WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Mary’s Gourmet Diner has no plans to prolong a controversy over discounts for prayer and won’t try to enlist outside help to bring them back, restaurant co-owner Mary Haglund said Friday, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
And that sounds about right to Mike Horn, a marketing and public relations professional who has worked with clients ranging from Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines to Mack Trucks.
“Right now everything they do is kind of under the microscope,” Horn said, adding that his sense is that the restaurant’s “whole culture seems to be counter to wanting to be confrontational.”
Horn doesn’t represent Haglund, but finds himself helping clients negotiate the powers and pitfalls of the Internet as part of his business.
“Sometimes when organizations that are not confrontational by nature step into that role, they can lose themselves very quickly,” he said. “People go to Mary’s because the food is good. There are those who would argue that a battle over your right to do whatever you want to do is worth the battle. There is some truth to that. But at the same time, do you want to become a protest restaurant, where people come in to promote a cause or not promote a cause?”
Haglund certainly didn’t start the Internet fire that ignited over the discounts. For years she had quietly given the discounts at the discretion of her serving staff and never made a big deal of it. Although they were called prayer discounts, they weren’t limited to people who prayed in a conventional sense but could be given to anyone who took time out to reflect before eating.
But when some out-of-town customers were pleasantly surprised to find themselves given a 15 percent discount for “Praying in Public,” as the receipt put it, they posted it on their Facebook pages and the issue went viral.
Haglund faced a deluge of comments from supporters and critics from all over the world. She caught the attention of a group called the Freedom from Faith Foundation, which told her she was breaking the law. Haglund decided to end the discounts.
On Thursday, Shama Blalock, Haglund’s daughter and a co-owner of the restaurant, said there was a chance that Mary’s could revive the discounts and fight any effort to stop them. Haglund said that she and her daughter talked things over and decided they wouldn’t enlist help from any of the lawyers who have been calling and offering to defend the restaurant and the prayer discounts.
And she’s learned a lot about the power of social media, she said.
“It has been a real eye-opening experience,” Haglund said. “People who have never been here and don’t know me say anything they want. It is a little creepy. People have called and said really mean and hateful things that don’t even know me.”
Struck a nerve
Horn said a lot of people actually set out to make something viral on the Internet, in hopes of drumming up business.
“In this case it was something that was absolutely unintentional, but as a result they have gained an incredible amount of notoriety,” Horn said. “They have handled it extremely well — they have not tried to make any pretense about it. Sometimes clients try to create these situations artificially, to create a buzz and grow their business. We are all still trying to figure out how to tame this social media tiger, and I don’t think anybody can.”
Horn and Haglund said that one danger is losing control of how people perceive you.
“When you enter that social media arena, all bets are off,” Horn said. “You have folks that are looking for confrontation, folks that are looking to adopt whatever you do to their own agenda.”
Kim Williams, the director of sales at Atlantic Webworks in Greensboro, a company that builds and markets websites, said he’s not surprised at how the prayer discount went viral.
“We know the things that make an impact,” he said. “It has got to be social and it has got to be personal. It has to be timely. You have a story about prayer, and that taps into the whole religious conversation that is rampant right now. It is a hot topic where you have conservative versus moderate and liberal mentalities. That allows people to immediately align for and against it.”
Like Horn, Williams gives Mary’s high marks for how the restaurant has handled the controversy.
“It is important to be listening,” he said. “If something like this does happen, treat it the same way you would if someone were standing right in front of you. There is a message that they are communicating by being honest about what transpired and responding to the possible legal consequences.”
Williams isn’t saying a business should give in to critics, rather it should “make sure that whichever way you choose to go you handle it well.”
“Businesses have to be careful,” he said. “They don’t have to be paranoid.”
Social media ‘amplifies the reality’
For Jonathan Hodges, the owner of Underdog Records, being careful means staying away from politics when it comes to social media.
Hodges enlisted the aid of Facebook viewers to help him make the decision to move his business from Robinhood Road to downtown Winston-Salem — a move that will come this fall.
“I don’t retweet anything political,” he said of the Twitter messaging service. “Even if I agree or disagree, regardless of my personal beliefs. On Twitter it is easy to make the mistake of linking your business to something.”
The risk, he said, is alienating customers who might have different beliefs from the ones he might endorse.
“A few years ago you could say things to your customers in the store, but that is not the case anymore,” he said.
Hodges said he doesn’t see how Mary’s could have handled the controversy any differently.
“That’s the thing about social media,” he said. “It is almost out of your hands what people do.”
Haglund describes herself as a spiritual person not connected with any particular religion. During the controversy, some nonreligious people accused her of trying to push faith, and some Christians held her up as a role model. Haglund said local people were always supportive, but it’s the opinions of those who don’t know her that are puzzling.
“I can’t explain how weird it feels that people all over the world are passing judgment on what I do in my little restaurant in North Carolina,” she said. “I’m not Joan of Arc — look what happened to her. We didn’t even expect it to get out there. It was small and private.”
Haglund said she’s pulled back on her web presence as she reflects on the craziness that enveloped her.
“I just want to make good food and be with happy people,” she said.
In reality, Williams said, social media only “amplifies the reality” that business owners are not really in full control of their destinies.
“What she lost is the illusion of control,” he said. “We never have had control of what our businesses are because word of mouth is supreme. It is your brand, not because of what you want it to be but because of what other people say about it.”