Five years ago almost to the day, my friend and Co-founder, Peter Stolarski, and I embarked on BLgT USA: The First 50 State Tour for Equality. Our lean team was rounded out with Andrew Rebennack and Katie Barnes, rising stars in their early 20’s, who joined us for most of the epic, rollercoaster journey.
BLgT USA BACKGROUND
Our purpose in 2015? To get people out for LGBTQ rights in every state through a twist on the classic BLT sandwich — bringing people together across the country for equality through food. (Yes, there were vegetarian options!)
In gritty entrepreneurial fashion, we launched a Kickstarter, secured a handful of sponsors, and supplemented the additional funding needed with personal savings and credit card debt. Early believers made BLgT USA possible. They trusted us to make a local difference during the summer when the Supreme Court ruled on marriage equality. We were in Iowa City on June 26, 2015 when the ruling came out that love won! If you’re reading this and supported us, thank you for believing in our bold, delicious vision.
Now, how did this work again?
For the campaign, we reached out to restaurants in all 50 states to see if they would add a “g” ingredient to their BLT and put the BLgT on their menu for the summer of 2015, with proceeds going to a local LGBTQ organization. With blood, sweat, tears, and outreach to 1,500 restaurants, we secured partners in almost all 50 states to join the campaign. We then hosted pop-up events at our partner locations, traveling to a new city every 2 or so days. It was surreal.
BLgT USA CAMPAIGN & TOUR
The stories are endless and still take my breath away. Imagine walking into Dish in Charlotte, NC (as seen on Diners, Drive-ins & Dives) and seeing 75 LGBTQ college student leaders from Campus Pride having lunch with BLgT signage placed proudly on their tables by the restaurant owners Penny Craver and Maggie Stubbs. Nate, then 22, shared what it was like to change school policy at Purdue University.
“Until I got up and spoke, half of the room was going to vote no. But putting a face to the issue made all the difference. This is my face. This is my life. I am a real human being.”
There was Harvey, a 59-year-old trans woman, who attended our event at Happy Tummy in Huntsville, AL. After hearing about the event from Free2Be, our local LGBTQ center partner, Harvey showed up and shared some of their story.
“After 59 years, I finally like the person staring back at me in the mirror every day. I’m the old lady who takes care of her garden and her cats.”
The humble BLgT sandwich ignited conversations and inspired the sharing of personal stories. Imagine seeing the BLgT campaign on the menu as a chef, line cook, dishwasher, server, community member, or patron walking in the door. In Oxford, Mississippi or Phoenix, Arizona or Wichita, Kansas or Missoula, Montana or Louisville, Kentucky. All states that lacked equal protections in 2015, and where you can still be fired for being LGBTQ today.
Many of the restaurants we worked with were chef-owned. These folks were our heartbeat, driving the campaign locally across the country, sparking connections all summer long. They made BLgT USA happen on the ground. Here are some of our favorite menus and signage:
WHAT HAPPENED & WHAT WAS THE IMPACT?
I’ve been thinking about the tour for many reasons, but mainly because our partners — small restaurants and local LGBTQ community organizations — are hurting now more than ever. The purpose of this (long, worth it) post is to share campaign insights, share some personal stories, honor everyone who supported us, and highlight our partners whose doors are still open, albeit virtually or takeout/delivery only.
A full recap of tour numbers, BLgT sandwiches, partners, and tour stops are here. You can see which partners are open and if you can, we encourage you to support them. With over 50 stops and 128 days on the road, it’s overwhelming to synthesize what happened in one post. It deserves the breath of Homer’s Odyssey. In the meantime, our Instagram has the best scroll of stories and places we hosted BLgT pop-up events. Our Facebook photo albums have shots from every stop. And here we go…!
Impact, Media & Stories
From the beginning, our primary goal for impact was to maximize the number of BLgTs eaten across the country. This meant that someone saw the BLgT on the menu at a partner restaurant, saw the LGBTQ org associated with the campaign, ordered the sandwich, perhaps talked about the campaign with the server or other diners, and then a portion of the proceeds went to a local nonprofit partner. One sandwich, domino effect. The goals for our pop-up events were community awareness of the campaign and uniting our restaurant and nonprofit partners for in-person connection.
- Restaurant Partners: 50
- Of the 31 restaurant partners who reported, here are our numbers:
- BLgTs Sold: 12,519 BLgTs
- Event Attendees: 1,389 people
- Total Number of People Who Ate a BLgT: 13,908 BLgTs
Of our 50 restaurant partners, 19 partners did not report their numbers after multiple inquiries. We get it, small businesses are busy; however, this means we’re unable to have a full view of our impact numbers. If we take the number of BLgTs — 13,908 — and divide by the number of reporting restaurants — 31 — the average number of BLgTs per restaurant was 448.6 BLgTs. If we take this average and multiple by the number of total restaurants — 50 — we can estimate a total of 22,430 people ate a BLgT during the summer of 2015.
Donations reported from BLgT sales topped out at $12,519, with an average of $1 per BLgT donated. Beyond the direct numbers, our nonprofit partners shared stories via email of local restaurants donating extra food, new donors learning about their services from restaurant partners, and a restaurant even keeping the BLgT on the menu past the summer campaign — shout out to The Third Place in Raleigh, NC!
Our partners ranged in amounts raised from a few hundred to over a thousand dollars. Most importantly, we saw people in their local communities connect in unexpected ways, catalyzed by the BLgT sandwich and campaign.
- HuffPost BLgT USA Queer Voices Series ( 15 posts throughout summer)
- We had 28 press hits. The media coverage was mostly LGBTQ media and local media. Our outreach was intentional to reach our target audience. Some examples include the Cape Gazette, the Hartford Courant, Philly Mag, and the Witchita Eagle.
