The C.E.O. Who Called Trump a Racist (and Sold a Lot of Spice Mix) |


A week after Donald Trump was elected the forty-fifth President of the
United States, Bill Penzey sent an e-mail to a few thousand people. “The
open embrace of racism by the Republican Party in this election is now
unleashing a wave of ugliness unseen in this country for decades,” he
wrote. “The American people are taking notice. Let’s commit to giving
the people a better choice.” The recipients weren’t
friends or colleagues or the fellow-members of an activist group. They were
customers—subscribers to the mailing list of Penzey’s Wisconsin-based
company, Penzeys Spices, which, with an online store and sixty-five
retail locations, is America’s largest independent spice retailer. At
the end of the message, he mentioned the company’s
Thanksgiving specials, including a gift box of four mini-jars of spices
for ten dollars.

Penzey, a bespectacled, rosy-cheeked man in his middle years, founded
his namesake company in the late eighties as a mail-order business.
Almost from the start, he used the brand’s official communiques as a
megaphone, devoting the first and last pages of his catalog to personal
notes and op-eds. Over the years, Penzey expressed his dismay at, among
other things, urban white flight, low teacher pay, and the use of Native
American iconography in sports. With the advent of social media, he
expanded his platform to include the e-mail newsletter and a company
Facebook page. And with the election of Trump, he found an issue that
nearly everyone took personally.

Penzey’s post-election statements—including a follow-up e-mail telling
Trump supporters, “You just voted for an openly racist candidate for the
presidency of the United States of America”—went viral, earning coverage everywhere from USA Today to Fox News. It won praise from Web sites
like DailyKos and Upworthy, and intense derision from members of the
right-wing news media. The pundit Michelle Malkin tweeted the American
Conservative’s take, with a caption claiming that Penzey had gone “full
moonbat,” while David Clarke, who was at the time the Milwaukee County sheriff,
tweeted his opinion that Penzey was a “typical hate-filled white
elitist lefty.” A conservative food blogger declared his intent to
boycott the company, going so far as to mock up a satirical jar of
“Socialist Sea Salt.” Almost overnight, the bleeding-heart spice magnate
became a bannerman of the #resistance and an icon of activist

In the business world, conventional wisdom holds that controversial
political opinions should be kept as far away from products as possible.
You never know who among your customer base (or your potential customer
base) will be wildly turned off by whatever you have to say, and you don’t want money walking out the door. The result is a sea of milquetoast
advertisements, with brands fastening their identities to anodyne,
dream-journal abstractions like “community” and “craftsmanship,” urging
their fans and acolytes to “be more” or “dream bigger” or, in Pepsi’s case, to “join the conversation.”

Penzey wasn’t the first C.E.O. to speak out against Trump or to use his
position to advocate for progressive values. But he was quite possibly
the first to publicly call Trump’s election an “embrace of racism,” and
he was definitely the first to do so while hawking a free bottle of
Quebec Seasonings with any five-dollar purchase. In a letter
addressed to “America’s CEOs” posted to his Facebook page that December,
Penzey wrote that, in the two weeks following his post-election
e-mail, the “right wing firestorm” cost the company three per cent of
its customers—but that online sales rose nearly sixty per cent in the same period, and
gift-box sales increased by more than double that. He urged other
business owners to follow his lead: “If, as a company, you have values,
now is the time to share them. You may well lose a chunk of your AM
radio-listening customers, but if you really are honest and sincere,
don’t be surprised to see your promotions suddenly, finally, find active
engagement with the Millennial generation.”

For customers who preferred their cardamom pods without a side of
flaming liberal politics, another spice company awaited with open
arms. A few days after Penzey’s e-mails exploded onto the national
stage, the Spice House, another Wisconsin-based retailer, posted a
message on its own Facebook page. “My husband and I are very careful to
never bring politics or personal opinions into our spice company, they
have no business there,” Patty Erd, who owns the Spice House with her
husband, Tom, wrote. Never mind that the spice trade itself is one of
the most intensely political industries in history, or that “staying out of politics” is, of course, its own kind of political statement. “Heck, I would not even want to get
into a subjective debate over which cinnamon is the best!” Erd wrote. It may have been mere coincidence that she chose to single out cinnamon
only days after the meticulous kitchen testers at Cook’s Illustrated had named Penzeys Spices’ Vietnamese varietal their pick for the best on
the market, praising its “big, spicy flavor” and high percentage of
volatile aromatic compounds. It was not, however, a coincidence that Erd
felt the need to distance her business from Penzey’s: the two of them
are siblings.

Patty and Bill are second-generation spice mavens. In 1957, their
parents opened a coffee and tea store in their home town of Wauwatosa,
which eventually became known as the Spice House. Bill Penzey, Sr., was
a philosopher and storyteller who liked to put his customers to work grinding spices as he off-handedly lectured about the lore and
history of the spice trade. Bill, Jr., spun off his own namesake spice
company in 1986; Erd and her husband, Tom, took over her parents’ business
in 1992. The two companies have not always coexisted peacefully: a
Crain’s story from 2009 described a “palpable” tension between brother and sister. But, in the wake of Trump’s election, the sibling rivalry
became a fundamental matter of business philosophy. Shortly after the
Spice House distanced itself from Penzeys, Erd and her husband began
reaching out to conservative bloggers, sharing a special offer for
anyone in need of a new spice purveyor: free shipping to those who used
the promotional code NOPOLITICS.

In the past year, Penzey has used his business as a platform to deliver
missives about America’s culture of mass shootings, used Pi Day as an opportunity to talk about truth in science, and hailed the Democratic
victory in the special Senate election in Alabama. He introduced Tsardust Memories, a “ripped-from-the-headlines” Russian spice blend
(including cinnamon, nutmeg, and marjoram), and put together a spice rainbow (red cayenne, orange curry powder, etc.) to celebrate the
anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality. On July 6, 2017, two years after Trump kicked off his Presidential campaign by calling Mexican
immigrants to the United States “a tremendous infectious disease,”
Penzey announced that the company would be doing a no-strings-attached
giveaway of Mexican vanilla extract, writing, “Today, on this
anniversary, it seems a good day to apologize to the people of Mexico
and Latin America.” That post, and a follow-up a week later reporting on
the success of the special, generated such a flood of business that the
company suspended its regularly planned promotions to focus on
replenishing inventory.

Penzey isn’t shy about how his politics have continued to benefit his
business’s bottom line. “This is the future,” he told his home-town
paper, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, in February of last year. “I
think if you don’t care about your customers and what they care about,
in a world of social media, no one’s going to talk about you.” Recent
studies show that today’s consumers feel more allegiance to companies
that take a position—any position—on major political issues, and that
those pesky millennials are going out of their way to support
companies led by figures who take left-leaning, progressive positions.
Penzey is a savvy salesman who’s figured out how to capitalize on the
political outrage of the Trump era and social media’s way of amplifying
it—which might seem cynical if his political outrage weren’t so
obviously real. When I wrote asking for an interview last month, he
responded with one of the great rejection letters of my career, a long
e-mail in which he assailed the food media, critiqued my past
reporting, and suggested that I skip this story altogether and instead
focus on the food industry’s sexual-harassment problem. “If you ever
have a spare year, spend a lot of time with old food magazines
through the decades,” he wrote. “Before advertising and marketing took
control there really were some amazing publications.”


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