Mary’s Gourmet Diner won’t reignite controversy over prayer discounts

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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.”


  • JB

    It’s a shame that one or two selfish atheists can ruin a neat and really uncontroversial act because of their own selfish agendas.

    • Mark

      It’s an even bigger shame when one religion or another destroys entire countries, yet you continue to cling to your guns and bibles.

      • JB

        Mark; You must be stupid. If cannot look around you and see that the LACK of God in this country is sending it to hell, your family tree must not fork.

      • Chuck

        Yeah Mark, can’t you see that the LACK of something that doesn’t exist is sending the country to a place that doesn’t exist. You’re so stuuuuupid, Mark.

      • Kevin C.

        I guess you don’t have to be told the difference between quiet, peaceful contemplation before consuming a meal and beheading someone in the name of religion, right?

  • NobodyAtAll

    The world would be such a happier place if humans could just mind their own freaking G damned business..My cheeseburger is $4.00 and yours is $3.00…Guess what people, it’s not a big deal and I don’t freaking care!

    • SamStone

      White diners get a $3 hamburger, Black diners get charged $4. Is that fair too? A place of public a accommodation cannot discriminate in services to customers based on race or religion. Courts have ruled that providing discount to some religious practices is discrimination. They are not stopped from praying. They just can’t get a discount.

  • Terri Freeman

    I am sick to death that we have to deny our God in our country! Do they pay taxes? Do they discriminate on color? Is there freedom of religion? Is it their business and they pay their bills? Well, what right does the government have to tell you what you can or can’t do – maybe they want to pay their bills? This is ridiculous! There are plenty of businesses that give cheaper prices to their own color – Go Somewhere Else if you don’t like it. There are always people that find something to complain about – Grow Up and Quit Whinig!

  • FaithC

    I am disappointed she will not take a stand against the group who claims she is breaking the law. If we all just accept what others say and do not challenge them, we all lose.
    I rather spend my money in a place that takes a stand on what they believe.

    • shama blalock

      FAITHNC…i am the owner of the restaurant and the designer of the discount, but I am also an American woman. And without the Civil Rights Act of 1964 this may not have been possible. I have not lost my right to pray in public in my restaurant, I have been asked to uphold the laws of the country in which I have this freedom.

  • M.H. Butler

    First and foremmost I would ask a question of the owners? Do you believe in God and are you wiling to stand for him under any circumstances?? Obviously the prayer discount was your idea of blessing the individuals who took time to pray and if that is what you were “lead” to do, then YOU SHOULD CONTINUE THE DISCOUNT! Excuse my language but, come hell or high water dont deny God or your faith! Your business practices are yours to choose. In my opinion it seems that posting a sign or display of some sort to acknowlede the chosen practice should cover any legal issues. Check with an attorney to be sure. Although you may not want to be in the spotlight, you have been placed there perhaps with a divine mission. If there are patrons who do not like the rules, then it would be their choice to to dine elsewhere. Even if you are in the midst of those who do not believe in God, how much does it hurt them to hear a prayer of thanks to Him, compared to the filth and trash talk that most indivduals are accustomed to, whether in real life or TV, etc. In the end it is your choice, but remember who has got your back on this! I believe that Jesus is watching, along with our Father to see how you, as one of his people, will stand today. My prayers are with you and I believe also that if you pray and listen, God will lead you on the right path and be a hedge around you all the way!

    • Ken

      Did you ever stop and think that maybe they felt that god said now is not the time and this is not the place because by allowing it freely, everyone will now pray in there expecting that discount, whether the prayer was genuine or not? Once again, you “believers” think this whole deal was about the allowing of prayer when it was really about the business being selective about which prayers would even get said discount. The practice itself, and not whether someone was praying or not, was the legal issue. You would do well to understand the difference instead of using your god to make someone feel guilty for making their own decisions.

  • hm...idiocy everywhere

    If one prays before eating spaghetti…Does that mean they are ingesting the spaghetti monster’s son, sent to earth to redeem us?

  • Jan Dabek

    Spray this idea for all restaurants, services, stores. airflight – every budy who will pray boarding on the airplain receive 15% discout

  • Ron

    Democrats want to tell every one what to do and how to do it, these liberal scum just want to take your hard earned money and give it to the free loaders and illegals cuz they don’t give their own fair share.

    • JB

      Amen, Ron! You are exactly correct! It’s so ironic that libs say they want freedom for all but are the most tyrannical, socialistic, and legalistic people in the country. I pray their power goes down the toilet soon.

    • JT

      Says the guy who: 1. Wants to tell women what they can or can’t do with their bodies, 2. Wants to tell people who they can and cannot marry, 3. Wants to tell people which chemicals they can put in their bodies, 4. Further, moralizes these chemicals (assigns a moral precedence where there is none), 5. Wants a police state, etc. Sorry, the old days are dead–you are a speedbump (or, more accurately, a pothole) on the highway of progress. This ain’t the Andy Griffith show–if you want that, adjust your Craftmatic bed, take your feeble, arthritic hands, grab the remote, and see if you can read the numbers without your glasses and find MeTV. The rest of us will be content to live in the 21st century without you.

  • Stephen J. Enns, MD

    Mary should ask her local judge if she could just just quietly consider letting each staff give a coupon that customers can use that day or come back next visit to encourage repeat business. The coupon could say “thanks for” or “I saw you”… praying before your meal, kids that behaved well, stacking the dishes for the busboy, leaving a nice tip, etc… (one of many things, which could avoid controversy and avoid high priced lawyers and court fees). As a Child Psychiatrist, I often share the “I saw you being good” technique, which is quite effective to teach children manners. (Something that a few of the folks leaving comments on this site could use more of ;-)

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