I maintain an ever-growing list of woke companies on my website to help consumers make informed decisions. About half of the companies on the list are there based on reader suggestions. I get a lot of spicy feedback, but I never could have imagined that a reader tip could inspire me to proclaim Penzeys, a retail spice chain, America’s wokest company. That’s right, Penzeys—not Ben & Jerry’s, not Patagonia, not Disney, not Nike. Penzeys Spices. Here’s why.
Penzeys is an upscale spice chain that also sells kitchen and home accessories. The privately held company claims hundreds of thousands of catalog customers as well as retail locations in 24 U.S. states. A reader, Mike, recently wrote me to complain about an “About Republicans” blog post on the Penzeys website written by the CEO, Bill Penzey. My jaw dropped as I read Penzey’s rant. Here are a few excerpts:
Remember when your distrust of big city types, and your deep-rooted beliefs in paying your debts, respecting your marriage, raising kids willing to serve, honoring your word, and going to church every week had you voting for Donald Trump over Joe Biden all because Biden’s son had a computer? Or how you couldn’t vote for Hillary because she was over-prepared and used emails? . . .
Going forward we would still be glad to have you as customers, but we’re done pretending the Republican Party’s embrace of cruelty, racism, Covid lies, climate change denial, and threats to democracy are anything other than the risks they legitimately are. If you need us to pretend you are not creating the hurt you are creating in order for you to continue to be our customer, I’m sad to say you might be happier elsewhere. . . .
If on the other hand you still want the best spices and don’t need us to respect what you now vote for to be our customer, Hooray! We are happy to have you here, but know that we will, on a regular basis, try to wake you up from this dream that has you believing there is anything conservative left at all to what the Republican Party has become.
I emailed CEO Penzey to see if he would speak to me regarding his rant, but he didn’t reply. It’s not worth discussing the post’s merits. Anyone who thinks that Hunter Biden’s only sin is owning a computer, or that Hillary Clinton’s is being “overprepared and using email” clearly overdosed on MSNBC long ago.
What sets Penzeys apart from other woke companies is that most woke retailers push lefty policies and virtue signaling without specifically denouncing Republican voters. Patagonia, for example, has an “activism” tab on its website with this plea: “If you’re doomscrolling the climate crisis, know that it doesn’t have to be this way.” But the word “Republican” doesn’t appear on the website. Even Ben & Jerry’s claims to be “nonpartisan” on the activism tab of its website, though only someone who is deeply uninformed would believe it, particularly as the site has posts attacking Republicans for failing to vote for legislation the company favors, among other things.
And when most woke companies stray into politics, they often bury virtue signaling pronouncements in press releases or on less visible places on their websites. By contrast, Penzeys has a tab on its homepage called About Republicans, right next to About Us—as if knowing the company’s stance on Republicans is just as important as knowing what their business is.
Penzey’s About Republicans rant isn’t a one-off. On the 2022 anniversary of the January 6 Capitol riot, Bill Penzey sent an email blast to customers saying, “there’s no sugarcoating the reality that (Republicans) are now the #1 threat to this country they love so very much.” A week later, he sent another an email blast to his customer list with the subject line “Republicans Are Racist Weekend”—his designation for the store’s extended Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday sale. In it, he called the Republican Party “the party of open ‘textbook’ racism.” According to Fox 6 Milwaukee (Penzeys is based in Wisconsin), the CEO has a history of verbally lashing out against Republicans. In a 2016 Facebook post after Trump’s election, he wrote that Republican voters “just committed the biggest act of racism in American history since Wallace stood in the schoolhouse doorway 53 years ago.” He reportedly spent nearly $100,000 in Facebook ads calling for Trump’s impeachment in 2019.
Since Bill Penzey didn’t want to speak with me, I contacted the nearest store to my house, which is in Homewood, Alabama, just outside Birmingham. Upon first try, I got a message, which says that face coverings are welcome in Penzey stores but not required and provided a phone number if you “want to leave a comment for Bill.” I called that number and spoke to a woman whose name I won’t divulge because I don’t want her to be fired.
I asked her why the company had a rant against Republicans so prominently featured on its website and the woman sighed and said, “That’s Bill.” I asked her if they get a lot of complaints about it. “Oh, yes,” she said.
I tried the store in Alabama again. This time an employee picked up. She, too, sighed when I asked what the About Republicans rant was about. “I don’t know because those words didn’t come out of my mouth,” she said. “We don’t care who you vote for here, we are very welcoming.”
I said the message on the website made it seem like the company didn’t want Republicans as customers unless they repent. “If you came into the store right now, you would be welcomed by two very nice ladies,” she said. “Come on in.”
Penzeys Spices is a private company, and most of its stores are in blue enclaves. I suspect Bill Penzey enjoys the publicity and media attention that his rants garner. I also think he has lots of Republican customers, like Mike, who forwarded me his request for a refund after he saw the About Republicans rant. Most of them are likely unaware of Penzey’s politics.
Bill Penzey can run his business however he likes, of course, and Republicans are free to continue patronizing his stores or not. On first glance, such an aggressively partisan stance might seem like bad business. After all, why would a spice company with so many retail stores and a big e-commerce platform risk offending half the country? But there could be a method to the madness. Perhaps for every one Republican he infuriates, he gets two new liberal customers, or his existing liberal customer base buys more.
America has become depressingly partisan in recent years, to the point that you now have to wonder if the person who sold you your Chinese five-spice powder not only hates you but thinks you’re more dangerous than al-Qaida. Maybe Bill Penzey’s approach represents the future, when we’ll all patronize businesses openly affiliated with one party or another. (Bernie Sanders Burger Shack? Clarence Thomas Pancake House?) I hope not because that’s not the kind of country where I would want to live.
Photo by Jeremy Papasso/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images