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Steamed: When Social Media, Politics and Restaurants Collide

  • 8 min to read

Imagine you’re sitting in a booth at your local diner, about to dig in to your plate of eggs and grits. The owner stops by your table.

“F#!k your feelings,” he says, slapping a “Trump 2020” sticker down on your table.

Farfetched? In real life, yeah, probably. But not on social media.

Earlier this month, Just Us Cafe, a popular breakfast and lunch diner in Cayce, posted a photo on Facebook of owner Mark Kruger with a patron who was wearing a shirt proclaiming “Trump 2020 F#!k Your Feelings.” The caption read, “This is us at Just Us!”

A flood of comments ensued, with people either strongly supporting the owner’s viewpoints or vehemently opposing them. Many of the negative comments have been deleted, but some commentary remains: “It wasn’t so much the Trump T-shirt but the message that went with it. Like you agree with the rhetoric F* Your Feelings. And as a customer it made me feel like you don’t really care about how I feel bc you just want my dollars.”

Many of the supportive ones, meanwhile, were customers who pledged to keep coming back. “I’ll make sure to visit more frequently. The fact that you are expected to be respectful of someone elses [sic] opinions yet are crucified for yours. Keep doing you,” one read. Another read “ate there today to show my support!!”

Just Us Cafe later posted another status saying, “To all those that don’t like my posts. I’m sorry. This is who I am. If this offends you. Well all I can say is so sorry!!” The owner went on to respond to comments below, telling people in various ways to leave the USA if they don’t like his opinions, among other similar sentiments.

The internet moves very quickly, allowing memes, political opinions, information and misinformation to spread. This means that businesses that put political or obviously controversial opinions out on their business social media can expect reactions and responses from across the spectrum of beliefs from their past, present and potential customers. It’s become so common that the restaurant review website Yelp has protocols for how to handle the flood of bad reviews when a restaurant’s politics go viral.

Here in the Midlands, we’ve had several such incidents recently.

The Just Us scenario may seem a bit like deja vu, as another restaurant owner was under fire for similar social media issues in November — this time on his personal page.

Soon after Citta del Cotone, a Neapolitan-style pizza shop, opened in Cottontown, people began sharing screenshots from the personal Facebook page of Rick Marzan, who was the part owner and chef at the newly opened restaurant. Marzan formerly owned Noah’s Antica Pizza in Irmo. The screencaps showed Marzan sharing conservative memes. One reads, “LGBT? You mean liquor, guns, bacon and tits?” Another shows a man with his pants pulled up to his armpits, with the caption “When I found out sagging started in the penitentiary to let other inmates know that you are gay.” The backlash was rapid, with many vowing to boycott the new business for what they considered anti-

LGBT, anti-Muslim and sexist views.

While the Citta del Cotone and Just Us Cafe incidents originated in social media posts, social media has also helped bring broader attention to things that happen off the internet. Incidents in the recent past include in June 2018 when Jimmy Latulipe, a co-owner of the Main Street Public House at the time, made statements in person to musician Donald Merckle about keeping black people out of his establishment. Merckle recounted the conversation on Facebook, garnering thousands of reactions. After the controversy erupted, the restaurant posted on Facebook that Latulipe had been placed on indefinite leave without pay, and closed the restaurant for several days following the backlash. The apology has since been deleted from the bar’s Facebook page, and they have not responded to Free Times’ requests for comment in the months since.

Then there was Moosehead Saloon, a Five Points bar that drew fire online after a former manager alleged racist hiring practices and discrimination in fall of 2018. Its current one-star rating on Facebook attests to the fallout from that incident.

Even farther back, in 2013, Taco Cid, a local Tex-Mex fast food restaurant in Cayce was under fire for printing and selling shirts depicting two delectable cartoon tacos under a wooden box held up by a stick and the phrase “How to Catch An Illegal Immigrant” splashed in large letters above the image.

Taco Cid responded on its website, claiming that they are not racist. They also included the text “If you do not agree with our views on ILLEGAL immigrants, please do not visit our establishment.”

Shortly after the fallout from this incident, Taco Cid moved from their Charleston Highway location to Platt Springs Road, and closed sometime in 2015.

The Internet Mob

Comments on posts from Citta del Cotone and Just Us Cafe numbered in the hundreds, with comments from people who found the situations offensive, and those who supported the owners’ rights to post whatever they wanted on their personal and business pages.

This is known as call-out culture, a term for publicly denouncing (or calling out) perceived racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry. People often call out businesses and large organizations online, and the information can spread quickly across social media.

Call-out culture has been called too aggressive, and can have life-altering effects on the called-out individuals. However, many are glad to know what business owners have viewpoints that they don’t agree with so they can spend their money elsewhere.

Sean McGuinness, a well known artist and social activist in Columbia, is in favor of call-out culture on the internet.

“We are a connected culture; the internet is where we gather,” he says. “We have to literally make sure that it’s known that garbage human behavior isn’t acceptable on both sides.”

For others, call-outs are a symptom of hypersensitivity.

“[P]eople don’t go to pizza joints for thought policing, they go for the pizza,” wrote Will Folks of the libertarian-leaning political blog FITSNews about the Citta del Cotone flap. He added that the “flip side to all this reflexive kowtowing to the politically correct police and left-leaning mainstream media” might be that businesses lose conservative customers.

