Late last month, Nathan Humphrey, director of the Georgia chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, went looking for a place to host his group’s endorsement of Republican nominee Brian Kemp for governor. The NFIB represents primarily small businesses, and so it made sense to find a location that embodied a scrappy upstart.
As it turned out, Humphrey used to live around the corner from Monday Night Brewing in northwest Atlanta, where he was once “almost a regular,” as he described it. The owners, he said, “are literally the nicest guys in the industry.” The NFIB was also in the corner of independent brewers when the state finally loosened the draconian regulations that had kept breweries from selling beer directly to consumers. The change in the law has helped usher in a renaissance of small breweries in Georgia, and Monday Night, which celebrated its seventh anniversary this summer, opened a second facility last year on the BeltLine in southwest Atlanta. “They’re good Georgia employers and they’re putting people to work,” said Humphrey, who called the brewery to put in the request.
The brewery owners—Joel Iverson, Jeff Heck, and Jonathan Baker—were conflicted. Baker, for one, wanted to turn down the request, even though the brewery itself wouldn’t be endorsing Kemp, but merely hosting the event. Kemp, after all, was a lightning rod. He’d won the Republican primary against Casey Cagle by tacking far to the right, a move that secured Donald Trump’s endorsement—as well as the fear and loathing of vast swaths of Georgians. In one ad, Kemp boasted that he’d use his truck to “round up criminal illegals.” In another ad, he leveled a shotgun toward a young man who wanted to date Kemp’s daughter. A ProPublica reporter claimed that he heard Kemp tell a room full of donors in 2016 after watching a presidential debate that “Trump should have gone over there and groped her.” Last December, Kemp announced that if he were governor, he’d sign so-called “religious freedom” legislation that would permit businesses to discriminate against customers whose beliefs and lifestyles differed from those of the business owners. (Gov. Nathan Deal twice vetoed similar measures. After the primary, Kemp moved to the center, saying he would veto any legislation that veered from the federal standard.)
Iverson argued that Monday Night should host the event. After all, the brewery’s origins were about inclusion, whether from the left or right. When the three founders had first gotten together to brew beer on Monday nights more than a decade ago, Iverson said, some of his favorite moments were the discussions that would occur among people who held vastly different views. Plus, the brewery had hosted plenty of politicians before, Democrats and Republicans. What’s more, brewery policy was not to endorse candidates anyway (though Iverson has given individually to candidates over the years). So they said yes to the NFIB and to Kemp.
For the event last Wednesday at the brewery’s original location in northwest Atlanta, Humphrey was expecting no more than a couple of reporters. But then the TV cameras came in. The coverage found its way to Twitter, where the reaction was swift.
“Terribly disappointed in @MondayNight,” wrote one user.
“Well this is a gut punch,” wrote another.
“Fuck @MondayNight,” wrote another.
One commenter, Sarah Lawrence, expounded: “Really loved @MondayNight for coming to our neighborhood and getting involved in our community, but crushed they’d host (and benefit from) a fundraiser for a racist, xenophobic candidate. If y’all don’t draw the line there, where will you draw it?”
“We did not fully anticipate how much it would blow back,” Iverson said on Thursday by phone. (For the record, Iverson said, the brewery took no money in exchange for NFIB’s use of its space.) Through social media, Iverson began reaching out. “We were not Kemp supporters, many of our employees are very against him, and we realized there was probably nothing but downside from a PR perspective to having him come here,” Iverson wrote. “But ultimately we decided to do it anyway because we felt it was more consistent with both our purpose as a company, and because we have never refused any politician coming to our facility as a policy.” Iverson went on, in one of his replies, to evoke Monday Night’s origins in homebrewing, when “it was pretty cool to see people having dialogue from a place of learning and curiosity vs. judgment and segregation.”
Iverson told me his biggest concern was the neighbors of their Garage, on the southwest side. He said one neighbor, a person of color, explained his concerns to Iverson this way: “Honestly, it’s not a Republican or a Democrat thing. It’s Kemp. As a person of color who’s not in the majority white culture, when I see someone like Kemp and I see him welcomed at your brewery, then I think maybe I’m not welcome at your brewery.”
Iverson acknowledged he had looked at the Kemp appearance through his own lens, and hadn’t done enough to see it from different perspectives. Iverson has invited those who were dismayed at Kemp’s appearance to the brewery, where the three owners will sit down and hear more about what they could have done differently. “I want us to be a place that is welcoming to everyone,” Iverson said, “but we also have to hear the people in the community around us and hear their concerns.”
Of course, one thing Monday Night could have done differently was say no from the outset. But Iverson’s not sure that, even with hindsight, he’d do that. “How do we engage politics in our business? You could say completely ignore it. But I don’t think that’s an option.”
Monday Night isn’t the only Atlanta business getting grief for wading into political waters. A photo of Joseph Hsiao, a co-owner of two Flying Biscuit Cafe restaurants in Atlanta, hosting Kemp at a Flying Biscuit in 2015 has garnered similar opprobrium on social media, with some even calling for a boycott of the restaurant. (Hsiao and his business also contributed $2,000 to Kemp over the years.) The contribution, Hsiao told Project Q Atlanta in a story published Thursday, was “misconstrued. We’re focused on [Kemp’s] four-point plant to work with small businesses like ours.” And last month, the Atlanta Braves caught grief for co-sponsoring a fundraiser for Kemp.
Of course, Americans vote not just at the polling place but with their dollars—where they spend, and where they choose not to spend. Iverson wonders how far it can go. “If a person says ‘No Monday Night, no Flying Biscuit,’ then who’s next? Probably fifty percent of the businesses in Atlanta have contributed in some capacity to Kemp or to a PAC supporting him.”
Eight days after Kemp’s appearance at Monday Night Brewing, Humphrey was still feeling bad over the unintended consequences for his favorite Atlanta brewers. “If I’d known any of this, I never would have picked the location,” he said. “As a small business, there are just so many liabilities. You have to be scared of your own shadow. You always have to watch your back. You think you’re helping and trying to be nice, and it ends up biting you.”
Update 9/14/18: On Friday morning, after publication of this story, Monday Night Brewing released an official statement of “Our Core Beliefs.”