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The night in June before a gunman opened fire in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people, Anne Verrill was hosting 300 patrons at Grace, her restaurant in Portland, Maine, to kick-start gay pride week there. The devastating violence more than 1,400 miles away hit so close to home that it spurred her to action. Verrill took to social media, posting on Facebook that customers owning high-powered semiautomatic rifles would not be welcomed at Grace or Foreside Tavern, her second restaurant in Falmouth, Maine. A blizzard of negative comments followed, along with shows of support. The situation drew the attention of The New York Times and thrust Verrill into the national spotlight on the raging debate over gun control.
She recently spoke about her experience on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111, where she was joined by Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed and legal studies and business ethics professor Amy Sepinwall, who discussed the broader implications of business owners making such statements.
Listen to the segment using the player at the top of this page. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge@Wharton: Anne, how does your policy play out in your restaurants?
Anne Verrill: I’m not going to frisk you on your way in. It was more of a statement of, “I completely disagree with this. I am so saddened by the events that are in America. If this is your way of thinking, and if you are one of the people standing in between me and responsible gun laws, then I don’t want you here. You would probably be happier spending your money somewhere else.” It was more of a statement to lend my support to responsible gun control laws and for people to understand that I had just had enough.
Knowledge@Wharton: Any story that comes forth about guns or gun laws is going to make news. You made this statement and probably didn’t expect to get as much attention as you have received. What has been the reaction like?
Verrill: It’s really an interesting sort of study of my own to watch this. When I first posted the Facebook post, it was like a torrent of complete crazy, crazy, crazy reactions where people said terrible things. You know, “Never step foot in my restaurant.” They were from all over the country, and it was immediate. Fast forward a month and The New York Times does a story, and the reaction is completely the opposite. It’s over-the-top positive. It’s so much more calm, respectful questions from people who didn’t agree with me. It’s really interesting how the media played out in that circumstance.
Knowledge@Wharton: Anne is making a personal statement, not a political one, about a particular type of gun. Yet when you think about the culture in the United States, it’s played out in the political realm.
Amy Sepinwall: One of the immediate objections that people raise is, “Well, wait a minute, if you are going to be allowed to deny service to owners of a certain kind of gun, how are we then going to be able to condemn the baker or the photographer who wants to deny service to the gay couple who’s getting married?” One line of response is, “Being gay or lesbian is a central aspect of a person’s identity in a way that gun ownership isn’t.” But if that were true, I don’t think you’d see the kind of vehement pushback that Anne got. There are a lot of gun owners who take gun ownership to be quite central to their identity, to their conception of what it means to be an American, to their commitment to liberty as they envision that commitment. Trying to draw the line between discriminating against someone on the basis of their status or their identity and then discriminating against somebody on the basis of the choices they make — that’s a blurry line at times.
“If you are one of those people who believes vehemently that nothing should change, then I just can’t accept that.”–Anne Verrill
Knowledge@Wharton: Which is something, Anne, that you are not doing at this point. You’re not trying to discriminate against people.
Verrill: No, and I can’t. If somebody comes in and has an assault rifle with them, then certainly I am going to send them on their way. Other than that, there is no way for me to tell. Again, it comes down to me making a stance, not me sitting there and actually denying service. The whole baker situation drives me absolutely crazy. I have had probably 400 emails about that. Being gay or the color of your skin or the many other things that puts you in a protected class is totally opposite than the choice to own a gun. And not just a gun, the choice to own an assault rifle. So, that entire argument just drives me absolutely crazy. I think it’s apples and oranges.
Americus Reed: It sounds like what you are saying is that there is something that has to do with your inability to choose the action that is related to your responsibility in responding to someone who is in support or not in support of that action. Is that the argument?
