A battle over a neighbor's conservative signage has soured the mood at an Athens breakfast favorite
On a crisp fall morning on the eve of the 2016 US presidential election, the bitterness of politics felt a world away inside Mama's Boy, a breakfast restaurant in the college town of Athens, GA. Sweet biscuits silenced rancor. Students, professors, grandparents, and kids shared quiet conversation between the clinks of coffee mugs. Plates of salmon Benedict and egg scrambles landing with a ceramic thud that were almost an interruption. The mood seemed so polite and apolitical that you could almost hear the sound of spongy wedges of French toast absorbing maple syrup. But for Athens, a liberal enclave nestled into a conservative state—like a groundhog hibernating deep under kudzu—Mama's Boy has been a flashpoint in the cultural battle between Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s supporters. Destroyed campaign signs, arrests, a contentious wall—it's been one hell of an election season for these usually good mannered pancake purveyors.
What brought politics to breakfast? The restaurant didn't offer a series of Trump-inspired baloney sandwiches as a special. It doesn't serve its pulled pork tacos with Hillary Clinton's beloved Ninja Squirrel hot sauce. Mama's Boy's owners have no interest in political statements, at least not publicly.
"My business partner and I, we decided that we're not qualified enough to encourage people to vote one way or another," owner Cooper Currin Hudson told Extra Crispy. "I think like most restaurant owners, I want everyone to come in to eat and feel comfortable."
It's an issue of location. They've got a neighbor who uses property like a megaphone.
Mama's Boy opened in 2006 next to an empty lot owned by businessman Warren Blackmon. Blackmon purchased the lot in 2001, expecting to one day build condos on the site. Instead, he's used the lot as a pulpit for his right wing political views, unpopular in a city that votes overwhelmingly Democratic. On any given day, signs promoting conservative candidates stick out of piles of dirt or hay bales, visible to passing traffic and anyone walking into Mama's Boy. But instead of changing hearts and minds, Blackmon just annoyed Mama's Boy staff and customers.
Mama's Boy first squared off with their neighbor over Confederate flags flown on Blackmon's lot. Raised during April, Confederate History Month, Hudson found the flags offensive. So did the lines of hungry brunch patrons lined up on weekends. Hudson said she'd received hundreds of calls in complaint. To counter, Hudson gave angry callers Blackmon's cell phone number. She even posted the digits on the Mama's Boy Facebook page. The outcry didn't stop Blackmon from planting the Southern Cross each April, but at least now everybody knows the flags have nothing to do with Mama's Boy, Hudson said. Writing out "Not Our Flags!" on the restaurant's reader board might have helped.
Anyone paying attention to the Blackmon-Mama's Boy dispute expected pro-Trump signage this year, and Blackmon delivered. When Blackmon recently erected a wall just inches across their shared property line, Hudson hoped the fence would ease her relationship with Blackmon. "It didn't occur to me that he would hang stuff on it," Hudson said.
Trump signs multiplied over the summer. And in early September, they started to disappear. Then, on SeptemberSaturday, Sept. 10, Blackmon caught a Mama's Boy employee, tired of having Blackmon's signs reflect on his employer, stealing a sign off the fence. Blackmon called the cops. He pressed charges. He felt his right to free speech had been violated.
“I guess some people just don’t like Trump, but I have a right to fly what I want to on my property,” Blackmon, 68, told the Athens Banner-Herald.
Bogged down with wedding catering and college football tailgates, Hudson instead spent part of her Saturday bailing a longtime employee out of jail. She'd hoped her staff had built up an immunity to Blackmon, but this year's been a slog of provocation on many fronts.
In the final days before Election Day, Hudson conceded that she can't change or stop Blackmon, only control how she and her staff responded to his presence.
"I don't choose to spend time engaging with him," Hudson said. But she expected Blackmon's political expression to continue after the election. "I'm sure there will be something else."
Blackmon defended how he uses his empty lot as a good-natured use of free speech.
“I think maybe I should put up a Trump sign, Hillary sign, a (Gary) Johnson sign and a sign for the Green (Party) person, and another sign that just says, ‘Everybody vote,’” Blackmon told a reporter at the time of the sign theft.
On the morning of November 7, only Trump signs had been jabbed into a mound of crumbly red dirt. As usual, cars filled the parking lot at Mama's Boy. Inside, waiters made it seem like nothing serious was at stake, just whether or not to have a second cup of coffee.
André Gallant lives in Athens, GA. His 4-year-old daughter eats four kinds of cereal for breakfast.