O’Mei, Santa Cruz’s Chinese restaurant on Mission Street, hadn’t gotten a review on yelp.com in a month and a half as of Saturday, Aug. 19.
That’s usually a sign that a restaurant is the kind of place where customers get what they’re expecting, with few surprises. You know, all around non-controversial.
But in the days after Thursday, Aug. 20—when news broke on Indybay.org that owner Roger Grigsby had financially supported white supremacist David Duke’s run for office—O’Mei received at least 35 one-star reviews denouncing it. Some were more creative than others; Santa Cruz’s Ian B. offered, “The swat-stickers were all right.”
Another three customers commented casually on the food, but also implored fellow reviewers to leave politics out of the discussion or suggested that maybe we don’t know the whole story.
Then suddenly this past weekend, the restaurant was closed—a sign hung on the door criticizing “rumors” on the internet. Right, because everyone knows you can’t believe what you read online. I mean, unless, of course, there’s some kind of proof.
According to federal election records, Grigsby, of Santa Cruz, donated $500 to Duke—former imperial wizard for the Ku Klux Klan and loudmouthed Holocaust denier—in Duke’s recent campaign for the U.S. Senate in Louisiana a year ago. Grigsby did not return phone calls seeking comment, although GT did play a brief game of phone tag with an O’Mei employee on Friday. [Update 1 p.m. 8/30/17: After we went to print, Grigsby emailed KPIX, the CBS News Bay Area affiliate, to say that his $500 campaign contribution was “to one of the men supporting European American civil rights.” He cited the new backlash against him as part of a “war on whites.”]
But that was before the restaurant’s “closed” sign went up, and no one has answered our calls, or returned them, in the days since. So it’s anyone’s guess, at this point, whether or not they’ll reopen.
Donald Wittman, an economics professor at UCSC, says he likes O’Mei’s food, and he would prefer to give Grigsby the benefit of the doubt, at least until he hears the owner’s side of the story. But even still, Wittman can’t imagine what kind of explanation could convince him to ever eat there again—assuming O’Mei ever reopens its doors anyway.
Wittman says he already had known Grigsby to have conservative leanings. And that much, he felt he could stomach.
“I wouldn’t’ stop eating somewhere because of those reasons, but racism goes a step beyond what is accepted,” he says. “That crosses a line. Sometimes racism is hidden. You can say you don’t like certain kinds of polices the way they’re written. But here, it’s very clear: David Duke is racist.”
The $500 amount for the Duke donation is honestly puzzling—not enough to make a difference in a primary effort where Duke garnered just 3 percent of the vote, but obviously more than enough to piss off loyal Santa Cruz customers and incur the wrath of social media. In a city full of politically conscious people frustrated as hell that they have been largely forced to the geographical sidelines of the fight against white supremacists (who proved that the most vile, David-Duke-fueled strains of American racism are alive and well by beating African Americans and murdering a counter-protester in Charlottesville), Indybay’s revelation provided an outlet. It was something tangible and local on which to unload weeks worth of righteous anger.
Yelp has begun taking down new comments, and the site has posted a pop-up notification on the page acknowledging that the business has recently made the news (which, of course, is the understatement of the week). Current events are prompting what Yelp calls an “active cleanup alert,” according to the note, because “While we don’t take a stand one way or the other when it comes to these news events, we do work to remove both positive and negative posts that appear to be motivated more by the news coverage that the reviewer’s personal consumer experience with the business.”
Hmm, well, at least Yelp—unlike Grigsby—is willing to own up to its actions and offer an explanation.
Update 1 p.m. 8/30/17: After we went to print, Grigsby emailed KPIX, the CBS News Bay Area affiliate, to say that his $500 campaign contribution was “to one of the men supporting European American civil rights.” He cited the new backlash against him as part of a “war on whites.”