Tommy Price, co-owner of Citta del Cotone, says call-out culture has a ripple effect. The fallout over Marzan’s posts definitely affected his business.

“The sad thing that I don’t think people realize is that there are other people attached to this restaurant — the employees, the investors — their life is affected too,” says Price. “We need to not be so quick to judge.”

After the Citta del Cotone flap, Price released a statement saying that they were distancing themselves from Marzan. On Nov. 20, the restaurant posted a statement on Facebook:

“Friends, we have read your comments with concern and we are looking into this matter. Our diverse team is working hard to stimulate economic growth to the community, especially in Cottontown and surrounding neighborhoods. Our restaurant stands for diversty [sic] and inclusion, not for division. All are welcome at our restaurant. We invite you to join us for a pizza and glass of wine and let us show you our open hospitality.”

Commenters decried the apology as weak, said it took too much time for a response, and accused the restaurant of deleting negative comments.

Price tells Free Times now that he wanted to take time to reflect on the situation.

“I could have apologized immediately, but is that real?” he asks. “One of the things I wanted to do is to slow the process down.”

Ultimately, Rick Marzan was removed from day-to-day operations at Citta del Cotone. Price says that Marzan is still an investor in the business, but he has been away to take time to reflect on the situation. “We want to see where his heart is and see if he is truly sorry,” says Price.

As for Just Us Cafe, Free Times was unable to get the owner to speak to us for this story. But after several days of Facebook comments and reviews, the business released an official statement on their Facebook page, which began with a non-apology: “This is not a statement of apology; however, it is OUR official statement regarding the past few days on social media.”

An abbreviated version of that statement reads: “On December 28th, 2018, a review was posted about somebody wearing a Trump hat and how they were no longer patronizing our establishment. On December 30th, 2018, we had a REGULAR, WELL-KNOWN customer and FRIEND come in wearing Trump gear. Our owner took a picture with him and posted to our page. Due to the hyper-sensitivity of some uninformed individuals, things took off in a negative way. Senseless name calling of our owners and untrue statements about our establishment were made. Has this possibly affected some of our business? Sure. The ones reading this, who are already offended, do not need to read any further. Your decision is made and nothing we say from here will change your decision. This is really a loss for both sides; however, we still wish you the best.”

The statement continues on for several more paragraphs, including establishing that they have black customers, they don’t have a dress code, and that they are a family of diverse backgrounds. It wraps up saying that they will lock or block posts on their page until they figure out what to do.

The original post with the Trump shirt-wearing patron has been deleted.

Decision Time

Why would a public-facing business that depends on customers from all walks of life and political backgrounds willingly alienate a large base of customers in this smaller city? With social media fanning the flames of outrage as fast as someone can click “share” on their smartphone, public relations professionals say there’s value in thinking before posting as a business owner.

Free Times spoke to one local PR rep (who asked to not be identified in this story because they didn’t want their name to appear alongside the controversial businesses we’re discussing) about what restaurant owners (or really, any public-facing business) can do to make smart social media decisions.

“Our advice to our clients is that they treat social media like a dinner party,” they say. “If you can avoid discussing politics and religion then you are probably okay.”

The National Restaurant Association has Social Media 101 guidelines on their website that help restaurant owners think through the kind of content that they are planning to post on social media, whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or even in response to unpleasant Yelp reviews.

In fact, Yelp reviews are a place where business owners can find themselves quick to anger. A well-known local source of LOLs is the Yelp page for Columbia barbecue restaurant Southern Belly. A quick sort by 1 star reviews shows where James P., who is listed as the business owner, responds to tepid customer reviews, from telling them not to come back to his 1 star establishment to messaging expletives to Yelp users that can be seen in user-uploaded screenshots. The now-closed Chickadee’s Diner took a similar approach, berating those who left poor reviews.

McGuinness says that businesses need to take responsibility for what they say, no matter what it is.

“When a company makes a bold political statement, they have to accept people may react against them, and crunch numbers on the odds they can survive without those customers based on how controversial their statement is,” says McGuinness. “Businesses should keep their mouths and fingers on their business, because being reactionary invites reactionary responses.”

But even after making that calculation, not all bars and restaurant steer clear of controversy.

Some businesses in Columbia are outspoken about their more liberal beliefs, like The Whig — whose most famous example is a tweet from June 2015, when the Confederate flag was removed from the State House grounds right across the street from the bar. “Neighbors are cleaning up their trashy yard. ” they tweeted.

Co-owner Phill Blair doesn’t think his approach has hurt their business, though he says they have definitely had some negative feedback and reactions to their opinionated posts.

“I try to keep our social media on all channels fairly lighthearted, occasionally there is a jab at Trump, but who cares,” says Blair.

Ultimately, business owners will need to decide what they think is worthy of saying and sharing on both their personal and business pages, and learn what the tools at their fingertips are capable of doing. In a culture that is highly connected and moves quickly, small businesses can’t afford not to learn how these platforms work.

Consumers also have decisions to make, like if they are going to continue to support businesses or owners that put out objectionable opinions — and if they are willing to give the businesses a second chance following apologies or actions.

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