Verrill: I hesitate to lump it like that because I am not saying that you can’t think a certain way and that you currently can’t possess that firearm. My problem is that at this point in our society, something has to change. If you are one of those people who believes vehemently that nothing should change, then I just can’t accept that. If you are honestly standing in the way of real change, then I don’t even want to deal with you. Because in a restaurant and in a bar, you’re in a very specific environment in which people feel like they can say and do anything and that you are supposed to sit there and give them service with a smile. As I’m standing behind my bar and I’m hearing the most ridiculous things coming out of people’s mouths, I have just grinned and said nothing for years and years and years and years. Now, I’m saying something.
Knowledge@Wharton: Was there a tipping point for you, Anne?
Verrill: Oh, absolutely. The night before Orlando, my restaurant, Grace, for our third year in a row shut the restaurant down and had the kick off to our Pride Week in Portland. The entire restaurant was filled with 300 gay and other people that supported Pride, and they had a dance party for four hours. The next night was Orlando. So I was in a position that was no different from that beautiful club that was then shot up. It was so close to home. And it was literally back to back, and I was just done.
Knowledge@Wharton: Outside of the back and forth on social media, have you seen any reaction at your restaurant, specifically?
Verrill: The only actual physical reaction we have gotten is support. Not one person has physically come in and been negative in any way, which is incredibly heart-warming and pretty amazing. We’ve had people from all over the country and outside of the country, who have come in and specifically said is the reason they were there was because they wanted to support it.
Reed: First of all, I’m super impressed. I think it’s pretty clear that the restaurant business is a very difficult business to be in, so to take this kind of a stance is quite impressive. But I’m wondering to what extent you would respond to someone who would argue this is not really the forum to do this. In other words, there are other channels through which you can express those beliefs and create change. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the context of denying patronage to people in your own restaurant. How would you respond to that kind of line of thinking?
Verrill: I would agree with part of it. There are other things that I’m doing. I am volunteering with our gun ballot initiative in Maine. I’m sharing Facebook stuff and talking with my friends and talking to my community. But when you are in such a small and insulated area, you are basically always with people who believe what you believe. To get outside of the box, you have to find a larger forum. I have used the thing that was the largest that I had.
Knowledge@Wharton: This is such an important topic in the United States and around the world with all of the violence that we are seeing right now.
Sepinwall: That’s exactly right. I should say that I am deeply sympathetic, both to Anne’s position and to the more general proposition that business owners should be able to enact their political or ideological commitments within their workplace. These are not convictions that I think you have to leave at home, especially when you’re doing something like running a restaurant. I imagine, Anne, that you are putting a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this. This is your creative energy, and you don’t want to have to be serving people who have adopted a position that you find hateful. I completely see the force of that. Some of this is responsive to Americus’ question about whether the business place is the right place to be enacting political convictions. I think it very much should be among the places where people are allowed to live out their convictions.
“Trying to draw the line between discriminating against someone on the basis of their status or their identity and then discriminating against somebody on the basis of the choices they make — that’s a blurry line at times.”–Amy Sepinwall
Anne, you also said something really interesting about sort of ideological segregation and the way in which most of us are surrounded only by people who share our sensibilities. I think that’s true. At the same time, I think it maybe suggests that if we try to exclude people who don’t share our sensibilities from our businesses or from other public forums, we actually just risk perpetuating that isolation. We don’t get to encounter the people who have different viewpoints from us. Maybe there’s something appealing about that sometimes, but maybe there’s also a kind of loss in the prospect for dialogue that you would encounter if you did have to interact more frequently with people who didn’t share your viewpoint about matters around which there is a lot of controversy.
Verrill: That’s an excellent point. When you come into the restaurant, I’m very, very busy working, so we’re not going to have that back and forth. I can tell you that I have spent hours and hours and hours at this point having back and forth. I think I have actually had more conversations and in respectful ways that have opened my own mind, and hopefully theirs, since this happened. Both in person with people that we carve the time out to do it with and then over email and over the phone. I don’t think necessarily the conversation would have ever been started if I was like, “Hey, everybody who super-believes in assault rifles, come on in. We’re going to sit at table 35 and hash this out.” I just don’t think it would have ever happened in the same way.
