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After war with NRA, business is booming at Ellen's diner in Dallas

May 12,2018 17:15

A week after the conventioneers left, the bomb threats and news crews have mostly stopped coming in. The mean internet comments and bad Yelp reviews are still a problem. "You are traitors to America," a man wrote on Facebook. This is what it's like for ...and more »



A week after the conventioneers left, the bomb threats and news crews have mostly stopped coming in. The mean internet comments and bad Yelp reviews are still a problem.
"You are traitors to America," a man wrote on Facebook.
This is what it's like for Ellen's, a West End brunch spot that put itself at the center of America's gun debate by telling customers attending the National Rifle Association's annual meeting downtown that the restaurant would donate a portion of its proceeds last week to support "reasonable and effective gun regulations."
On a recent morning, as diners lingered over coffee and eggs and Norah Jones tunes played, Joe Groves, Ellen's owner, chuckled at the words he'd added to his receipts.

A check of Ellen's Facebook or Yelp page reveals a war of words between those who support owner Joe Groves' message in support of gun regulations on Ellen's receipts during the NRA Annual Meeting and others who took offense.  Some have threatened violence. 
(Rose Baca/Staff Photographer)

To Groves, the words were benign. Gun rights advocates didn't see it that way.
"I was prepared to go to tables and talk about it all weekend long," Groves said. "I never thought it was going to be an international news story."
Now, he's done 37 interviews with reporters. His Yelp page was flooded with 900 new reviews from dueling NRA fans and gun control activists who'd never eaten there. His Facebook page had thousands of comments, and he'd picked up a few too many phone calls to hear a voice on the other end threatening to shoot up Ellen's.
As Groves ambled between booths Thursday, his restaurant yet again became the lead story on NRA TV, the NRA's Dallas-based online streaming channel that increasingly plays a key role in firing up the gun group's base.
"This is business suicide," said Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent and NRA TV host. "This may work in New York, but it ain't gonna work in Dallas. What a dumb move."

Meanwhile, a table of three office workers sat down to eat at Ellen's. One had seen the news and wanted to support the place.
"You got one side screaming and yelling this, and another side screaming and yelling that," said Brady Sharp. "That's America today."
Reservations 
Tall with a bushy mustache, Groves, 54, grew up in Fort Worth, when it seemed like everyone drove a pickup with a gun rack. His family hunts. His father owned guns. He'd never cared much about guns or even politics. Before opening Ellen's in 2012 with two partners, he worked in textiles and concert pyrotechnics.

Joe Groves is managing partner at Ellen's in Dallas, which has found itself at the center of the national gun rights debate after he posted a pro-gun regulation message on the restaurant's receipts during the NRA Annual Meeting. 
(Ron Baselice/Staff Photographer)

His feelings on the gun debate crystallized after July 7, 2016, when a gunman ambushed police during a protest just blocks from Ellen's front door. Five officers were murdered. Officers he'd served. Officers he knew.

It struck him, he said, that the NRA's idea of "good guys with guns" being the solution to end mass shootings was seriously flawed. Dozens of armed officers downtown weren't able to stop the shooter, who had body armor and a semi-automatic rifle.
"We had trained marksmen down there — not a citizens' brigade — who could not contain this kid because of the firepower he had," Groves said.
There must be a way, Groves thought, to protect people's right to self-defense, while stopping more dangerous people from acquiring mass-killing machines. He grew increasingly frustrated with the NRA's no-compromise stance on gun regulations. He saw the group — which represents about 7 percent of American gun owners — as extremists.
"The NRA to the Second Amendment is like Westboro Baptist Church to the Bible," Groves said, referring to the Kansas church known for picketing soldiers' funerals.

Inside NRA TV, where the gun group spreads alarm and keeps lawmakers in line

In late March, weeks before the NRA convention, NRA members started calling Ellen's to book large group dinners. Groves felt conflicted.
"Dilemma," he posted on Facebook. "Taking lots of NRA money in the form of group reservations while they're in Dallas, or taking a stand and telling them all to [expletive] off."
"It's blood money," a friend replied.
"How about a message on the bottom of our guest checks?" Groves responded. "Subtle, but there for all to see."
He mulled it over.
Dinner insults
The NRA convention started May 3, a Thursday. That night, a table of four white men wearing NRA convention lanyards came in. Gradually, Groves heard complaints from his staff about the group. A black manager said he was asked: "You don't sound black — where you from, India?"
A Hispanic server told Groves one of them asked him: "Do you keep the illegals in the back?"
A black server said they told her: "The only reason we're so worried about guns is because of the blacks."

