Update: On Tuesday, Whole Foods released this in a statement: “After a deeper investigation of Mr. Brown’s claim, we believe his accusations are fraudulent and we intend to take legal action against both Mr. Brown and his attorney.”
On Monday, Jordan Brown, pastor of Austin’s LGBT-friendly Church of Open Doors, uploaded a video to YouTube explaining that a cake he’d bought on Thursday at Whole Foods had a surprising slur. Brown said he’d requested a cake that read “Love Wins,” but the video he posted shows a cake that reads “Love Wins” along the top perimeter with a homophobic slur underneath it.
“Love Wins” was the slogan of the marriage equality movement that trended as a hashtag following last year’s Supreme Court decision, and was emblazoned on celebratory flags, memes, and graffiti around the country. And according to Austin Kaplan, Brown’s lawyer, the pastor visited Whole Foods to purchase the cake for members of his congregation. He requested a cake with those words on it, then after taking it to the register, paying for it, and getting to his car, he saw what the cake actually said.
“He took the cake out of the store, put it down on the floor, and he looked down,” Kaplan told Texas Monthly. “He didn’t look in the store.”
— Jordan D Brown (@PasJordanBrown) April 18, 2016
The cake is in a brown box with a big window right over the center of the cake, where the slur appears. It’s possible, of course, that Brown carried the cake through the store without ever glancing down and noticing that he was carrying an anti-gay slur in his hands—but Whole Foods says that word wasn’t on the cake when they sold it to the pastor.
According to a statement from the company to Texas Monthly, Brown requested the words “Love Wins” at the top of the cake—Kaplan says that Brown didn’t specify where he’d like the words written—and “that’s exactly how the cake was packaged and sold at the store.” The company asked employees for their recollections, and the statement assured that they’re confident that the cake didn’t contain a slur when Brown left the store. “We stand behind our bakery team member, who is part of the LGBTQ community, and the additional team members from the store, who confirmed the cake was decorated with only the message ‘Love Wins.'”
It’s not outside the realm of possibility that a bakery employee at Whole Foods—or anywhere else—might have written a slur on a cake for someone who requested a pro-gay-marriage message. People have been known to do hateful things to each other. But the story has attracted its share of skeptics since Kaplan and Brown held a press conference on the matter at 3 in the afternoon on Monday.
Commenters on the Internet, declaring themselves forensic cake experts, note that the lettering of “love wins” is much thicker than the lettering on the slur—which does appear to be the case in the high-res version of the image, though we also lack proper training in the cake decorating arts to assess it authoritatively. But we’re left with what appears to be a he said/she said situation involving the cake. Kaplan says that Brown clearly couldn’t have done it because, as he explained to Texas Monthly, “If conspiracy theorists think he’s running around with blue icing, he doesn’t have any. He’s not a baker.” Whole Foods, meanwhile, says that after speaking to multiple employees at the location, it’s confident that it didn’t happen.
That’s significant, because the PR playbook in these situations is pretty standard: Apologize, promise that the offending employee acted alone and outside of the company’s official policies, guarantee that the employee won’t be working for the company going forward, and reassure all potential customers that the company supports equality and is happy to welcome shoppers of all orientations and background.
Even Kaplan is surprised that Whole Foods hasn’t done that. “In my professional experience, when faced with a video, companies respond,” Kaplan says. “It’s shocking. It’s disappointing that Whole Foods’ response, even after this becomes public, has been to deny it. I think that’s the least best way to resolve an issue like this. The best way is for WF to respond to us, and they’ve failed to reach out to us as the day has unfolded.”
At the heart of the story, regardless of who’s telling the truth about what happened, is a lack of motive for anybody to make this up. It’s hard to understand why Brown would fabricate a slur on a cake from Whole Foods that didn’t contain it; it’s hard to understand why Whole Foods would deny that a rogue employee might have written a slur on a gay customer’s cake. The entire story is extremely weird, and barring a security video that shows the cake clearly upon the exit—or empty tubes of blue icing in Brown’s trash—it’s hard to know for sure what happened. At the moment, though, Whole Foods is veering sharply from the usual PR playbook, and Brown is suing them as a result.