PITTSBURGH — Word travels fast in places like this city’s iconic small-business district filled with third- and fourth-generation family-owned businesses, the majority of which are centered on two things: relationships and food.
Relationships and food, but not politics. At least not usually, thank goodness.
The relationships come not just from the generational loyalty of people repeating what their grandparents and parents did, but they also grow here because of robust word of mouth. Relationships also form when someone you trust recommends a business.
And the food here in the Strip District isn’t just about the restaurants. It is also the dozens and dozens of old-world epicurean shops representing every ethnic group you can imagine. Each is filled with aromas that entice the curiosity of the shoppers to try something new or embrace the nostalgia of a time long gone but that they long to re-create.
There is only one business here on Penn Avenue that is a franchise establishment. It is called Penzeys Spices. On this Wednesday afternoon, there is a sign on the front door saying the store is closed despite it being early afternoon. A call to the store the next day reveals it hasn’t had in-person service “in forever,” and when it does, it is inconsistent, but the store would be happy to take a phone order or direct me to its website.
The word that traveled so fast around here was about Penzeys — on several fronts.
First, customers were tired of not being able to go into the store. When you want to buy a spice, aroma is a big part of that experience and decision. You could see workers in the store, but you could not physically go inside. This was a starkly different experience than customers had at every mom-and-pop store, not just on either side of Penzeys, but up and down the street.
One of the few connectors left in our culture is food and everything that goes into preparing it, beginning with that first sense of smell that inspires a dish. No matter how simple or elaborate a meal is, almost every high or low we experience in life has happened with us surrounded by a meal.
Whether it is the ritual of neighbors and families bringing food to the home of someone who lost a family member or the tradition of the covered-dish casserole dinners in church basements or the backyards filled with neighbors taking turns laboring over a barbecue pit, food not only nourishes us but also brings comfort and reinforces our sense of community and place.
There was a second reason word was spreading about Penzeys, though.
Usually, when we buy our food to make a meal, whether it is at a grocery store or a local farm or farmers market, we don’t expect to be lectured about politics. We are all adults, and we all have a level of expectation that store owners’ politics may be different than ours. What we don’t expect is to be scolded for holding different beliefs.
And we certainly don’t expect to be called racists.
Yet that is exactly what Bill Penzey Jr. did in emails to his customers twice over the past month, and it wasn’t even subliminal. Penzey sent out a corporate email and posted on his webpage the “Republicans are Racists” weekend special the store held for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
That was followed just days later by another “All Republicans are Racists” special that begged whatever remaining loyal customers it had — he admitted in his Facebook post that the store had lost 40,000 of them — to buy gift cards.
There are several things at play here that deserve deeper exploration. These things really show a lot about the dwindling relationship that consumers have with the men and women who run many of the institutions, corporations and media and entertainment outlets in this country.
It is a covenant that has broken because people like Penzey don’t have a cultural connection to their customers. This is not a Democratic or Republican thing. It’s an inside-outside thing. Here in Western Pennsylvania, you don’t have to be a Republican to have been really turned off by his missive.
There are plenty of people who walk down Penn Avenue who have been Democrats all of their lives but who are married to a Republican, have children who are Republicans or have GOP grandparents, neighbors, friends and co-workers. These Democrats with Republican loved ones are as put off by that blanket accusation of racism as if he had called all Democrats racist.
Because Penzey runs his business hundreds of miles from here, he is culturally disconnected from not only the people who are his customers but also the people who work for him. Fifty years ago, that was a rarity in this country: Most business owners weren’t called CEOs, they lived within four miles of their operations, and they often served on local school boards or were ushers in their community churches.
Nowadays, people find themselves using or buying products made in plants in this county that are run by a board of directors who only fly in and out of the facility once a year for a board meeting.
These directors don’t know their workers, and even worse, they’d barely know their customers if it weren’t for focus groups.
Even my most strident Democratic friends loathe when businesses and corporations get mired in politics, especially when they go as far as Penzeys did. A national survey conducted by Scott Rasmussen confirmed as much when it showed that 59% of people, including Democrats, think companies taking political positions “adds to divisiveness” in our country.
This reinforces the inside-outside argument: Most Democrats outside of the larger city centers of wealth, power, major media and Fortune 500 companies are far less ideological than the elites running them.
Conversely, those same elite Democrats and media praised Penzeys behavior in a New Yorker piece in 2018 when he started his anti-Republican corporate activism, writing, “Penzey is a savvy salesman who’s figured out how to capitalize on the political outrage of the Trump era and social media’s way of amplifying it.”
They see Penzey as smart because they share his sentiments. They actually do think anyone who does not agree with them is racist. That — agreement with them — is their sole measuring stick.
Which brings us to the final thing to unpack, namely how flippantly and casually liberal activists such as Penzey throw around the word “racist.” The word “racist” has become the elites’ connective tissue — it is what holds them together — and it is tossed out every time they see something with which they disagree.
That is not only ridiculous on its face, but it also dilutes the full assault of true racism.
If almost everything is racist, then nothing is racist — because your zeal to score political points has made a mockery of the pain it invokes.
What Penzeys did wasn’t just insulting. It is dangerous because it continues an elite-think that does true damage to the psyche of our country. Luckily, people from all persuasions seem to be letting him know that his approach isn’t the American way.
Last I checked, only two people had “liked” his “Republicans are Racist” post. People have a way of quietly correcting a wrong.