While Most Restaurants Stay Neutral, Some Dallas Eateries Are Finding Their Political Voice
Taking sides politically is usually seen as a lose-lose for bars and restaurants, as proprietors are afraid of alienating customers. In recent months, that's begun to change in Dallas.
Bars and restaurants often take pride in existing in the ideological middle of the road. Taking a public stance politically is usually considered too risky an endeavor; either way you lean, you run the risk of alienating customers on the other side of the political divide.
Then came the Trump administration. As protesters have rallied in the streets and organized letter-writing campaigns to their representatives, some typically apolitical spaces — bars, coffee shops and restaurants in particular — are becoming more vocal.
Amy Cowan, owner of Oddfellows in Oak Cliff, spearheaded efforts to get food to protesters of the recent travel ban at DFW airport and the legal teams who were helping detained travelers, and Oddfellows supported immigrant staff last week who stayed home in protest during A Day Without Immigrants. Cowan and her husband are politically active in their personal lives, she says; she’s worked on Democratic campaigns, and her husband is a former school board trustee. In the months leading up to the election, the restaurant threw events with the goal of getting people engaged.
“We've never shied away from our politics,” Cowan says. “But when people are being wronged, it's not necessarily about whether I'm going to make the public angry with me; it's about bringing our love language, which is food, to people who are in a bad time. It's not really scary or daunting to put your name on something like taking food to people who are working for free to hopefully do the right thing.”
It’s a cause that strikes close to home for her, especially being in the restaurant business where much of the back of the house — cooks, line and dishwashers — are immigrants or first-generation Americans. Two of Cowan’s employees now find themselves in a position of uncertainty because of the Trump administration’s recent immigration policies.
“I’ve had two heartbreaking conversations in the last week,” Cowan says. “This guy is legally allowed to be here, authorized to work in the United States, and he's working toward being a citizen, yet he's afraid to travel through an airport with his wife for this milestone birthday she has coming up because he doesn’t want to go through the scrutiny and the risk of something crazy happening. I hate that there’s fear in their day-to-day planning.”
Cowan is concerned that new immigration policies could put her business at risk.
“It affects our industry as a whole,” she says. “If you go to the food supplies portion of our business — how many farms are worked by immigrant labor? If they can’t hire who they need to hire, what’s going to happen to the cost of goods and the availability of products? And from the staffing perspective, probably 90 percent of the back of houses is immigrant or first-generation American. We would potentially have a workforce problem.”
Several months ago, Cowan was working on the front end to get people more politically engaged with debate watch parties and voter registration drives at the restaurant.
“The idea was to make it fun for people to come together and hear and see what these people have to say,” she says. “We obviously had a strong favorite, but we were not overtly unwelcoming to someone who was supporting Trump. It’s important at a federal level — and it’s super important at a local level — to vote. We don’t need you to do what your dad told you to do; we need you to think and use your heart and your mind.”
Oddfellows had planned a victory party for Hillary Clinton on election night, complete with a balloon drop and a second line parade through the neighborhood. But when she lost, a dejected crowd dissipated and “the balloons stayed up there for about two weeks,” Cowan says. “It was pretty traumatizing.”
Recently, Houndstooth and Cultuvar joined with dozens of other coffee shops across the U.S. to raise money for the ACLU, which has waged very public battles against the Trump administration. Sprudge, an online media outlet for coffee culture, put together the fundraiser and reached out to Sean Henry, owner of Houndstooth Coffee, to participate.
“We’re less than enthusiastic about the goings on of [the administration], and I was talking with my wife about what our response should be, so it was perfect timing,” Henry says.
Customers were asked to donate to the ACLU if they wished, and each cafe raised more than $1,000, which Houndstooth matched. Between all of its cafes in Dallas and Austin, Houndstooth donated more than $10,000 to the organization, Henry says.
“The response was overwhelming; it was really cool,” Henry says. “The cafes had an extra air of excitement and positivity that weekend. People were like, ‘Hey, I’ve never been here before, but I heard you were doing this, I really appreciate it, so I came by.’”
Houndstooth didn’t endorse a candidate during the election, but the fundraiser “was a way of showing solidarity with an international community,” Henry says. “Making sure that people are held accountable for actions they’re taking. We want to be an inclusive place for everyone and a safe space.”
Cultivar, which also participated in the ACLU donation weekend, didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview. Co-owner Nathan Shelton issued a brief statement via text. “We consider ourselves a politically neutral business. We view our involvement in the ACLU donations as a goodwill gesture towards humanity and those less fortunate.”
Despite shying away from being politically active — and a desire to steer clear from the image of “hipster coffee shop revolt” image, Henry says — he’s hoping this is the start of more robust fundraising efforts at his coffee shops.
“Whenever we do any kind of giving, it’s usually to education; we donate to a lot of silent auctions for schools,” he says. “This was the first time we’ve done any fundraising that could possibly make people unhappy. The plan is to do one a quarter. Our next one will be NPR, and we’re talking about figuring out a national parks organization to support.” Henry says they’re even talking about a way to let organizations use their cafes as a meeting space.
“We want to be for something, not against something,” Henry says. “We want to be a place where people feel included.”
But some see political activism as a way to alienate customers, rather than make them feel included.
Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a food industry research and consultancy group, advised against restaurants being politically engaged.
“What we’d normally say about politics, restaurants should avoid it,” he says. “Often there is more to lose than to gain. If their choice is to support activism or a movement, it should represent an extension of their brand, and it should be one that their current customer understands and supports.”
Things can get complicated when food and politics converge. Last summer, when Trump was still the presumptive Republican nominee for president, a Dallas activist called for boycotts and protests at Mi Cocina and Taco Diner, two MCrowd Restaurant Group franchises, after word got out that Ray Washburne, one of MCrowd’s founding partners, was the vice chairman of the Trump Victory Committee and had been leading Trump campaign fundraising efforts. Months later, Mi Cocina and Taco Diner are still plugging along, most of their diners likely unaware of the commotion.
And despite a being a constant reminder of the election’s outcome, the balloon drop at Oddfellows wound up going to good use.
“Josh Kumler [of Bar Politics] got engaged and brought his girlfriend to Oddfellows after he popped the question, so they pulled the balloon drop for their engagement,” Cowan says. “That worked out.”
But has outspoken political action hurt businesses at the popular Oak Cliff brunch spot?
Not at all, Cowan says. If anything, patrons sought out the usually inconspicuous owner at the restaurant to thank her face-to-face.
“Three times in the weeks since we delivered food [to protesters at DFW], Anglo males came to me and said, ‘Thank you for doing that; that was amazing.’ I think that’s encouraging,” Cowan says. “They were exactly the demographic you’d worry about being angry when you do that sort of thing. But everyone’s been really positive.”
Tristano says the uptick in business could be due to the company promoting the event, thereby doing a little backdoor marketing.
“What many people often forget is when you’re promoting your brand with this type of activity, you’re actually marketing,” he says. “Some brands don’t market. So when you do it, you’re driving traffic because of the marketing effort. If what you’re doing in terms of that charitable contribution is one that consumers can get behind, you’ll hopefully have a winner.”
In news coverage of Cowan’s effort to feed protesters, there were plenty of commenters saying they would be more likely to visit Oddfellows because of Cowan’s advocacy. But there were other commenters who seemed irked about the recipients of Oddfellows’ food donation. A common refrain: Why would you feed protesters and not, say, homeless veterans?
Cowan has an easy answer for that one.
“Put it together and we’ll come,” she says. “If people knew how much the restaurant community gives for every illness and every charity and every school — it’s not always about politics. It’s rooted in doing good for people.”
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