Booths were occupied at Ellen's on May 11, 2018, despite predictions that business would suffer after its owner posted a pro-gun regulation message on the restaurant's receipts during the NRA Annual Meeting. The NRA and its members continue to hammer Ellen's on social media. 
(Rose Baca/Staff Photographer)

The staffers were offended. Groves was incensed. Those racist comments don't represent every NRA member, he said, but they made him mad enough to want to take a stand against the group.
More important, he said, he wanted to feel like he'd done something on behalf of the officers who were gunned down.
As the restaurant closed that night, he went to the checkout monitor and typed the message that would appear on the receipts.
The next morning, diners had mixed reactions. One guy approached Groves midday and explained that he'd used some fighting words. For many gun rights advocates, the customer said, he'd basically just told them he wanted to take away their guns.
The NRA tweeted a photo of the receipt: "Steer clear of Ellen's in downtown Dallas!"

Groves decided he needed to clarify his position, changing the receipt to say Ellen's would support "implementing reasonable and effective gun regulations that protect citizens' 2nd Amendment rights and also help reduce needless gun violence."
But by then, as Groves wrote on the restaurant Facebook page, "the situation had become viral."
Volleys from both sides
Thousands of online posts spouting both vitriol and encouragement poured onto the restaurant's Facebook, Twitter and Yelp.
"You used the same words that national socialists like Feinstein, Congressman Mike Thompson, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, Schumer, and the others who are pushing for a near total bans on private ownership of firearms use, and you claim to be surprised at the reaction," wrote one man on Facebook, referring to Democratic members of Congress.
Another wrote: "People come in good faith to support your eatery and you piss on them on the way out???"

At the same time, supporters wrote: "Thank you for standing up to the NRA. You are brave."
Another commented on Yelp: "I prefer my pancakes bullet free!"
Someone posted on Craigslist that Ellen's was going out of business and was selling its equipment. Groves received calls from people interested in buying a fridge or a microwave.
Others clogged the restaurant's online reservation system with fake tables — Donald Trump, party of four, or a Richard Glock. Someone claiming to be Charlton Heston, the former NRA president and Hollywood star, placed a $16 to-go order, with the email address "yousuck@yahoo.com."
The online noise didn't make much difference in real life. The only impact, Groves said, was that the restaurant was busier than usual. From Friday through Sunday, sales were up 27 percent, with 423 more customers than an average weekend, Groves said.

The patio area of Ellen's was bustling Friday afternoon.
(Rose Baca/Staff Photographer)

There were some unsettling moments.
A man told Groves over the phone: "I'm on the way down to shoot the place up and you'll be my first target."
Another man called and told Groves: "I was coming for lunch, but I don't want to be there when the bomb explodes."
But with some callers and customers, Groves was able to reach some common understanding that both sides can agree on — no one wants kids or police gunned down.
'Spit in the face'
The NRA continued to tweet and talk about Ellen's on NRA TV. Grant Stinchfield, a former local TV reporter-turned NRA TV host, said the restaurant deeply offended gun owners.
"It really felt like we were spit in the face," Stinchfield said. "Anybody that's in and around guns knows that when you see someone say, 'We're just for reasonable for gun regulations,' you better run the other way as fast as you can because that actually means they're a gun hater."

The NRA devoted so much attention to the restaurant, Stinchfield said, because it's illustrative of the constant threats against gun owners.
"We have to let people know what we're up against out there," Stinchfield said. "They decided to wade into this world. And once they waded into it, I'm not sure they realized they're playing in the big leagues."
On Sunday — Mother's Day — Groves will present a $15,000 check to the local chapter of Moms Demand Action, a group started after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

The NRA and its members continue to hammer Ellen's on social media, but others chime in to support the West End restaurant. 
(Rose Baca/Staff Photographer)

After the past week, Groves has decided he'll now add weekly notes to his receipts. Perhaps less controversial ones, though.
On Thursday, it read: "Love one another. Protect the vulnerable. Find common ground. Say 'yes' to peace."

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