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From left, Joe and Lora Still, the owner of Skully's Ramen, call Michele VanHoose "beyond awesome" for having her Facebook group, 417 Progressive Businesses and Events, stage a "Woke Wednesday" at their restaurant.
McKenzie Robinson | SBJ
From left, Joe and Lora Still, the owner of Skully's Ramen, call Michele VanHoose "beyond awesome" for having her Facebook group, 417 Progressive Businesses and Events, stage a "Woke Wednesday" at their restaurant.

When business, politics mix

‘Woke Wednesday’ brings Facebook group to ramen shop

Posted online

When a broken cooler forced Rountree neighborhood restaurant Skully’s Ramen to close their dining room in late July, the staff came in the next day and discovered a voicemail from an unidentified caller.

“I went to your menu at your takeout, and I saw the pride flag,” the caller said.

Skully’s owners say she was referring to a rainbow-striped flag displayed at the ordering window to represent LGBTQ rights.

“Everybody should have pride in who they are, and you don’t have to keep shoving that down our throats, and especially since that symbol’s a biblical symbol – the rainbow is a Bible symbol that calls that kind of stuff an abomination,” the caller said.

She said she would spread the word about the restaurant’s position, as friends had recommended it to her.

“Enough is enough of this,” she said. “Go woke, go broke – the new motto.”

An Instagram post of the voicemail caught a lot of attention with nearly 4,000 views, and it drew sympathy from Skully’s customers.

Some other businesses also chimed in.

Skullys’ neighbor, The Royal, wrote, “I’ve got a line on a full-sized pride flag. We’ll get it up soon!!”

And downtown’s Secret Sandwich Shop LLC added, “She seems nice. We look forward to her not coming inside our shop either.”

Another place where the message gained traction was in a private Facebook group called 417 Progressive Businesses and Events, a project launched in March by Ozark resident Michele VanHoose.

One of the 639 members in the group posted a link to the voicemail with a note saying, “Who is up for ramen?”

On Aug. 4, a couple dozen members of the Facebook group visited Skully’s for ramen, conversation and a big bowl of activism. It was the first “Woke Wednesday” event for the group, which plans to have many more.

Lora Still, who owns Skully’s with husband Joe, was thrilled.

“We think it is beyond awesome, and I am very appreciative of Michele’s work in supporting and promoting progressive businesses,” she said. “It is always cool to find like-minded people.”

Criticism from customers is part of doing business, according to Still.

“We realized early on that the general public will have a lot of opinions about everything you do as a business,” she said.

But Still said she realized the fruitlessness of trying to respond to every negative comment.

“We just have to be at peace with the fact we are all working as hard as we can,” she said. “When we know we are giving it our honest effort, criticism just holds less validity to us.”

Still sees the pride flag as a welcoming symbol.

“We just fail to see how a pride flag is isolating to any customer. We definitely welcome all customers, but if you cannot be around anyone that has a different opinion than you … we might not be the restaurant for you.”

And as for people who do not believe in equal rights for members of the LGBTQ community, Still said, “We definitely would rather not have any customers with bigoted beliefs. We don’t need them. We love our LGBTQ+ community and Springfield is better for it.”

Customer activism
VanHoose said she started the Facebook group because she felt isolated as someone living in the Ozarks and having progressive politics.

“I knew there were people out there that held the same values as I do,” she said. “Being in a minority in the area in the sense of your belief system, it kind of starts to wear on you.”

She said she believes things used to be different in this area, with conservative and liberal values having a near-equal split. People either aligned with one another more or they didn’t bring politics up at all, she said. That’s not the case any longer.

“I feel personally that it’s a heightened sense of us against them,” she said.

When asked if she was contributing to drawing those battle lines by establishing a group for progressives, VanHoose conceded the possibility.

“That’s a good point, and I’m also walling myself up,” she said. “I don’t know what to say to that other than we go where we feel comfortable – I do, they do.”

VanHoose has a daughter and other family members who identify as LGBTQ, and she said she is concerned about their safety and well-being. Her Facebook group is not merely intended to keep people comfortable in their political leanings; more than that, she said, it is to keep people safe and supported when they patronize area businesses.

One member of the group is a person who offers group counseling for people who are transitioning their gender.

“They went to a certain company to have T-shirts made, and they completely, flatly turned them down and said, ‘I won’t take your business; I’m not going to print T-shirts for you,’” VanHoose said, declining to identify the company.

That person turned to the Facebook group and found plenty of recommendations of people who would help her.

VanHoose found herself a housekeeper on the page.

“For me, it feels safer to have somebody come into my home that I know doesn’t hate gay people,” she said. “They’re not badmouthing me for my beliefs.”

Risk is waning
Research published in the Harvard Business Review in early 2020 explored how business activism affects consumer perceptions. The researchers found respondents’ political views correlated with their responses.

The report summary states, “People are less swayed by corporate advocacy than has been widely reported. When participants were told a company had conservative values, it was more negatively perceived, but when they were told a company had liberal values, their opinions of it remained neutral.”

Study participants acknowledged that political advocacy is a way for companies to connect with customers, and using advocacy to reach target audiences was seen as a routine practice.

“The previously held taboo of crossing commercialism with politics may be well gone,” the researchers, James R. Bailey and Hillary Phillips, reported.

Global market research firm Forrester released a study in April that found when choosing between two brands with similar products, 43% of U.S. adults prefer the company that takes a like-minded stand on social and political issues.

This research was intuitively true to Still.

“I think it is a myth that a business can’t succeed unless they include everyone,” she said.

“Anyone and everyone has told us to stick to noodles, businesses should not be political, and we will not succeed if we isolate any customers. However, in a world that is so political, it feels unavoidable.”

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