Three local restaurants became embroiled in the Covid culture wars—results varied

Illustration by Katie Henrichs

Elisa and Marjain Breitenbach “hate politics.” The owners of Doughboys Donuts in Raytown wake up at 1 am to start their day so they can be stocked with Bismarks and red velvet cake doughnuts when they open before dawn. Making doughnuts, they say, is enough to keep them busy on most days.

“This doughnut business has been our life,” Marjain says. “We eat, sleep, drink this doughnut business. Everyone knows we’re conservative.”

The Breitenbachs have been known to hang a political sign or two in their window, including one in August that said, “Stop importing COVID from Mexico, unmask truth.”

“We wanted people to unmask the full problems plaguing the border,” says Elisa, who points to a long list of concerns. “The influx of illegal aliens is not the driving force in the Covid pandemic, but it does affect the total numbers.”

The sign set off a firestorm in Raytown, a blue-collar community that is diverse both racially and politically. Among those angered was Chris Meyers, owner of nearby Crane Brewing, who spoke up forcefully about the matter on social media and to local TV news crews. The battle turned personal.

“Chris and I, I thought we were friends,” Elisa says. “He’s very liberal, I know, and I’m very conservative. I don’t hate liberals. I don’t hate people that are different than me.”

Meyers says the couple “broke my heart.”

“I used to love both of them dearly, and then slowly this behavior came to the surface,” he posted on Facebook. “These people blaming immigrants for Covid, who a year ago were blaming Chinese people using the same rhetoric that was getting Asians attacked.”

Nearly two years into the pandemic, the battle in Raytown is one of many examples of a hard-working community fraying from media-driven divisiveness. In this era of extreme political polarization, small business owners have become embroiled in bitter fights. That’s especially true of restaurants, which have been hammered by lost customers, increased food prices and staffing shortages. In some cases, that tension has boiled over into symbolic stands that fuel the partisan outrage machine and leave relationships—and businesses—devastated in their wake.

Here’s the story of three such fights in Kansas City.

Doughboys Doughnuts

The fight: Doughboys Donuts hung a sign that blamed blooming Covid numbers on immigrants crossing the southern border (no published scientific evidence supports this claim).

The issue, Elisa says, isn’t about Mexicans—which is why they edited the sign. “There are people from over one hundred and fifty nations crossing that border,” she says. “I am fully supportive of closing the border, so I feel this is important.”

The issue isn’t just academic to the Breitenbachs. The father of their two grandchildren is an undocumented Mexican immigrant, who the couple “paid thousands of dollars to help get legal.” In August, Doughboys had its busiest week ever because of the sign, then announced its closure due to an equipment failure. Elisa says it was the failure of the Coke machine. Online, Meyer, of the neighboring brewery, suggested otherwise in a detailed timeline of the events.

Both Breitenbachs fell ill with Covid, which led to Marjain being hospitalized. 

“I have one regret,” Elisa says. “The reason we got Covid is we went to a family function. We were celebrating two weddings. One of the younger nephews didn’t feel well but didn’t share that with any of us. Seven of us got sick. None of us called the others. People need to know to stay home if anyone feels the least bit sick and that if you do get sick tell anyone you were with. And people need to understand that when dealing with, Covid there’s all sorts of symptoms—we were just exhausted.”

The aftermath: Doughboys was closed for six weeks while the Breitenbachs battled the illness and got back their strength. Today, they are reopened. They still oppose vaccines and the mask mandates but will comply with mask rules because they assume they’ll be under the microscope.

“There were no masks at Chiefs games while Rae’s Cafe [see below] was being closed,” Marjain says. “They pick and choose what we can and cannot do, and it makes a difference who you are.”

“We’ve got to perform and dance and do these jigs how they want,” Elisa says.

Don Chilito’s

Don Chilito’s is a fifty-year-old institution in Mission run by Barry Cowden, the second-generation owner. A Gadsden flag has flown from the top of the restaurant since March 2020. Cowden made his opposition to the maks mandate public but never tangled with Johnson County about it. In September, Cowden announced he was retiring because the concept could use a refresh and it “needs a young guy with a lot of energy, and I don’t have that anymore.” 

The fight: Cowden, who takes issue with scientists who say that masks work, said he opposed the mask mandate, and the county asked him to enforce it. He declined. “They sent someone here to talk to me and ask me my position and I stated very clearly and calmly to them that it’s a violation of my rights,” he says. “And I never heard from them again.”

The aftermath: Cowden says he gained customers and was sent letters and money from all over the country. In September, Cowden announced that he plans to retire to a farm west of Tonganoxie. He says he’s been approached by people who want to buy the restaurant, but he won’t sell it because it’s part of his family.

“I gained customers—my opposition to mandates benefitted me,” he says. “I’m not sorry for anything I did. I’m proud of it and I would do it all again. I didn’t lose any relationships that were important to me. There were plenty of haters, but they weren’t my customers; they were the trolls.”

Rae’s Cafe

The fight: In Blue Springs, a restaurant named Rae’s lost a long battle with the Jackson County Health Department. Rae’s resistance to the mask order had been brewing since at least January, when the cafe’s owner, Amanda Wohletz, filmed a selfie-rant about masks and posted it to the business page. “I don’t personally believe the mask does shit, I’m gonna be honest with you—and it’s my Facebook page, so I can have my own opinion,” she says. “I don’t want to hear yours, by the way.”

In August, Wohletz hung a sign on the door stating that she would not enforce the county’s mask order. When given a small fine, Wohletz took the matter to the court of public opinion by appearing on television news. An outpouring of support from conservatives followed, with the restaurant drawing a line around the block. The county got a court order to shutter the restaurant. Wohletz took the matter to court. A GoFundMe was started to pay her legal fees. The page was removed by the site. The county prevailed in court.

Wohletz re-opened as a private club with a $1 membership fee. The club had its own, single rule: Patrons were not allowed to wear a mask. The county had the club shut down again and then won in court again.

The aftermath: Wohletz ignored an email and a phone call requesting comment. When reached by Facebook, she offered a critique of the grammar in this reporter’s message but refused further comment.

In a Facebook post on what would have been the restaurant’s four-year anniversary, Wohletz wrote it “completely breaks my heart not to be open… because of a mask.

“I made this decision and do take responsibility, but this has completely gone too far,” she wrote, using the broken heart and crying emojis.

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