted the week’s menu with a statement that all sales and tips for the next seven days would be donated to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Black Mamas Bail Out. In that post, he noted he’d lost more followers in the day since his Blackout Tuesday post than he’d ever lost in a 24-hour period. (He also somewhat gleefully noted his relief at having fewer racist customers.) Porytko didn’t end up with fewer customers, though: He went on to do his best week to date at Misfit, donating more than $2,000 to the chosen organizations. He also gained enough new Instagram followers to bring his follower count to its previous level.

Porytko knows he’s in a good position to speak out. “This was a simpler decision for me to make than others,” he states, citing the fact he doesn’t have overhead or payroll costs to consider if his business takes a hit—and Middleman supported his stance. “Even if I’m just a guy who cooks a really interesting enchilada,” he says, “there’s no reason I shouldn’t [do this].”

In RiNo, Owlbear Barbecue owner and pitmaster Karl Fallenius experienced a similar outcome when he announced on Owlbear’s Facebook page that he would be donating 100 percent of sales and tips from a June 10 burger special to Black Lives Matter 5280. The menu consisted only of burgers, Fritos, and soda, and still managed to rake in more than $6,400—just shy of Owlbear’s single-day sales record based on its entire barbecue menu. Like Misfit, the barbecue joint noticed a temporary dip in social media followers, which quickly rebounded thanks to new fans.

But while Porytko states he hasn’t experienced much online pushback, Fallenius admits there’s been an uptick in aggressive messages and posts on his business’ Facebook page (which he describes as “the worst place to have a conversation”). He also notes he’s seen potential customers approach Owlbear’s storefront, see the BLM sign in the window, and turn to leave.

Fallenius doesn’t want to alienate customers, but views supporting BLM as an extension of his desire to bring people together over food. “When times are normal and you have a line, you’ll see a really diverse crowd of people coming together,” he says. “The idea that BLM is a divisive message is confusing to me because it’s about being even more inclusive.”

“When times are normal and you have a line, you’ll see a really diverse crowd of people coming together,” Fallenius says. “The idea that BLM is a divisive message is confusing to me because it’s about being even more inclusive.”

Elliott Toan, owner of Boulder’s Arcana, has also seen a shift in the restaurant’s social media presence. After a two-week fundraiser, in which the high-end restaurant donated 25 percent of all revenue (approximately $4,000) to the bail bond fund for Black Lives Matter 5280, discussion between commenters on Arcana’s Instagram page heated up. The post announcing the fundraiser prompted one commenter to lob accusations of virtue signaling, pandering, and elitism at the restaurant and its management. Toan says he’s along for the ride. Not only is social media a way to engage the community, but he sees the medium as a low-stakes venue for difficult discussions. “I don’t know if it’s healthy that restaurants are becoming political flashpoints,” he says, comparing the relative safety of a heated online exchange to the very real concern of diners coming to restaurants without masks as an expression of their political beliefs. “[Online conflict] doesn’t feel great, but it’s just social media.” He says there hasn’t been any drop-off in business, and that the biggest benefit of speaking out has been the increased appreciation and loyalty of his employees, as evidenced by the majority of staff returning to work at Arcana even though they could have been bringing in more money from unemployment benefits.

All three restaurants plan to continue efforts to raise funds for organizations related to the BLM movement and other social justice organizations. Misfit Snackbar is planning a fundraiser for August 30, the birthday of Elijah McClain, the Black man who died in 2019 after being placed in a chokehold by Aurora Police Department officers. Fallenius hopes to hold future fundraisers benefiting indigenous and anti-ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) organizations, and is passionate about sourcing meat from slaughterhouses that treat their employees humanely and don’t contribute to a culture of exploitation. (This, he notes, results in safer workplaces, especially when compared to massive COVID-19 outbreaks that have swept through slaughterhouses and processing plants in recent months.) Arcana has already hosted a pop-up with Modou Jaiteh, the owner of Jacaranda in Boulder’s Rosetta Hall, who spoke extensively about his own experience growing up in Gambia and how it informs his West African cuisine. Toan also plans to increase Arcana’s programming and partnerships with local organizations by the end of the year. “The restaurant industry is changing,” says Toan. “We need to be a little bit more than a restaurant to be successful in the future.”

What happened when you spoke up (or kept quiet) about BLM and other hot topics? Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts and opinions) to askus@diningout.com

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