food-on-the-trail

Food on the trail: Why Obama, Romney must visit this diner

Oct. 22, 2012 at 2:47 PM ET

Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images /
President Barack Obama greets patrons at The Sink Restaurant and Bar April 24, 2012 in Boulder, Colo.

There's no doubt that food is political. Just look at Scott Van Duzer, whose Florida pizza shop was boycotted and got a slew of negative Yelp reviews after a photo showing him bear-hugging President Obama went viral earlier this year. Luckily, all is not lost, as Van Duzer scored himself an invite to Monday night's presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla., BuzzFeed reports. 

Often, being a campaign stop can be a boon for restaurants — especially if they know how to work it right. And seeing as how the candidates seem to spend half their time in barbecue joints, ice cream shops and pancake houses to prove just how all-American they are, it's important to stand out as one of the hottest restaurant stops on the campaign trail. Here, we look at the rules for being a successful campaign restaurant — as well how to deal with some candidates' food faux pas. 

1. Get an autograph

The Sink Restaurant and Bar, Boulder, Colo.

Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” host Guy Fieri visited The Sink Restaurant and Bar just a few months before President Obama made a surprise visit this spring, but general manager Ricardo Ramos told TODAY.com that the president gave the Boulder, Colo., bar an even bigger boost than the celeb chef. “We were riding a good wave,” Ramos said, “but when the president comes to your restaurant, everyone wants to come.” All celebs who visit The Sink sign the ceiling or wall, and people now come just to take a photo of where Obama signed. “It’s like a shrine,” Ramos said. And when Obama came back to town a few months later, he gave The Sink a shout-out in a speech. “He mentioned our pizza again. People think he’s on our payroll,” Ramos joked. “But he’s from Chicago. He knows good pizza.”

Joe Raedle / Getty Images /
Former Goc. Romney stops at Hudson Smokehouse whole campaigning, and scores himself some take out.

2. Sneak 'em your best dish

Hudson’s Smokehouse, Lexington, S.C.

If you want to convey a candidate’s down-home side, as every campaign does, it’s essentially to stop at as many barbecue joints possible. One popular joint: Hudson’s Smokehouse in the Republican stronghold of Lexington, S.C. Nearly every candidate came by during the primary this time, said founder Robin Hudson. Mike Huckabee drew the largest crowd — about 500 people — and remains Hudson’s favorite of the bunch, though he notes Herman Cain and former Gov. Mitt Romney were also very personable. “We’re just local yocals, so if they need a place to draw a crowd, this is it,” Hudson says of his barbecue joint, which serves it all — ribs, mac and cheese, okra, peach cobbler. When Romney visited, Hudson recommended the fried catfish, though he opted for the pulled pork. “I snuck some catfish into his bag anyway,” Hudson said.

3. Be the diner that predicts winners

Lindy’s Diner, Keene, N.H.

If a candidate doesn’t visit Lindy’s Diner, they’re doomed to lose — or so says co-owner Nancy Petrillo. The evidence is pretty convincing: Both Bushes, Bill Clinton and President Obama have all made stops at the Keene, N.H., diner. Hillary Clinton was slated to visit the diner twice during her bid for the presidential nomination in 2008, but never came — and she lost, Petrillo reminds us. Diners in general make great campaign stops though, she said, because they draw everyone from young professionals to senior citizens on a fixed income. “It’s a great cross-section of the community. Everyone comes to the diner.” Mitt Romney has not visited the diner, Petrillo notes, though his boys have been in. “If he wins, we’ll have to extend the rule to include family of the candidate,” she joked.  

Courtesy Tom's Ice Cream Bowl /
Former Gov. Romney campaigning at Tom's Ice Cream bowl in Ohio.

4.Have a memorable flavor

Tom’s Ice Cream Bowl, Zanesville, Ohio

Fans of HBO’s comedy “Veep” will remember the scene where Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ vice presidential character spends all day over-analyzing which flavor she’ll order during a photo-op at an ice cream shop. Luckily for any candidate passing through, Tom’s Ice cream Bowl in Zanesville, Ohio, serves a White House flavor, which owner Bill Sullivan recommended during Mitt Romney’s visit in August. “He was familiar with it. He said, ‘Oh yes, that’s vanilla with cherry,’ ” Sullivan said. The only downside to hosting a presidential candidate is all the security—metal detectors are set up and bomb-sniffing dogs come through — but it was all well worth it, he said. The party also compensated him for lost business that day, he notes, and the shop saw an uptick over the next four or five days. “It was a good PR move. Our name got out there all over the country.”

5. Be the gimmick

Waffle House, Spartanburg, S.C.

The Southern chain Waffle House found itself at the middle of a political controversy back in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush’s aides put on a press event at a Waffle House in Spartanburg, S.C., following a speech that included a zinger about how Bill Clinton would “turn the White House into a Waffle House.” The Clinton campaign retaliated two days later by distributing bright yellow fake menus with dishes like a “Pay Raise Soufflé.” Today, the breakfast chain’s locations remain popular stops on the circuit for both sides of the aisle. “Waffle House is usually the community gathering place and we welcome any candidates to stop by,” spokesperson Kelly Thrasher told TODAY.com.

6. Let them get rowdy

Main Street Diner, Council Bluffs, Iowa

It’s a wonder more restaurants don’t get trashed on the campaign trail — what with the security detail, television cameras and hoards of fans—but it does happen. Dianne Bauer, owner of the Main Street Diner in Council Bluffs, Iowa, told a local TV station that Mitt Romney’s team broke sentimental family photos and left a gouge in the roof after the candidate’s roundtable discussion there this summer. Romney made a phone call to Bauer to apologize, though Bauer has vowed to never allow another political event in her establishment.

7. Don't trip over the tip

Big T Maid-Rite, Toledo, Iowa

One not-to-miss dish if you’re traveling through Iowa—especially if you’re running for president — is a Maid-Rite loose meat sandwich. But if you are running for president and do stop, learn from the mistakes of Hillary Clinton’s team back in 2007 and make sure you leave a tip. Conflicting reports exist until this day, but as the story goes, other tables in her party tipped, but hers did not, said manager Brad Crawford. “You know as well as I do that these candidates aren’t running around with money in their pocket, and others are supposed to take care of it. It was just an oversight,” he told TODAY.com. The bigger deal to Crawford is the pressure that these unannounced stops put on the kitchen. “There’s no advice you can give [to a restaurant],” Crawford said. “Just handle it like any other business. There’s no difference between [a candidate] and any other customer walking through the door.”

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