ECONOMIST AND SOCIOLOGIST THORSTEIN Veblen coined the phrase Conspicuous Consumption in the late 19th century to describe the way the nouveau riche in America showed off their social status and capitalist gains. They consumed expensive goods and made extravagant displays solely to demonstrate their wealth. Today’s youth also tend to identify themselves by what they consume, but in a much less craven way.
In a 2017 Ford Motor Company study on consumer behavior, the majority of individuals surveyed consider prosperity as being less about wealth and more about happiness and personal fulfillment. This represents a major shift in what it means to “live the good life,” and many of us now place more value on pursuing meaningful experiences than achieving material success. As a business owner, it’s important to find ways for our team members to shape the way we do business, even if it’s outside their job description. If not, they’ll find someplace else where they can. But what about the consumer space? If fairness and meaning are what’s most important, how do we experience either from the purely utilitarian act of buying something?
Enter the buycott.
Americans have always used the marketplace to express themselves, and boycotts have long been a popular strategy for consumer activism. Though generally accepted as an effective method of protest, the actual outcome of boycotting is complicated and often misunderstood. As widely reported in 2012, the CEO of upscale fast food chain Chick Fil-A made anti-gay marriage remarks that were met with wide outrage. LGBTQ+ organizations alongside other socially-progressive groups quickly organized boycotts of their restaurants, and the news coverage painted a picture of a company headed for disaster. At the same time, however, conservative groups mobilized support for Chick Fil-A through a phenomenon known colloquially as a buycott. The buycott, designed to reward the company for taking a public position they supported, more than counteracted the boycott and Chick Fil-A actually reported record sales. Even though most Americans polled supported gay marriage, the failed boycott effort showed they represented a silent majority. The buycott actively galvanized supporters while the opposition existed mainly in principle.
Those most affected by boycotts are sometimes not even the intended targets. The boycotts of British Petroleum (BP) after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 hurt unrelated and independent gas station owners much more than the oil company itself. At that time, BP owned less than 5 percent of its more than 11,000 branded stations in the United States, and the biggest pain for station owners came from lost sales from higher-margin convenience store items like chips and pop (in Michigan we say pop instead of soda). Similarly, single-day gas boycotts, though popular, have close to zero effect on gas prices and the financial health of oil companies. These protests merely create longer lines at filling stations the next day or encourage consumers to top off their tanks the day before. It’s not abstinence. It’s just rearrangement of purchasing habits and it perfectly illustrates a major problem with boycotts: People often don’t understand or stick to them. It isn’t that boycotts are completely ineffective; rather their effect on a business is usually more reputational than economic. It’s a moral reckoning, not a monetary one, and highly-publicized boycotts are most likely to change a company’s behavior, not sales.
In the beer industry, achieving meaning through abstaining appears elusive as well. The acquisition of Chicago’s own Goose Island Beer Company by Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2011 sent waves through the world of craft beer. Goose Island has long been a beacon of innovation in brewing, and many of its supporters throughout the country were appalled by its sale to the “Evil Empire.” I watched with interest as local merchants announced boycotts and beer enthusiasts abided by them. But over the next few years, the calls for abstinence grew fainter. Largely because of the quality of its coveted Bourbon County series, Goose Island products slowly began to reappear in craft circles. The prevailing reasoning was that by continuing to drink Goose Island, craft consumers could actively participate in shaping the company for the better. Uninterrupted consumption might convince the new ownership to keep the beer and the people employed there the same, whereas maintaining a boycott might only encourage the corporate overlords to change the culture and cut corners in the way many feared they would. Plus, the beer was good. That alone was almost enough. It was a war AB InBev won by both attrition and attention to quality, and even the staunchest of opponents eventually gave in or stopped caring. Consumption usually wins. We must understand that.
To wit, buycotts have become an increasingly powerful tool and reflect a marketplace behavior we can expect to see more and more. A 2018 study by PR firm Weber Shandwick showed that in the last two years, buycotters took an average of 5.7 supportive actions versus 4.5 from boycotters. And buycotts are only expected to grow in number. It’s clear that we increasingly define ourselves by what we do, not by what we don’t.
IT WAS AN EVENING like any other. After Shannon and I wrestled the kids to sleep, I sat on the couch to check my email and saw a curious message among the usual detritus of junk. It was from a producer at CBS News. He was asking to film an episode of 60 Minutes at The Mitten.
I frantically called Max. We both agreed an appearance on national television would obviously be a boon for business, despite the fact they were asking us to close on a Saturday (our busiest day) to accommodate the shoot. We scheduled a call with the producer for the next day.
We spoke for 15 minutes or so, mostly about the history of our building. The producer mentioned the episode was going to be a follow-up to one they had shot several months prior. The subject had been the 2016 presidential election, and they had filmed a discussion panel made up of seven Trump voters and seven Clinton voters, all Grand Rapidians. The panel moderator?
Max and I looked at each other, and I casually asked the producer if Oprah was going to be coming to our restaurant. He sidestepped nonchalantly, and it didn’t feel appropriate to press for more information. So we did our best imitation of two laid-back guys for the rest of the call. He explained the reason they wanted to revisit this topic was that despite their obvious differences, the panel members had stayed in touch with one another and maintained a political dialogue without hating each other. A rare phenomenon these days. Oprah and the producers had heard about this and decided to film a follow-up episode. I listened excitedly, but in the back of my mind, the question burned: Why us? Surely there were bigger and better venues they could use. But we weren’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
The producer asked us to send a diagram of our upstairs taproom to their production team. Five days later, he wrote back saying that regrettably, the vertical support beams in the Engine House were a deal breaker for their camera crew. Cursed by 19th century architecture. We were disappointed, but thanked him for the opportunity and offered to host them for dinner and drinks after the shoot. We didn’t hold our breath. Max and I were half relieved we could enjoy our Saturday sales as expected. I did my best to put it out of my mind.
