WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — The Steinfeld family from Washington state found themselves staying in Winston-Salem overnight, and when they learned that the restaurant everyone’s talking about because of a prayer discount was here, they just had to go.
They weren’t alone. According to the Winston-Salem Journal, more than one diner at Mary’s Gourmet Diner on Thursday said they were there to support the restaurant after its namesake owner, Mary Haglund, found herself in the middle of an Internet-driven controversy over the discounts.
Some came to eat and made sure to offer a prayer. Some said they were not particularly religious but wanted to show their support for the “attitude of gratitude” that Haglund said was behind the discounts – now discontinued.
“We don’t hold hands but we pray over our food,” said Rebecca Steinfeld, who said she is a Christian. “We are religious people and have been taught to pray.”
The Steinfelds heard about the controversy on commentator Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News. So they went to Mary’s with Jonathan, their son.
“(O’Reilly) was mentioning Mary’s and said she was doing a good thing,” Matthew Steinfeld said. “We just happened to be coming through so we decided to eat the food.”
Haglund’s restaurant has been offering the discounts more or less randomly for years, but it went viral on the Internet when some out-of-town customers posted their receipt on their Facebook pages last week. The receipt showed them getting a 15 percent discount for “Praying in Public.”
Haglund found herself interviewed by national broadcasters and was besieged with comments – pro and con – on the Mary’s Gourmet Diner Facebook page. Comment-box warriors waged battles over prayer and religion, while Haglund fended off nasty phone calls and tried to explain that her intent had never been to push any particular religion, but to offer a “gift” to people who paused to pray – or just meditate or simply reflect – before digging into their meals.
Then the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation stepped in, sending Haglund a letter and issuing a news release, both making the case that it was illegal for Haglund to offer discounts for prayer.
The restaurant on Wednesday posted a notice on its door apologizing for any offense the discounts may have caused, and said they would no longer be offered.
Ben Boger, the restaurant’s marketing director, said he saw lots of people praying Thursday but that no one asked for the discount.
“We have had mixed emotions,” Boger said. “This gift has been taken away from us.” He went on to say that the restaurant hadn’t ever tried to call attention to the discount.
“It was about people taking a moment to separate themselves from the madness of the world,” Boger said.
Mary Johnson and Terra Snider shared a table Thursday and shared a prayer when their meal came. The women belong to the same Bible study group and decided to eat at Mary’s for the first time out of support for Haglund.
“We are sad that her choice to give this fine gift to people was taken away,” Johnson said. “There was a certain excitement when we decided to do this.”
Brad Budris, seated at a table with his wife Harda, said he is “not necessarily religious” but came to the restaurant for the first time Thursday to show support. The couple didn’t pray before their meal, he said.
“We saw it in the news and said we are going there,” he said, adding that he also heard that Mary’s was a good restaurant.
“She is the proprietor, and she should be able to do what she wants,” Budris said. “And if people aren’t happy, they don’t have to come.”
Budris and some other diners said they were actually going to add an extra 15 percent to their bills over and above the tip as a way of showing support for the restaurant.
Customer Ted Reeves said he heard about the flap over the prayer discount but didn’t realize it was at the very restaurant in which he was eating Thursday. He had no opinion on the discount.
“I don’t know about that but the food is awesome,” he said.