The family that operates Papa Tom’s Pizza, an old-school joint in Idaho Falls, Idaho, doesn’t care about your politics. They just want to feed you, whoever you are. But when a statewide coalition chose Papa Tom’s to host a petition drive related to a controversial ballot initiative, owner Kristopher Mueller, it seems, was the last to know.
Until the angry phone calls started pouring in.
The uproar serves as a reminder that pizza and politics can be a volatile mix in these polarized times, especially when you run an apolitical business. On the other hand, a busy pizzeria staff doesn’t have time—or, typically, any reason—to vet every group reservation. So what do you do when word gets out that your pizzeria inadvertently hosted an event that’s guaranteed to make some customers angry?
In Papa Tom’s case, Mueller worked to defuse the PR crisis by giving a candid interview to Local News 8 and setting the record straight. His story demonstrates the value of cultivating a positive and forthright relationship with your hometown news media. After all, what happened at Papa Tom’s could happen at any pizza restaurant that’s known as a favorite gathering spot for community events.
Papa Tom’s has been deeply embedded in the Idaho Falls community since it opened in 1983. Prior to that, the founder, Papa Tom himself, owned other pizzerias, such as the Gaslamp and the Gay Nineties, starting in 1964. It’s the kind of cozy, unpretentious and family-friendly spot that will warm you up with a bowl of soup or a plate of spaghetti in the winter and regularly wins local best-pizza contests and dining awards.
So when an organization called Idahoans for Open Primaries wanted to hold a meeting in a place that Idaho Falls locals knew and loved, Papa Tom’s must have seemed like the obvious choice. As Local News 8 reports, the group announced in a press release last month that it would meet there on Saturday, January 27, to gather signatures for a petition supporting the Open Primaries Initiative. If adopted, the initiative will put an end to Idaho’s closed primary elections, listing all candidates, regardless of their political affiliation, on an open primary ballot, with the top four vote-getters moving on to the general election, according to Boise State Public Radio.
Idahoans for Open Primaries reserved the pizzeria’s sunroom for their signature-gathering session, but Mueller told Local News 8 that no one on his team knew the gathering’s nature and purpose.
“They didn’t tell us [or] tell management,” Mueller said in the interview. “They didn’t tell anyone when they made the reservation that it was part of a broader group and that they were going to be hosting a signature drive solely at our location in Bonneville County, which is just bizarre to me, that you wouldn’t tell.”
Mueller and his team were alerted to the controversy when the pizzeria’s phones began ringing—and not just with orders from pizza-loving customers. “We started getting phone calls from people who were mad that we were endorsing something that was so polarizing,” Mueller told Local News 8. “We weren’t endorsing [it], and it wasn’t something that we knew anything about.”
He was so taken by surprise, Mueller said, he thought the first angry call was just a prank.
Adding to the problem: Idahoans for Open Primaries planned for about 20 people to show up. But the event attracted a lot more people than that—on a day that’s already the busiest of the week for Papa Tom’s—and overwhelmed the restaurant’s staff.
In a statement to Local News 8, Idahoans for Open Primaries said Papa Tom’s was chosen for the meeting because it’s “a beloved Idaho Falls institution that has often served as a community space for meetings, volunteer events and town hall-style gatherings. This event was no different.”
The organization noted that its local members “looked for a local small business venue offering a central location, ample space and delicious food [that] was well-known so citizens could learn more about the initiative.”
Mueller approached Local News 8 after the event, seeking an opportunity to clear the air. In the interview, he took no stand on the ballot initiative, for or against. Instead, he focused on his restaurant’s political neutrality and his team’s inability to prepare for such a large influx of additional customers on a Saturday. “We didn’t schedule any extra employees,” he said. “We didn’t, you know, anticipate that our parking lot would have a lot of people coming in just to sign signatures.”
“We’re not political,” he said, “but we do serve everyone across the spectrum. I mean, all we care about is, are you hungry? Do you like pizza?”
In addition to the TV interview, Mueller placed a large sign in the restaurant’s window that declared, “We are not holding any ballot initiative petition. We are not associated with 107.9. Sorry for [any] confusion.” (NewsTalk 107.9 is a politically oriented talk-radio station for eastern Idaho.)
Judging from advice previously offered by Linda Duke, a former PMQ columnist and restaurant marketing consultant, Papa Tom’s handled this tricky situation correctly. “Don’t go into denial mode or see the situation as ‘us vs. them,’” she advised. “Present the facts forthrightly to the press and always be available to correct any mistakes reporters may make. Your message should be clear, straightforward and candid. Go through exactly what happened and exactly what you’ve done to prevent further incidents. Getting through the first 48 hours will be the hard part; after that, you’ll likely come out OK.”
As a follow-up to smooth out ruffled feathers, Duke recommended hosting a customer appreciation day with food and drink specials, contests and raffle prizes or organizing a fundraiser for a nonprofit that’s embraced by the entire community.