Three weeks later, I was leaving work for the day when one of our managers stopped me and said a man from CBS was upstairs, asking for me. I ran to the second floor and luckily was still in time to join him for a beer. We discussed the history of The Mitten and the West Side, and the conversation eventually found its way to our Foundation and the work we’ve done in our community. He told me they were filming the episode the next day and though they had found a more suitable location to shoot it, he was interested in bringing the cast and crew to The Mitten afterward. I asked if the guest of honor would be joining us as well. “TBD,” he said.
He asked that we hold tables for 25 or 30 guests to be arriving around 5 p.m. I coolly assured him it wouldn’t be a problem but I knew it was potentially a huge problem, especially if a certain celebrity guest didn’t show up. Keeping five tables empty during a Saturday dinner hour represented the loss of thousands of dollars, hardly worth it for some crew members we didn’t even know. But for whatever reason, it still felt like a risk worth taking. My father always told me to trust my “tummy meter.” (NOTE: Once you become a dad, you start to say things like “tummy” and “potty” to other adults in public like it’s perfectly normal.) I’ve learned that the only yardstick that means anything is one’s gut, and my gut was telling me to take a chance. I reminded myself that this is the difference between the “I can’t afford that” and “how can I afford that?” mindset. A visit from Oprah would be worth far more than half a day’s lost income. I decided to roll the dice.
Max and I, along with our wives and Dana and Mallory, came down to The Mitten early the next afternoon. Together we deep cleaned the upstairs taproom, touched up paint and carefully arranged the tables in advance of the Saturday crowds. The “reserved” signs we placed on them out confused many of our guests because we do not nor have we ever taken reservations. But it was the only way to make it work. The tables had to be 100 percent available if and when the party arrived, and that means keeping them empty well in advance. Once a guest sits, we can’t ask them to move. Not even for Oprah.
As the afternoon wore on and the taproom began to fill, I felt the pain as dozens of standing customers eyeballed the empty tables. I wondered if we had made a mistake. After all, we didn’t even know who was actually coming. Were we being unfair to our customers and staff by not seating other guests there? Would they understand if they knew what was at stake? The worst part was, we couldn’t explain the reason to anyone: if it came true, it would cause a scene and if it didn’t, we’d look foolish. As 5 p.m. came, the producer messaged to say that they were running behind, and 6 p.m. was a more realistic time of arrival. I groaned. If Oprah didn’t show up now, we were really in trouble. The tables had sat empty for nearly three hours and I was painfully aware of just how many customers were packed into the lobby below, waiting to be seated. This was a big opportunity, but we were still very much a small business.
But at 5:45, the producer wrote to say they were on the way, and the guest of honor was with them. O was in tow. I hurriedly informed the staff what was about to happen, and Max and I walked down the back steps to wait for our guests. As the cast members from the discussion panel trickled in, a conspicuous black SUV pulled into our alley, and Oprah and her two bodyguards stepped out. “Hi Oprah,” I said, dimly aware of the absurdity of that statement. “Welcome to The Mitten,” Max said. “I hope you’re hungry.” Oprah laughed and said she was starving since she hadn’t eaten anything — “not even an egg” — in anticipation of our pizza, which she had heard so much about. She saved all of her Weight Watchers points for us.
As Max and I walked into the taproom with the entourage, the guests stopped eating and stared. A customer locked eyes with me and mouthed “Is that…?” I nodded yes. Shannon took one look at Oprah and started crying out of pure happiness. We sat down with the CBS crew and raised a glass to the occasion: Seven die-hard Republicans were breaking bread with seven liberal Democrats and one of the most recognized women in the world. It was unequivocal. Max and I took a minute to enjoy the fact that this group was gathering in a place we made, on tables we built, toasting with beers we created. Not bad for two guys who were brewing in their garage not that long before.
News of her appearance spread quickly on social media and news crews began to gather outside, but we didn’t let them in. We didn’t want to create a spectacle; CBS had obviously chosen us for a reason and we had a hunch it was at least partly due to our small neighborhood ambiance. We decided this would be best remembered as a shared experience, one marked by its intimacy. We didn’t need to exploit it; word was going to get out no matter what we did. And it was the right call. Oprah was relaxed and worked the room, stopping to shake hands or hug every guest. She told us how much she enjoyed the beer and pizza and happily posed for pictures. Before we knew it, it was over and the CBS crew was loaded up and headed for their hotels. Though it all happened so fast and came about so unexpectedly, the effects of her visit have been longlasting. People ask to sit in the “Oprah seat” weekly, and I’m asked about the experience in nearly every interview I do.
Through the years, we’ve been fortunate to host many other famous guests, and I believe wholeheartedly it’s because of our track record as a strong and generous business. The CBS producer later told me he chose us for our outstanding reputation in the community, which was likely bolstered by our giving. The pace of entrepreneurship often prevents us from taking stock of our accomplishments, but once in a while something incredible happens and shows us we’re on the right track. I have a feeling Oprah will be hard to top.