Lessons of the Purple Onion controversy

Potbelly isn’t the only villain here. Qdoba Mexican Grill was also involved.

John Hoff

I vowed that I wouldn’t believe the Purple Onion Café was open again until I sat there, personally, and ate a sweet, gooey bear claw. As it turned out, I had to settle for a sticky, yummy caramel roll, but reality sunk in, and I was glad.

In the new Purple Onion Café at 1301 University, something funky and real has survived in Dinkytown. It makes sense it would be the Purple Onion. If you’ve been involved with gardening, you know that onions are hardy, and onions come back.

Some weeks ago, a journalism student working on a class assignment contacted me about the boycott I had announced against Potbelly Sandwich Works, for being involved in the ethically questionable displacement of Purple Onion Café from their former location. The student, Shelby Capacio, asked if the boycott was still in effect. My reply was that, to the extent I had any actual power to create a boycott by calling for one in an opinion column, yes, the boycott was still in effect.

I should make it clear that Potbelly isn’t the only villain here. Qdoba Mexican Grill was also involved in displacing the Purple Onion. Recently, I checked out the new Qdoba clone. Where student art once occupied the walls of the Purple Onion, there is now a folk scene painting of preparing tortillas by hand.

Perhaps the Qdoba corporate bean counters who make such decisions said to themselves, “It’s fine if we have some art on the walls, but the art needs to remind people to proceed to the counter in an orderly fashion and order Mexican food.”

And then, another Dilbert-like cubicle dweller might chime in, “Maybe the art could also persuade customers our Mexican food is authentic. May I suggest a charming, south-of-the-border folk scene?”

I’m sure the artist who created this truly beautiful image meant well. But its calculated placement at this particular Qdoba has transformed the art into an obscenity with neo-colonialist overtones.

As a student whose passage through Dinkytown is, most likely, quite temporary, I do not concern myself too terribly much with the doings of local businesses. I assume these establishments and their landlords are trying to make money and, naturally, some of this involves spirited competition for customers and space.

However, the temporary nature of my time in Dinkytown makes my rare relationships with local businesspeople more precious. If I frequently exchange small talk with some individuals, like the lady who does my dry cleaning, this is because I have made these persons welcome in my life.

Many of us are far from home, away from friends and family. If the people who sell coffee and pastries become friends, then that friendship is something meaningful and valuable to me.

History shows that students will not always act in a passive way to changes in local buildings and businesses. The persons involved in such business decisions should take note: There is a line which should not be crossed. It’s hard to define where that boundary is, exactly, but this much I am sure of:

If establishments and businesspeople loved by students are mistreated, and they make that mistreatment known, students will react. This is, ultimately, the lesson to be learned from the Purple Onion controversy, and the ongoing boycott of Potbelly Sandwich Works and Qdoba Mexican Grill.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]