Can restaurants take a stand during inauguration without alienating Trump voters?

At Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown, Donald Trump's deportation threats are proving worrisome for the restaurant's employees, says co-owner Ian Hilton
At Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown, Donald Trump's deportation threats are proving worrisome for the restaurant's employees, says co-owner Ian HiltonPHOTO: APRIL GREER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON DC (WASHINGTON POST) - In a political environment where every action generates an equal and opposite reaction, restaurants that want to signal their discomfort with the policies of the incoming Trump administration have to orchestrate their moves carefully during inauguration weekend. Anything labelled, or just perceived, as a protest could meet with significant backlash.

So this week, as Nando's Peri-Peri begins to hand out #everyoneiswelcome posters at six Washington restaurants, the South African-Portuguese chicken chain is pitching the campaign as a statement of corporate values, not a slap at President-elect Donald Trump and his supporters.

Those who voted for Trump, of course, may take a different view of the poster, whose language on the back reads:"Nando's Peri-Peri is an Immigrant EMPLOYING Gay LOVING Muslim RESPECTING Racism OPPOSING Equal PAYING MultiCULTURAL chicken restaurant where #everyoneiswelcome."

"It's a bold and brave statement, but it's true and honest and it represents who we are as a brand," says Burton Heiss, chief executive of Nando's USA, a Washington-based company.

Nando's origins in 20th-century South Africa, where the majority-black population was disenfranchised and destitute, has informed how the company views the world in the 21st century, Heiss notes. "Over the years, the company saw firsthand the devastating impact of apartheid and a system that devalued diversity and made it a point to speak out against such beliefs," he says. The company "has long been an activist organisation in terms of its speaking out against such regimes." But during an interview, Heiss repeatedly emphasizes that the Nando's campaign is designed to be inclusive, not divisive, an invitation for thousands of inauguration visitors to learn more about a growing chain that operates dozens of restaurants in the D.C., Baltimore and Chicago markets.

On Wednesday (Jan 11), the company plans to tuck 60,000 posters inside the Express, The Washington Post's free daily commuter paper, in the hopes readers will display the pages. The posters will also be available for download at The front of the sheet will have no obvious branding, other than the red heart that's part of Nando's poultry-based logo, as well as the hashtag #everyoneiswelcome."All we can do is be honest that #everyoneiswelcome means everyone is welcome," Heiss says. "Regardless of what we have said, there are differences of opinions. But that doesn't mean we can't break bread together and maybe even have a discussion about those differences." Nando's careful messaging - aimed at expressing its progressive beliefs without alienating Trump supporters or, worse, generating their ire - looks like the same kind of balancing act practiced by other restaurants that want to take a stand, or whatever they call it, during the inauguration. To date, more than 30 establishments have joined the All In Service DC campaign started by Amanda Carpenter and Alaina Dyne, a pair of front-of-the-house veterans who are asking D.C. bars and restaurants to support a charity of their choosing during inauguration weekend.

The charities selected so far have a certain, well, stick-it-to-the-man quality. They include Planned Parenthood (which Republicans have threatened to defund) and Ayuda, which provides legal and social services to low-income immigrants. Contributing to an immigrant advocacy group makes sense for a restaurant, notes Ian Hilton, co-owner of Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown, one of the participating restaurants. Many commercial kitchens and dining rooms couldn't function without immigrants, some of whom are feeling uneasy about the incoming president and his deportation plans."We see the anxiety in our employees, for the obvious reason," says Hilton.

At the same time, Hilton says he has no stomach for political statements that degrade the highest office in the land. He wants his participation in All in Service DC to be apolitical."You might not always be happy with how an election turns out, but you have to turn a page and kind of hope for the best and think positively," he says. "Whether I personally felt bad on the Wednesday after Election Day, what do you do? You move on."

Emphasising the apolitical nature of their inauguration activities could be a survival instinct for restaurants. There has been plenty of evidence that customers are quick to punish businesses that take a position, pro or con, on a candidate. Once-faithful Yuengling bars and drinkers vowed to dump the brand after the owner of the historic Pennsylvania brewery endorsed Trump. Grubhub, the food delivery service, suffered a similar fate when its chief executive sent an email to employees after the election, suggesting that anyone who shared Trump's attitudes toward minorities, women and the disabled should resign. The company's stock fell by 5 per cent in response.

Ben & Jerry's, the socially conscious ice cream chain owned by Unilever, released an open letter to the president-elect two days after Trump won. The Vermont-based company had actually written two letters, one for each voting outcome, but "had put more time and energy into the other letter" for Hillary Clinton, says Chris Miller, activism manager for Ben & Jerry's. So when Trump won, Miller and his content team shifted into overdrive to complete a draft letter and send it through the company ranks for approval.

The final letter was mostly magnanimous, but at the end, Ben & Jerry's reiterated its values, including its support for "women, people of color, Muslims, migrants, refugees, the LGBTQ community, the poor." The company indicated it would support Trump if he were committed to "building a more just, equitable, and sustainable world."

For the month of November, "this was far and away the most trafficked page" on the Ben & Jerry's site, Miller says. The public response, he adds, was "overwhelmingly positive," but it also generated some pointed Facebook commentary. "This is ridiculous," one poster wrote. "You guys sell ice cream. Don't you have a different page for politics? I'm out of here!" But Ben & Jerry's doesn't shy away from controversy, Miller says, as in October when the company issued a statement on the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement that immediately struck a nerve with police supporters. The group Blue Lives Matter quickly called for a nationwide boycott of Ben & Jerry's products. Miller says such responses are the price Ben & Jerry's pays for its activism."We firmly believe that it's better to be intensively loved by some than inoffensive to everyone," Miller says. Such a position, he adds, is not always easy on those who answer the phones at headquarters.

Not everyone shares Ben & Jerry's taste for politics, not even in the District of Columbia, where politics is the only game that matters. Even liberal-minded restaurants don't always feel comfortable raising their blue flag in the city where more than 90 per cent of the voters cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton. Their reticence is tied not just to inauguration weekend, which will bring together Trump supporters and protesters, two sides that historically have not mixed well. It's also tied to the recent #pizzagate madness, in which hacked emails, fake news stories and false rumors about a pedophilia ring run by Clinton eventually led to a gunman appearing at Comet Ping Pong pizzeria on Connecticut Avenue NW.

The #pizzagate episode has been so horrific that Comet owner James Alefantis will still not speak publicly about it. "Trying to stay out of the fray," he texts.

Comet's woes have had an effect. Restaurateurs are willing to stick their necks out only so far, but they're also not inclined to remain silent. "We all know what recently happened with Comet Ping Pong," says Sarah Massey, spokeswoman for All In Service DC. "That's not going to deter our community from doing the right thing."

And now Nando's has willingly stepped into this fray, not with a fundraising campaign for charity but with posters that promote diversity, equal pay and multiculturalism, subjects that can be flashpoints for Trump supporters. The chicken chain is not naive about the political landscape. It has been preparing its staff on how to handle tough and/or rude questions.

"There's always potential for people to disagree and to voice that displeasure," says the chief executive, Heiss. "We will continue to monitor what the response is, and if we have to change preparation or if we (think) at any point that there is any risk to our team, we would take whatever steps we need to do to secure their safety and well-being."