Kooks Burritos Founders Could’ve Turned Backlash to Comeback in 3 Steps

Kali Wilgus and Liz “LC” Connelly, founders of Kooks Burritos in Portland, OR, closed down shop and wiped their digital footprint after receiving accusations of cultural appropriation. If you haven’t read the story yet, the backlash was spurred from a profile piece Willamette Week did earlier this month. In the article, Connelly recounts the story of how the two women went to Puerto Nuevo, Mexico on a spur the moment trip and fell in love with the tortillas. So much, that they wanted to bring them back to Portland.

From Willamette Week

On how they got started, Connelly tells Willamette Week,

“I picked the brains of every tortilla lady there in the worst broken Spanish ever, and they showed me a little of what they did….They told us the basic ingredients, and we saw them moving and stretching the dough similar to how pizza makers do before rolling it out with rolling pins. They wouldn’t tell us too much about technique, but we were peeking into the windows of every kitchen, totally fascinated by how easy they made it look. We learned quickly it isn’t quite that easy.”

Many people who read this were particularly put off that the two women decided to “peek into the windows of every kitchen” when they were not told much about the technique. Instead of respecting the unwillingness of the Mexican women, Connelly and Wilgus decided to take matters into their own hands. Whether or not they actually peeked into the windows of every kitchen is irrelevant. The issue is that their origin story includes an unethical practice of disrespecting cooks — which is frowned upon in the restaurant community. Due to the poorly worded narrative, the internet was swift and merciless. However, it is not SJWs fault Kooks closed. Connelly and Wilgus were simply bad business owners. Here is what they should’ve done to turn things around.

  1. Apologize

Yes, it is just that simple. It is better to ask for forgiveness than permission is an old adage in the business world because it is effective. Perception is reality especially in a society that is still reconciling the narratives of marginalized peoples. It would have been wise for Connelly and Wilgus to have made a SWOT (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis of their business placing “white women making burritos” under WOT. While many may feel that this shouldn’t be necessary, in a hyper-aware society like the US, it is. Everyday we read about cultural appropriation from large corporations like Urban Outfitters to white women at Coachella. You want to stay in front of any negative press, even when you are the one who caused it. A swift apology, not a #sorrynotsorry, but a sincere one would’ve helped set them up for step 2.

2) Gain control of the narrative

Connelly’s carelessness in their origin story allowed a lot of room for misconception and outright damnation. I am not sure how closely the two follow pop culture, but they should’ve been aware of the most recent Pepsi campaign and accounted for any missteps on their end. Meticulous? Yes! But that is what it takes to run a successful business. After apologizing, the two women would have had the opportunity to change the narrative and could have gone from cultural appropriating Beckies to “We learned something here and we will be better moving forward.” Hollow? Only if you don’t make good on your promise. Portland is a progressive city and they could have used that to their advantage. Without being contrived, the women were prime to speak on white privilege, unconscious cultural appropriation, and unethical business practices. Society is more receptive to two young women who made a mistake and took accountability for it than a large corporation. Which would prime them for step 3.

3) Re-Frame

Once they issued a sincere apology, regained control of the story, then they should have re-framed their restaurant. In recognizing their privilege and missteps, Wilgus and Connelly could have easily set up a charitable aspect to their venture. Something along the lines of 50 cents of every purchase will be donated to the female cooks of Puerto Nuevo. Returning to Puerto Nuevo to thank the cooks for their inspiration. Amplifying a cook’s story. Virtually anything that isn’t self serving. While some people will have their doubts, others would actually have commended their steps towards reconciliation which is what a majority of people of color want: admittance of wrongdoing and reconciling it.

Bad press is a part of the entrepreneurial landscape. It is almost laughable how easily these two women folded in the face on confrontation. Owning a business isn’t for the faint of heart or the thin of skin. You have to regroup and pivot when things fall apart. It is interesting that they went to great lengths to get the gist of making tortillas and spend months reverse engineering the process, but some how couldn’t muster the effort to battle the backlash of a PR fumble they caused. If their business meant that much to them, they would have fought for it. They didn’t and that tells us all we need to know.