Should A Business Reflect The Values Of Its Owner?

Anne Verrill, Americus Reed and Amy Sepinwall discuss the role of values in running a business.

The night in June before a gunman opened fire in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people, Anne Verrill was hosting 300 patrons at Grace, her restaurant in Portland, Maine, to kick-start gay pride week there. The devastating violence more than 1,400 miles away hit so close to home that it spurred her to action. Verrill took to social media, posting on Facebook that customers owning high-powered semiautomatic rifles would not be welcomed at Grace or Foreside Tavern, her second restaurant in Falmouth, Maine. A blizzard of negative comments followed, along with shows of support. The situation drew the attention of The New York Times and thrust Verrill into the national spotlight on the raging debate over gun control.

She recently spoke about her experience on the [email protected] show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111, where she was joined by Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed and legal studies and business ethics professor Amy Sepinwall, who discussed the broader implications of business owners making such statements.

Gun Laws
Photo by AK Rockefeller

Listen to the segment using the player at the top of this page. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

[email protected]: Anne, how does your policy play out in your restaurants?

Anne Verrill: I’m not going to frisk you on your way in. It was more of a statement of, “I completely disagree with this. I am so saddened by the events that are in America. If this is your way of thinking, and if you are one of the people standing in between me and responsible gun laws, then I don’t want you here. You would probably be happier spending your money somewhere else.” It was more of a statement to lend my support to responsible gun control laws and for people to understand that I had just had enough.

[email protected]: Any story that comes forth about guns or gun laws is going to make news. You made this statement and probably didn’t expect to get as much attention as you have received. What has been the reaction like?

Verrill: It’s really an interesting sort of study of my own to watch this. When I first posted the Facebook post, it was like a torrent of complete crazy, crazy, crazy reactions where people said terrible things. You know, “Never step foot in my restaurant.” They were from all over the country, and it was immediate. Fast forward a month and The New York Times does a story, and the reaction is completely the opposite. It’s over-the-top positive. It’s so much more calm, respectful questions from people who didn’t agree with me. It’s really interesting how the media played out in that circumstance.

[email protected]: Anne is making a personal statement, not a political one, about a particular type of gun. Yet when you think about the culture in the United States, it’s played out in the political realm.

Amy Sepinwall: One of the immediate objections that people raise is, “Well, wait a minute, if you are going to be allowed to deny service to owners of a certain kind of gun, how are we then going to be able to condemn the baker or the photographer who wants to deny service to the gay couple who’s getting married?” One line of response is, “Being gay or lesbian is a central aspect of a person’s identity in a way that gun ownership isn’t.” But if that were true, I don’t think you’d see the kind of vehement pushback that Anne got. There are a lot of gun owners who take gun ownership to be quite central to their identity, to their conception of what it means to be an American, to their commitment to liberty as they envision that commitment. Trying to draw the line between discriminating against someone on the basis of their status or their identity and then discriminating against somebody on the basis of the choices they make — that’s a blurry line at times.

“If you are one of those people who believes vehemently that nothing should change, then I just can’t accept that.”–Anne Verrill

[email protected]: Which is something, Anne, that you are not doing at this point. You’re not trying to discriminate against people.

Verrill: No, and I can’t. If somebody comes in and has an assault rifle with them, then certainly I am going to send them on their way. Other than that, there is no way for me to tell. Again, it comes down to me making a stance, not me sitting there and actually denying service. The whole baker situation drives me absolutely crazy. I have had probably 400 emails about that. Being gay or the color of your skin or the many other things that puts you in a protected class is totally opposite than the choice to own a gun. And not just a gun, the choice to own an assault rifle. So, that entire argument just drives me absolutely crazy. I think it’s apples and oranges.

Americus Reed: It sounds like what you are saying is that there is something that has to do with your inability to choose the action that is related to your responsibility in responding to someone who is in support or not in support of that action. Is that the argument?

Verrill: I hesitate to lump it like that because I am not saying that you can’t think a certain way and that you currently can’t possess that firearm. My problem is that at this point in our society, something has to change. If you are one of those people who believes vehemently that nothing should change, then I just can’t accept that. If you are honestly standing in the way of real change, then I don’t even want to deal with you. Because in a restaurant and in a bar, you’re in a very specific environment in which people feel like they can say and do anything and that you are supposed to sit there and give them service with a smile. As I’m standing behind my bar and I’m hearing the most ridiculous things coming out of people’s mouths, I have just grinned and said nothing for years and years and years and years. Now, I’m saying something.

[email protected]: Was there a tipping point for you, Anne?

Verrill: Oh, absolutely. The night before Orlando, my restaurant, Grace, for our third year in a row shut the restaurant down and had the kick off to our Pride Week in Portland. The entire restaurant was filled with 300 gay and other people that supported Pride, and they had a dance party for four hours. The next night was Orlando. So I was in a position that was no different from that beautiful club that was then shot up. It was so close to home. And it was literally back to back, and I was just done.

[email protected]: Outside of the back and forth on social media, have you seen any reaction at your restaurant, specifically?

Verrill: The only

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