Burger fans didn't hesitate to dish up opinions about the imminent arrival in Denver of California fast-food chain In-N-Out Burger. Social media lit up with exclamations of both joy and disgust — but the discussion wasn't limited to the quality of the food. During a fierce and ugly presidential election season, people are also paying attention to the politics of restaurant owners. "’Bout time we get another conservative company out this way!!" said one fan on Facebook, while someone not quite as excited countered with "Mediocre christian burgers," a reference to the company's habit of printing Bible verses on its packaging.
Talk of In-N-Out boycotts fired up in 2018, when media outlets reported that some of the company's executives were generous GOP contributors. Since In-N-Out had not publicly endorsed a specific candidate or party, did it matter who its management might support? Should private individuals steer clear of political statements that might be slapped on the public-wooing institution with which they are affiliated?
Denver restaurant consultant John Imbergamo says there's a definite danger. "I encourage people to be incredibly active in politics and social topics — on a personal level," he explains. "But on a professional level, it's risky business. I would never tell a chef or restaurant owner to not say what they believe, but I would also advise against doing it under their business's name."
That's standard wisdom in the industry, where the risk of alienating 50 percent of customers outweighs the desire to support or decry candidates, parties or issues. But with so many people active on social media, the line between public and private opinions, between personal beliefs and professional goals, is starting to blur.
Jason Tietjen, owner of the Dive Inn, at 1380 South Broadway, has not been shy on social media about calling out Governor Jared Polis for what he thinks are bad decisions about COVID-based bar and restaurant restrictions. "I would 100 percent take a side," Tietjen says. "This one-size-fits-all approach just isn't working."
The bar owner points out that the City and County of Denver is still restricted to an 11 p.m. curfew, but bars in Arapahoe County, some of which are just a few minutes south down Broadway from the Dive Inn, can stay open until midnight. He says that many of his customers leave well before 11 p.m. so that they can spend another hour or more at bars farther south.
"There's no data showing that COVID starts up after 10 p.m. or 11 p.m.," Tietjen adds. "But if [Polis] had just set last call at midnight, I don't think he would have gotten pushback from any of us. He controls the keys, though — and he's hurting my friends and their businesses."
Because of his online opinions, Tietjen has been asked to host a Polis recall rally at his bar, but he draws the line at having the Dive Inn associated with political activity. "I said no because drinking and politics don't mix," he says. "That's not what people come to my bar for. ... I also wouldn't put the debate on our TVs."
His dislike of Polis and his current executive orders is not based on party ideology, Tietjen maintains: "It's not a partisan thing. He's just making the wrong decisions." Between last-call restrictions and limited indoor capacity, Tietjen has seen a significant drop in business over the past seven months, and he's having to spend more money to make adjustments, including dropping thousands of dollars on a tent for his parking lot. Bars could easily spend $40,000 to $60,000 on outdoor equipment — heaters, tents, tables and chairs, for starters — and many of his fellow bar owners just aren't in a position to spend that kind of money with the uncertainty of outdoor business continuing during the winter, he says.
A couple of miles north, at 950 Broadway, chef Jesusio Silva is the culinary director at Broadway Market. Silva grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, but came to Denver in 2002 to help take care of his brother, Carlos, who was hit by a drunk driver while riding his bicycle. Silva recently filmed a campaign ad supporting John Hickenlooper's bid for a Senate seat, in part because the former Colorado governor was his brother's employer and kept Carlos on the company health-insurance plan for four years after the accident.
"I've known John Hickenlooper since I came to Colorado; my brother was a sous chef with Wynkoop [Brewing Company]," Silva notes. "But this election affects many people in my life and my family."
The chef recently began actively supporting the Biden 2020 campaign, as well. "I don't want to keep anything to myself," he says. "I want to make sure my kids have the same opportunities as me, and that they don't grow up in a dark place. I remember in Monterrey working from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, and nothing ever changed — but I came here and worked as hard, and there were opportunities that opened up. But things are changing, and I want to make sure my children see this as the land of opportunity that it can be."
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Still, Silva leaves his politics at the door when he comes to work. "It's neutral at work; I want to be respectful of my co-workers, because everyone has different opinions," he says. "The last thing I want to do is make anyone uncomfortable. What's most important to me is that my wife supports me and we share the same goals, and my business partners support me."
Silva says he's received a few negative comments from potential customers, but that on the whole, the positives and negatives of being politically active balance out.
There are restaurant owners who definitely combine business and politics — people like Lauren Boebert, whose business model at her restaurant, Shooters Grill in the small town of Rifle, is built on the premise of open-carry freedom. Boebert's run for Congress and her profession as a restaurant owner (who also attempted to open her dining room in May in defiance of COVID-related restrictions) are heavily intertwined, but for the most part, even politically active members of the hospitality community prefer to draw a line between what they believe personally and what their customers experience.
As for In-N-Out, CEO Mark Taylor donated to Donald J. Trump for President in August 2016. Will he make it a double-double in 2020? And would Colorado burger fans be fried?