Pennsylvania restaurant receives backlash over sign with racist joke

Customers who noticed the sign have been respectfully asking the restaurant to remove it for years.
On Saturday, dozens of people organized on New Hope's Main Street in front of Fred's Breakfast Club.
On Saturday, dozens of people organized on New Hope's Main Street in front of Fred's Breakfast Club.Sue-Ann DiVito
/ Source: TODAY

A casual, members-only breakfast spot in New Hope, Pennsylvania came under fire this month for displaying a racist sign on its wall.

Fred's Breakfast Club of New Hope is a 31-seat, diner-style restaurant situated on the Delaware River alongside historic inns, biker bars and magic shops in New Hope. Among locals, it's known for its membership option, where regulars can pay $20 for a key to skip the line (of both members and non-members) seven days a week. But perhaps most famously, Fred's is known for its singing dogs (the first was named Fred) who howl the "Happy Birthday" song to customers inside the restaurant.

As an homage to Fred and all their dogs, owners Chris and Denise Bollenbacher (who also own the The Landing, a touristy restaurant adjacent to Fred's) decorate their breakfast spot with dog-themed memorabilia, some of which is given to them by members when they join. There's so many, it would be hard to read all the signs in one sitting. But one sign in particular has received backlash for displaying a racist joke.

On Sept. 8, a Fred's customer named Stacey Masters noticed the sign during her visit to the local haunt and posted a photo of it to a community Facebook page. The following day, Karen Downer, president of the Bucks County NAACP, shared Masters' photo, sparking outrage and support from many residents and anti-racism groups.

The sign reads:

"This morning I went to sign my Dogs up for welfare. At first the lady said, 'Dogs aren't eligible to draw welfare'. Then I explained to her that my dogs are mixed in color, unemployed, can't speak English and have no clue who their Daddies are. They expect me to feed them, provide them with housing, medical care, and feel guilty because they are dogs. So she looked in her policy book to see what it takes to qualify. MY Dogs get their first checks Friday. Damn this is a great country!"

"I for one was upset," Downer told TODAY Food. "I've known about their other restaurant, The Landing, for some time. I've given a friend a gift certificate. I'm personally offended that he (Bollenbacher) would think so little of his clientele — that he would think that something like that was funny."

One longtime Fred's member reached out to the restaurant on Facebook messenger Sept. 8 to confirm whether or not the sign was real. The mom of three, who asked to remain anonymous for her family's safety, after receiving many upsetting blocked calls and messages, told TODAY the restaurant verified that the racist sign was not only real, but that it had been there for 10 years.

On the afternoon of Sept. 8, the restaurant replied to a longtime member on Facebook messenger that the sign had been there for 10 years and told her to "get over it and have pancakes."Facebook / Anonymous Fred's member

While the member didn't know whether it was one of the Bollenbachers or a manager that replied to her, she told them she'd be putting her key in the trash and questioned their lack of concern for staff and customers affected by such a racist statement.

Instead of apologizing, the restaurant called its patron "the racist one" and told her to "get it over and have pancakes."

The restaurant has since removed its Facebook page and declined TODAY's request for comment.

When Kevin Leven, a New Hope resident who heads the Bucks County Anti-Racism Coalition, saw the post, he organized a protest to urge the Bollenbachers to issue a real apology and, as he put it, "do better."

On Saturday, dozens of people organized on New Hope's Main Street in front of Fred's and The Landing, and a restaurant employee and family member of the Bollenbachers, Caitlyn Fleming, met Leven at the protest to thank him for taking action peacefully. But she did not issue an apology on behalf of Fred's.

According to reviews on Yelp, customers who noticed the framed sign have been respectfully asking the restaurant to remove it for years.

In September 2018, reviewer "Michael L." wrote, "Food was good but the racist mess on the wall not so much."

And in November 2019, reviewer "graveskk" wrote, "The food and service are awesome! BUT! There is a horrible racist joke about welfare, mounted in a frame on the wall. Please get rid of that!"

In 2010, the same year the Bollenbachers hung the sign, the Washington Post reported the Chairman of the Virginia Beach Republican Party, David Bartholoemew, was forced to resign after forwarding the same racist welfare joke from his personal email.

Since Fred's of New Hope deleted its Facebook, it is unclear whether they have removed the sign or kept it framed and hanging. As of Tuesday, Leven was still waiting to hear from the owners on whether they'd work with his coalition to right their wrong.

"I don't want them to shut down. I like Fred's," Leven told TODAY. "I'm trying to help them do better, to move forward. We can all learn from this and get passed it in a way that's better for everyone, including them."