At some point, I want to write a proper “Road Stories” book. Sharing the experience is the right thing to do and we also committed to doing it for our Kickstarter supporters, as well. The truth is, every time in the last five years that I started putting pen to paper, the sheer emotion and volume of the experience paralyzed me. With that said, highlighted below are some of our favorite BLgTs of 2015, followed by takeaways and a few stories.
Favorite BLgTs of 2015
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
- Prioritize the basics. Many people were worried about our safety. I remember my aunt asking early on, “Are people treating you ok? Have you had any issues with…gay haters?” As it turns out, this was the least of our problems. Our biggest funding and social media challenges ironically came from LGBTQ vegans. There was a foundation that wanted to support us, but the billionaire founder is vegan and wouldn’t sign off. We swear, it wasn’t about the bacon! The biggest challenge? A sustainable operating model. Back to Maslow basics — without shelter, sleep, good health, and the funds to make things happen — nothing else matters. If we did it all again, securing a hotel sponsor and defining a better funding model early on would be a top priority. Not having a predictable place to sleep was the downfall of our mental health, and impacted everything. Further, an advisor shared, “It’s going to cost twice as much and take twice as long as you think.” The consequence was that we were unable to build anything beyond the 50 state tour. In the end, we were burnt out emotionally, mentally, physically, and financially. Lesson learned!
- Local is hard to scale, but that’s what made it special. Our model was intentionally local. We knew it would take a lot of work to secure partners in every state. We never imagined that it would take outreach to 20–40 restaurants per city to secure one partner. Overall, we reached out to over 1,500 restaurants to yield 50 partners. Why was it so hard? The owner was sometimes the chef, who might also handle social media and employees, and then you add our campaign on top of it — many didn’t have time, even if they supported the higher purpose. We have incredible respect for our partners who joined the campaign. It was a labor of love. The magic of being with community members in our partners’ unique places couldn’t be replicated at a national chain. Local partners made it more meaningful and special. You can view and support them here.
- Expect the unexpected, give yourself and others grace, and grab a coffee. In Philadelphia, our BLgT truck was broken into and valuable belongings were stolen. In Louisville, we pulled into the driveway of our Airbnb and our neighbor had two Confederate flags waving proudly a week after a white man horrifically killed black churchgoers in Charleston, SC. Our neighbor walked out of his house with a gun on his hip and asked what we were doing there. It was A LOT. A hotel sponsor pulled out right before the start of the tour because the company changed leadership and the new CMO didn’t want to invest in an unknown startup. Stability was rare, so we anchored in what we would control. Daily coffee was a cheap and luxurious feeling of normalcy, our trusty BLgT truck was the closest thing to a physical home, and giving each other grace through the experience made it all possible.
- Folks of all backgrounds, in all 50 states, support LGBTQ equality. Straight, LGBTQ, all colors and ages of the rainbow, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Independent…and everything in between. All kinds of people attended our events. After reaching out to all kinds of restaurant owners, the majority of our restaurant partners were led by straight white men. The intersection of sexuality, gender, class, and racial identity was top of mind throughout the tour. Who showed up, and why? This could be its own book. It was important for us to create a moment for people the congregate at our pop-up events, while also having campaign visibility throughout the entire summer.
- It’s all about the people. Early Kickstarter supporters, restaurant partners, LGBTQ organizations, donors, sponsors, supporters, event attendees, people on the road cheering us on from a gas station, our friends, and our families. It always starts with a small group of people who commit to a shared vision. Without the initial support of my parents, Cal & Sam, our family business, and friends Mark & Amy Bannon, this project would have never happened. They believed in me and Peter. They took a giant leap with us. We were then able to work with PlayLab, who helped us bring our brand to life and launch a successful Kickstarter with a dozen friends and advisors’ support. Then an old friend, Terrence Meck, and a movement leader, Seth Rosen, stepped up big on Kickstarter alongside 660 supporters who came together to help us fund the launch of the tour. Even our new friends and LGBTQ legends Kris Perry & Sandy Stier and Edie Windsor helped out. It took a village. And that village then made it possible to bring together 1,300+ people in-person and sparks thousands of conversations in restaurants across America. Here are some of our favorite moments with supporters from all 50 states:
One thing that’s always struck me is the stereotyping that goes on with West Virginia. I feel the need to stick up for people who are just trying to live their lives without judgement. West Virginia gets a shit load of judgement. We’ve always been open armed and open hearted people. We’re mountain people. We’re not northerners or southerners. We’re Appalachians. We have a large music, arts, and gay community. They’re here because it’s open and chill. Yes, we’re 150 yards from the state capital that just had some of the worst legislation I’ve seen in my life to roll back freedoms. I’ve got a 15 and 5 year old to raise, who are trying to figure out who the hell they are and want to be. I want my children to grow up in a world that’s more empathetic. I try to send them out into the world to love, care, be genuine, be gracious. Maybe we’re just a generation away.
— Keeley Steele, Charleston, West Virginia, July 2, 2015
Keeley Steele, a former musician and filmmaker, not only has the greatest name ever, but she also embodies what the tour was all about. She owns three restaurants in Charleston, WV and supported the campaign at each location with three different BLgTs AND a BLgT cocktail. In 2015, she was also a City Councilwoman and the Pride Parade Marshall, as a straight ally. She spoke about her home state with such pride. She moved home to West Virginia because her family is there. She can be herself. And her community is there. For her, like us — it’s all about the people.
- Beyond Marriage: While we might have marriage equality, we have a long way to go for equal protections for LGBTQ people. As of March 1, 2020, the Movement Advancement Project notes that there are only 20 states, