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Plate of Politics: When Restaurants Become Culture War Battlegrounds

Politics has been on the menu at a number of restaurants and bars, including Boise

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The weekend of May 16-18, members of a group called Open Carry Texas strolled into multiple Chipotle Mexican Grill locations in the Lone Star state, carrying loaded weapons, including AR-15s, AK-47s and shotguns. By the following Monday morning, May 19, Chipotle officials felt the need to issue a formal statement, requesting its customers to please leave their guns at home.

"Because the display of firearms in our restaurants has now created an environment that is potentially intimidating or uncomfortable for many of our customers, we think it is time to make this request," the statement read.

Chipotle isn't the first national fast-food chain to make such a request of its customers--in the past several months Starbucks, Jack in the Box, Chili's and Sonic Drive-In also put in place gun-free policies.

In Boise, some independent restaurants and pubs are, to varying degrees, feeling similarly thrust into taking a stand--or at least responding to--hot-button social and political issues. Some are fighting with a charged social and political climate that threatens to hijack restaurants' ambiance and seize control of their space. Others are turning the political moment into a marketing opportunity. In either case, the line between business and the cultural environment is eroding, and increasingly, businesses are adapting in different ways.

According to Philadelphia-based restaurant consultant Harris Eckstut, restaurant managers aren't responsible for the broader social climate; but in order to be successful, restaurants need control over their location, products, service and ambiance. Eckstut said gun-toting customers directly threaten a manager's control over the dining atmosphere.

"It's not about offending; it's about feeling comfortable being in the restaurant," Eckstut said. "It's just like if someone next to you had body odor."

Open carry groups in Texas and elsewhere experienced--at least temporarily--some blowback from an unlikely corner. In a statement released soon after the open carry demonstrations in Texas, no less than the National Rifle Association described Open Carry Texas' methods as counterproductive to the cause of protecting and expanding Second Amendment freedoms.

According to the rare rebuke: "Using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners." The NRA's statement went on to call the Texas demonstrators scary and "downright weird."

But a few days later, the gun rights group issued a mea culpa to Open Carry Texas. Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA's lobbying arm, said the initial criticism had been written by "a staffer" who was only expressing his personal opinion.

"[The original statement] shouldn't have happened," said Cox. "The NRA unequivocally supports open carry laws."

Here in Idaho, some open carry advocates say the Texas demonstrators indeed had gone too far--not because they publicly exercised their rights, but because they didn't respect other people's space.

"Those [demonstrators] may have been asking for it," said Matthew Townsend III, a Treasure Valley gun rights advocate who carries his .380 Bodyguard semi-automatic pistol almost everywhere he goes.

For Townsend, guns are a means to protect property, and it's incumbent upon those who pack heat to to respect the property rights of others.

"If it's your property, you should make the rules. If you own a business, it's just like owning a house," he said.

Chipotle, Starbucks and other chains took pains to clarify that their requests to be gun-free weren't statements on America's gun culture or the Second Amendment--"Chipotle has never taken a position on this issue, as we focus instead on ... fast food," wrote company officials.

However, some Boise businesses aren't shy about entering the political fray.

Released on May 29 at PreFunk taphouse, Crooked Fence Brewing's "Little Bitch Otter" ale is unabashedly political, its name taking aim at Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, who has pledged to uphold the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage even to the U.S. Supreme Court (BW, News, "Cheers and Jeers," June 4, 2014). To make the connection between the beer and the politics even clearer, Crooked Fence Marketing and Events Director Kelly Knopp announced that 10 percent of the proceeds from the release party would go to Pride Foundation and the Add the Words campaign. The marketing bid worked: Checks totalling $700 ultimately went to those causes.

"[Otter] says he listens to the people of Idaho. But what about these people?" said Knopp, gesturing to the hundreds of attendees who lined up May 29 to buy the beer and support the cause.

For Knopp and the staff at Crooked Fence, jumping into the deep end of a statewide dialogue about marriage equality and LGBT discrimination was a matter of choice. He said his company had a handful of stakeholders, some of whom worried that naming one of its beers "Little Bitch Otter" could have an impact on business. But they nevertheless decided to release the beer because they felt strongly about discrimination.

"We agree that if and when Butch Otter comes back at us, we feel passionate enough about it we'd be OK with going out of business," Knopp said.

Meanwhile over at Hyde Park Pub and Grill, a sports bar in Boise's North End, most of the raging debates are limited to the passion for the Green Bay Packers or Boise State Broncos. But in February 2014, at the height of furor over proposed "religious freedom bills" that would have allowed businesses to refuse services to patrons on the grounds of "sincerely held religious beliefs," one of the Hyde Park Pub's customers was incensed enough to place a sign in the front window of the bar telling any member of the Idaho Legislature who supported the bills to take their business elsewhere.

The sign stood for a few hours before management took it down, but a photo of it had already hit Facebook, attracting thousands of "likes." The pub's owner said the phone "rang off the hook" with calls about the political statement from one of his customers.

"Look, I have to tell you that most of the calls ... I would say 90 percent were in favor of what the sign had to say," said Hyde Park Pub owner John Cornell. "But hey, we're completely neutral on all of that. We're a sports pub."