Reed: What I think is interesting about this from a marketing perspective is to try to understand the economic rationale for doing this versus the moral rationale. Clearly, the moral rationale is what’s weighing heavily for you, Anne. But an interesting question out there is, what have your competitors done about this? Has there been a reaction from not only your competitors, but your peers? You can imagine someone coming and saying, “Well, since you are essentially saying that you aren’t going to welcome those customers, I am going to welcome those customers in a stance that is the opposite of yours and say hey, I want to be supportive of the Second Amendment.” Have you seen a competitive market dynamic that might be going on?
Verrill: No, I have been surprised that I have heard almost no weigh-in from anybody in my industry. Not positive, negative, for or against, neutral, nothing. I have heard nothing. But I also think that 95% of this has happened on Facebook. So for every 1,000 people who say something nasty, there’s maybe one person who physically walks into the building. Maybe my industry in Maine just doesn’t think this is that big of a deal.
Reed: In my research at Wharton, I do a lot of work on identity and how people form a perception of what it is they think they are and how they enact that perception in the real world. You mentioned earlier that you sort of pushed back against the idea that a gun owner has an identity that is plausible in the same way that someone who is a member of the gay community would claim to have an identity. But research shows that although you can’t make the same philosophical argument, you can make the same social psychological argument. That, indeed, there is a group of people out there who grew up … [using guns and] doing that is as big a part of their identity as someone who feels like they are affiliated with the gay community. How would you respond to that?
“What I think is interesting about this from a marketing perspective is to try to understand the economic rationale for doing this versus the moral rationale.”–Americus Reed
Verrill: First of all, I believe that being homosexual is a biological situation. So right there, it’s a little different. As far as believing guns are a part of their everyday life, there’s a whole host of other guns that you can hunt with and you can target shoot with and you can sit in the backyard with your eight generations of parents and grandparents and still have that same cultural identity. I don’t know that you can’t give up one class of weapons and lose all of that. I have talked to a lot of friends who have a lot of guns, and I’ve said to them, “If the government came down and said you can have all your other ones, but we’re just going to draw a line.” By and large, every one of them says, “Oh God, yeah. Absolutely.” If they found out that that would solve any problems or create any less danger, sure. So, I personally don’t see that argument in the way that it’s been presented.
Sepinwall: I am going to push back on the idea that we can make distinctions among what pieces of the identity can be given up relative to others. Because the response you might be likely to face in the context of the baker who refused to bake a cake for a gay couple getting married is, “Yeah, being gay is a crucial part of your identity and I respect that, but you don’t need a wedding cake.” Where I think the distinction that you are trying to make, Anne, may have more traction is in pointing not to the fact that this should be a dispensable part of your identity, but to the fact that owning these assault rifles puts others at extreme risk in a way that having a gay wedding doesn’t put anyone at risk. Or more generally, the gun ownership case is a case where we have to worry about third-party harms. The person who opposes gay marriage is opposing an activity that really doesn’t have negative effects on anyone else.
Knowledge@Wharton: Anne, are you concerned that you could see action against you or your restaurants because of this? I think I saw in an article you mentioned that you were concerned about the possibility of something happening to one of your children.
Verrill: Yeah, my daughter usually marches in the [gay pride] parade with her aunt, and I wouldn’t allow it this year because I was just too concerned about a large crowd gathering in the street. I don’t really fear a lawsuit. I know that people can sue for anything. I haven’t actually denied service yet, so maybe that’s why I’m less fearful. I think to a certain level, this will blow over and become somebody else’s 15 minutes. And also, if that was what drove the choices I make in my life from a moral standpoint, then when would I ever say anything?
Knowledge@Wharton: What would you like to see happen? Are you hoping that there will be a political statement down the road?
Verrill: Yes. I hope the ballot initiative passes in Maine, and I hope the conversation is opened up hugely and becomes at the forefront of what all Americans want to see happen in the next election, in their state and local elections. I want something done. I want to see my children’s lives actually become safer. If I’m the tiniest part of that conversation, then that was the goal.