There’s an unlikely — and improbably spicy — champion in the effort to impeach President Donald Trump.
On Wednesday, Axios published a list of the entities spending the most money on Facebook ads on both sides of the impeachment debate. They included the usual suspects of the political war roll call, including Trump himself (he was top of the list, of course, at $718,000), Democratic presidential candidates Tom Steyer and Elizabeth Warren, and both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
But one name jumped off the screen for its sheer one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other factor: Penzeys Spices, the nation’s largest spice retailer, had dropped $92,000 from Sept. 29 to Oct. 5 on ads championing impeachment. That was more than self-funding millionaire Steyer, more than hard-charging Warren — more than anyone else other than Trump.
Which of course had some people wondering: What’s a company known for hawking spot-on cinnamon blends doing in the political trenches?
For many Penzeys fans, it comes as no surprise. The company has a history of unabashed liberal activism. Its founder, Bill Penzey, greeted Trump’s election with an email calling the president an “openly racist candidate.” As Helen Rosner noted in a New Yorker story last year, that set him far apart from the rest of the business-leader pack. He was “quite possibly the first to publicly call Trump’s election an ’embrace of racism,'” she wrote. “And he was definitely the first to do so while hawking a free bottle of Quebec Seasonings with any five-dollar purchase.”
Penzey writes a regular email newsletter to customers that weaves the typical stuff of corporate communications — product giveaways, recipe links — with messages about topics such as the Mueller investigation, immigration and Supreme Court nominees. And since Trump’s election, his by turns earnest-and-funny missives have targeted the commander in chief.
The company’s impeachment ad, which ran last week, wasn’t the blunt-force entreaty of most political ads. Instead, it was a 1,592-word message from Penzey celebrating what he called a good week for democracy. “You may not have been paying much attention this week, but the short version is the end is very near for this terrible turn the Republican Party has taken,” he wrote. In typical form, Penzey leavened his narrative with gentle humor: “If liberals have to fix this on their own, they can and will, but it would be awesome to have conservatives pitching in alongside,” he wrote. “You guys are hard workers, plus you always bring those cakes we like.”
In a telephone interview, Penzey said he was a little surprised to learn of the distinction he had earned by being the second-biggest spender on impeachment ads. That’s partly because he says he doesn’t see what he’s putting out there to be purely politically motivated. “I’m running ads to run a business,” he says. “And so much of that is using your business to radiate your values.”
The ad mentioning impeachment, he says, has performed twice as well as any other ad he’s run.
Penzey has publicly addressed his strategy of all-in political engagement, something most big companies eschew for fear of turning off half their potential customer base.
Last month, he called on chief executives to rethink the idea that getting political is bad for business. “From education, to equality, to health care to virtually every other issue the republicans are standing for the wealthiest of the wealthy and against We the People,” he wrote in an email that was also included in a Facebook ad. “If your business relies on We the People it is time to give serious thought to standing up for them.”
He also suggested that businesses that sit out political battles could lose out to competitors who get into the fray. “No loyalty you or any others in your field have built up means anything compared to standing with the people in next year’s election,” he wrote in the same ad. “My advice is to figure out who you want to be and be it in a big way.”
In the interview he says he isn’t afraid to disagree with potential customers, though he hopes that even people who don’t agree with his politics could still like his products: “Just because you have bad taste in politics, why should you have bad-tasting food?”