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Local business criticized over DeVos visit

By Toni Milbourne - For the Chronicle | Oct 9, 2020

Black Dog Coffee Company, a popular local business in Shenandoah Junction, received harsh criticism for posting a photo welcoming Education Secretary Betsy DeVos last week. Toni Milbourne

SHENANDOAH JUNCTION — Black Dog Coffee Company, a popular coffee spot in Shenandoah Junction, received criticism on social media last week, after posting a photograph of United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at their establishment, when she visited Jefferson County last week.

Hundreds of comments were made on the Facebook post, many of which called for a boycott of the local business, because the original post said the business was “thrilled” to have DeVos visit. Many of the posts blasted owners Jennifer and Brian Bircher for allegedly siding with a political figure they deemed harmful to the education of children.

In addition, the Birchers were also called out, because in the photograph, the three of them were not wearing face masks.

Comments ranged from everything, including that the business should never have allowed DeVos to patronize it, to a call for a complete boycott of the business. Many comments said the Black Dog staff should never have posted the photos, including those featuring Devos speaking to members of a homeschool group that meets at the location.

“Unfortunate that I’ll have to stop buying your products after seeing this,” wrote one commenter.

“I will not be coming to your establishment ever again. This woman is an utter disgrace and has destroyed so much of our education systems. You are a supreme disappointment,” another commenter wrote.

Still another wrote, “So sad to see this. I really love your coffee but can’t put money towards 1. A business that supports such awful politics. 2. You don’t have on masks?”

To address these and other concerns, Brian provided a written response early this week, which he hoped would clear up some “blatant misconceptions.” He also took the opportunity in it, to thank community members who spoke up in defense of the coffee company.

“We have to say that reading the many negative comments was quite shocking, disappointing and at times painful,” Brian wrote in a statement, posted on the company’s Facebook page.

“That you looked at a photo and a caption, took it out of the context of the many similar photos and comments we have posted of notable guests over the years, and drew so many false conclusions and made so many unfair accusations, is just beyond belief,” he continued.

According to Brian, the company has consistently endeavored to make all patrons feel welcome, by providing quality products and partnering with community efforts.

“Our philosophy has always been to give that same support back, to be useful to our community. To help wherever we could,” Brian wrote. “Another key element has been that we feel businesses and politics need to have a wide separation. Not only because it would be pretty silly for a business to automatically turn off half their potential customers. But also because a business like ours should be a place where people can come to relax and enjoy the best things our wonderful area has to offer, chat with their neighbors and just get away from all the daily stresses in our lives.”

Brian stressed the property is never used to promote any political candidate or position, and that everyone is welcome where they can participate in free speech and free thought.

“It has never been a secret that Jennifer and I are Conservative,” Brian said. “We are the same people we have always been. And it has never been a problem.”

Brian refuted claims that DeVos’ visit was “a planned PR stunt.”

“Prior to her visit, we had very little notice,” Brian said.

“We can assure you that Secretary DeVos, and the rest of us, wore masks properly when the situation called for it,” he said, mentioning the only time DeVos was not social distancing or wearing a mask, was for a few quick photographs. “The Secretary and her group arrived in masks and kept them in place while touring the shop. She took it off when seated at the table for coffee, and put it on again until we went outside for photos. During that time, most of us took our masks off, as we were outside in the sunshine and distanced from each other.”

While Brian said he knew his statement may not change the minds of those who have called on a boycott of his business, he said he hoped it would remind community members that criticizing and boycotting the business would not only hurt his family, but also the local residents he employs.

“You may well succeed in damaging us,” Brian said. “However, I would like you to think about what that means. It’s not just about us. We are a local business, not some faceless corporation concerned only about profits.

“We hire local people (who are not screened for political or religious leanings and who come from all walks of life),” Brian said. “These 22 members of our Black Dog Family mean the world to us. They and their families depend on their jobs and are proud to do them and to serve you. You hurt them. How about the 43 local producers whose products we carry (who are not screened for their political or religious leanings and who come from all walks of life)? You hurt them and their families.”

“If you were one who had decided to boycott our business, we hope you will reconsider. If not, we understand. We will cherish the memories and wish you well,” Brian said. “We still love you, and you are welcome back any time!”