A spice company CEO took a stand against bigotry. It turned out to be good for business.

On Nov. 15, 2016, Bill Penzey, CEO of Penzeys Spices, unloaded on Donald Trump's rhetoric in the company newsletter.

Photo by Ty Wright/Getty Images.

In the letter, Penzey called out the president-elect for promoting bigotry on the campaign trail, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report.


"The open embrace of racism by the Republican Party in this election is now unleashing a wave of ugliness unseen in this country for decades," Penzey wrote. "The American people are taking notice. Let's commit to giving the people a better choice. Our kindness really is our strength."

Both supporters and detractors flooded the Facebook post with the comments. Some threatened to boycott the spice company.

Penzey issued a statement clarifying that he didn't intend to indict all Republicans, though he refused to back down from his condemnation of Trump, calling the president-elect an "openly racist candidate."

That was two weeks ago. In a follow-up message posted yesterday, the company insists its customers have rallied behind it and urges other CEOs to speak out to defend an inclusive, tolerant America.

A Penzeys Spices store in Michigan. Photo by Lola Audu/Flickr.

In the post, Penzey wrote that since his original post, results for the business have been mixed but mostly positive. The company claims to have lost 3% of its customers following the initial post, but saw an increase in online sales of nearly 60%.

The CEO said that despite the backlash, he has no regrets about speaking up:

"Our customers come from all walks of life. The kindness of cooks knows no borders or divides. In the aftermath of the election, seeing the intentional damage inflicted on so many outside the white heterosexual male world, we raised our voice. We felt we had to. We did this because we are Penzeys. The Spice business is so intertwined with history that it's not really possible to have one without the other. It became clear to us that we are now in a moment history will long have its eyes upon. For the sake of our customers, and for the sake of future generations, we felt the time had come to stand on the right side of history."

He concluded the post with an appeal to his fellow business leaders:

"In this moment there is finally the real chance to unite our nation in our shared rejection of sexism, homophobia, and racism. This is your chance to stand up for America's values and make January a tent pole in your company's history. Opportunities to do the right thing at the time when doing the right thing makes all the difference come once in a lifetime. Make your history proud."

Standing up against bigotry and discrimination shouldn't be a left or right issue — no matter who the offender is.

Progressives, moderates, and conservatives all have a stake in this country and its bedrock ideals: inclusion, pluralism, freedom of expression, and democracy. Indeed, opposition to Trump's divisive rhetoric continues to flow in from across the political spectrum.

Penzey, for his part, sees hope in the response his posts generated — even from those who loudly opposed his views.

"Yes, they send emails of rage, and ALL CAPS, and bad language with the hope of creating the perception that they are bigger than they really are. But what we learned is that, in terms of retail spending, Donald Trump simply has no one supporting his views for America," the CEO wrote. "He has no constituency. America's Values, on the other hand, have a really sizable constituency, and that constituency moves quickly to support those that stand up for the values of America.

Given the rise in hate violence and threats since Nov. 8, it may be wishful thinking to say that intolerance and bigotry have no support. Still, Penzey deserves credit for risking the ire of his customers to fight back against them.

Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images.

While the company's sales surge post-newsletter is further evidence that bigotry and division are bad for business, it also demonstrates that hope and inclusion can be a winning sales pitch.

Fixing the division that erupted in this country post-election is going to take individual action, organizing, and more companies like Penzeys flexing their financial muscle. Increasingly, many are: Kellogg's, 3M, and Vanguard pulled their ads from Breitbart (Trump adviser Steve Bannon's former employer) earlier this week, albeit for various reasons.

The distrust and unease unleashed by the campaign — and the rhetoric since — has opened up a wound in this country that needs to be healed.

It will only happen if we come together — left, right, liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, individuals and big corporations, workers and CEOs — to defend the values that make America America.

True

When Molly Reeser was a student at Michigan State University, she took a job mucking horse stalls to help pay for classes. While she was there, she met a 10-year-old girl named Casey, who was being treated for cancer, and — because both were animal lovers — they became fast friends.

Two years later, Casey died of cancer.

"Everyone at the barn wanted to do something to honor her memory," Molly remembers. A lot of suggestions were thrown out, but Molly knew that there was a bigger, more enduring way to do it.

"I saw firsthand how horses helped Casey and her family escape from the difficult and terrifying times they were enduring. I knew that there must be other families who could benefit from horses in the way she and her family had."

Molly approached the barn owners and asked if they would be open to letting her hold a one-day event. She wanted to bring pediatric cancer patients to the farm, where they could enjoy the horses and peaceful setting. They agreed, and with the help of her closest friends and the "emergency" credit card her parents had given her, Molly created her first Camp Casey. She worked with the local hospital where Casey had been a patient and invited 20 patients, their siblings and their parents.

The event was a huge success — and it was originally meant to be just that: a one-day thing. But, Molly says, "I believe Casey had other plans."

One week after the event, Molly received a letter from a five-year-old boy who had brain cancer. He had been at Camp Casey and said it was "the best day of his life."

"[After that], I knew that we had to pull it off again," Molly says. And they did. Every month for the next few years, they threw a Camp Casey. And when Molly graduated, she did the most terrifying thing she had ever done and told her parents that she would be waitressing for a year to see if it might be possible to turn Camp Casey into an actual nonprofit organization. That year of waitressing turned into six, but in the end she was able to pull it off: by 2010, Camp Casey became a non-profit with a paid staff.

"I am grateful for all the ways I've experienced good luck in my life and, therefore, I believe I have a responsibility to give back. It brings me tremendous joy to see people, animals, or things coming together to create goodness in a world that can often be filled with hardships."

Camp Casey serves 1500 children under the age of 18 each year in Michigan. "The organization looks different than when it started," Molly says. "We now operate four cost-free programs that bring accessible horseback riding and recreational services to children with cancer, sickle cell disease, and other life-threatening illnesses."

Keep Reading Show less