The Republican governors’ visit to Becky’s Diner was over within five minutes.
Like so many politicians before them, Gov. Paul LePage and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie breezed through the hot spot on Portland’s waterfront Wednesday. They talked to the cooks, shook a few hands for the cameras and left for a private fundraiser at a nearby hotel.
It was a standard visit for Becky’s, which has welcomed candidates and elected officials of all stripes since it opened in 1991. However, it illustrated the risk that businesses take when they open their doors to politicians, regardless of how open those doors are.
The visits offer free publicity for the businesses, while exposing them to the ire of highly partisan customers – as Becky Rand, who owns the diner, learned quickly.
Within minutes after the story about the meet-and-greet appeared on the Portland Press Herald website, several online commenters posted their displeasure.
“Becky’s Diner, forever unclean,” wrote one commenter from Portland.
“My days of eating lunch at Becky’s are over,” wrote another.
It was only a handful of comments, but it was enough to prompt Rand to reluctantly wade into the exchange and defend her business. She noted that politicians as diverse as Bill Clinton, Tipper Gore, Pat Buchanan, John Baldacci, Angus King, Chellie Pingree, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins had visited the diner.
Some of them even appeared at the same time.
“When did it become so contentious that people could not gather together, no matter what we are passionate about?” Rand wrote on the website.
On Thursday, she said in an interview that she regretted posting the comment. Her son warned her not to stoke the political passions, she said.
“It was so nasty,” she said. “I’ve never experienced that before. I mean, don’t we all complain when we send politicians to Augusta and Washington and all they do is fight because they can’t talk with one another? That’s what this felt like. It was so disappointing.”
The negative reaction was brief. Several commenters quickly came to Becky’s defense.
The response was nothing like the wave that engulfed Big Apple Pizza in Fort Pierce, Florida, in 2012, when commenters used the business review website Yelp – another weapon in the Internet’s seemingly limitless arsenal for depersonalized retribution – to slam Scott Van Duzer, the pizza shop’s owner, who was photographed picking up a bemused President Obama and bear-hugging him during a re-election campaign stop.
The photo and video went viral, as did the furor from Obama’s critics.
“Well … I’d eat there but after seeing the owner grab our leftist president I felt compelled to disrespect his establishment as much as the president disrespects our constitution,” wrote one man from California.
A commenter from Arizona wrote, “Talk about committing business suicide. After picking up Obama, your books are gonna be in the red pretty soon. Not too smart.”
The photo of Van Duzer and Obama is displayed prominently on Big Apple Pizza’s Yelp page. In 2012, the onslaught of negative reviews reportedly dropped the restaurant’s five-star review down to three. Now, it’s 4½ stars.
OWNERS AVOID TAKING SIDES
Negative reactions to politicians are why many businesses won’t pick sides in politics. Even the appearance of favoritism can be deadly.
Jimmy Simones owns one of Maine’s most recognized pit stops for politicians who want to be seen and photographed talking to regular people. The walls of Simones’ Hot Dog Stand in Lewiston are covered with photographs of elected officials past and present. Democrats, Republicans, independents. Jimmy Simones appears in some of the photos.
“Everybody is welcome here, all the candidates for all the parties,” he said.
Simones said his business gets a boost from all the media attention. Some of his customers, he said, time their meals to coincide with candidates’ visits.
“They expect (candidates and politicians) will come in here,” he said. “They like to talk to them even if they don’t vote for them.”
His favorite visit? A simultaneous stop in 1992 by Snowe, then a Republican U.S. representative, and U.S. Rep. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, who was stumping for Snowe’s Democratic challenger, Patrick McGowan.
Simones said Snowe and Durbin sat beside each other at the lunch counter.
“Olympia said something like, ‘You’re on my home turf!’ It was all very friendly,” Simones said.
Simones protects the perceived neutrality of his business.
In 2012, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce staged an endorsement rally outside his hot dog stand for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Summers. After it was over, Simones told the media that his business wasn’t endorsing Summers; the red painted brick of the hot dog stand was only a backdrop.
Other popular political pit stops take a similar approach.
Every four years in New Hampshire, presidential hopefuls and their political teams cram into the Peterborough Diner, a 1950 Worcester dining car plunked onto a small lot formerly owned by the B&M Railroad. Each time, it’s the same drill for the staff and customers, said Rich Golden, a manager at the diner.
“It’s always been positive here, even when the customers don’t like the candidates,” Golden said.
BECKY’S STILL OPEN TO POLITICIANS
Some businesses offer glimpses of their owners’ political leanings.
Dysart’s Truck Stop & Restaurant in Bangor is a popular spot for candidates and politicians who tour the state’s expansive 2nd Congressional District. LePage is a frequent visitor, said Sherri Bridges, the restaurant’s manager. She said the Dysarts are a “mostly Republican family,” which may be why Dysart’s Service made a $1,000 contribution to the governor’s re-election campaign.
A commenter on Dysart’s Facebook page took note. “Yuck. You’ve lost my patronage,” he wrote.
Rand, Becky’s owner, said allowing politicians and candidates can be good for business even if customers’ meals are disrupted or the throng of TV cameras and reporters discourages visitors.
While some customers don’t like to be bothered, Rand said, most like the chance to talk to the politicians.
One of her favorite visits? Former President Bill Clinton, who stayed for an hour while stumping for his wife, Hillary, in the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. Clinton and his staff ordered hamburgers, she said.
Rand said her door will remain open to all politicians despite this week’s dust-up over the LePage-Christie visit.
“I’ll never change my policy of being inclusive,” she said. “It just feels right.”
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: