How many humans exist at the center of a Venn diagram with “Minnesotans who don’t believe in COVID-19 or the vaccine” on one side and “Minnesotans who regularly eat at vegan, gluten-free cafes downtown” on the other? I’m no statistician, but my guess would be “not too many.”
Last week, Hark! Cafe in downtown Minneapolis became the first restaurant in the city to require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test from guests who want to sit inside. The policy goes into effect today.
No big deal, right? Other restaurants around the country already require vaccinations, along with entire cities like New York and San Fransisco.
As soon as the news got out, The Anti-Vax Assholes Association of America—which just learned about the very existence of Hark! Cafe—started slamming the vegan, gluten-free restaurant with negative reviews.
They come from all over the country: “Terrible policies that don’t care about individuals privacy DO NOT EAT HERE!!” wrote patriot Charles Z. from Union Dale, Pennsylvania, on Yelp. “Extremely anti-American,” Samuel Gordon wrote on Google. Then there’s my favorite, from a user named “polterfigs”: “This place is not vegan. It’s plant based. Be careful.”
“We’re a new business, so it’s a little surprising that people took notice,” says Katherine Pardue, who runs Hark! Cafe with co-owner Lisa Neumann.
Pardue isn’t surprised, necessarily, by the disproportionate outpouring of misplaced anger. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of political rhetoric around vaccination, and around COVID in general,” she says. “We’ve seen the response our peers have gotten.”
Hark’s policy doesn’t actually exclude a single person from enjoying their gluten-free bagels or an order of cajun fried mushrooms and grits. Don’t want a vaccine? You can show proof of a negative COVID test and sit inside. Don’t want to take a COVID test? No problem, because the policy applies only to people seated inside the restaurant. Anyone is welcome to sit at one of their outside tables—or order takeout or delivery—regardless of vaccination status.
Of course, this isn’t really about disenfranchised people who are worried they can’t get gluten-free pop tarts. It’s about overwhelmingly enfranchised people lashing out when they see a small business practicing the very individual freedoms they claim to love so much.
This kind of negative reaction could be a problem a new business like Hark! Cafe, which just opened in January. But when asked about the circumstances surrounding this first big press push, Pardue laughs: “I’m not mad about it.”
“We’re a really values-based business in every decision we make,” she explains. That starts with the food they buy and who they buy it from and goes all the way down to paying their staff a living wage and prioritizing the safety of their staff and customers. “To me, it highlights an aspect of our business which is important, which is our values.”
Backlash from bored, meat-eating gluten fans aside, she points to the “magnificent, abundant” amount of support they’ve gotten since the announcement went out. Current customers have reached out with words of encouragement. Future customers have reached out to say they’re just learning about the cafe and can’t wait to give it a try. Plenty of people have left positive comments to balance out the negative ones.
As folks on r/Minneapolis noted, it takes less than five minutes to report every one-star Google review as “not relevant.” That’s a good thing to do if you have less than five minutes!
Whether or not this whole situation goes away quickly, Pardue isn’t worried. She’d do it again. Theirs may be Minneapolis’s first vaccine-required restaurant, but it won’t be the last.
“Whatever this feedback is—from a very vocal minority—we’re doing this,” she says. “It’s happening. Now.”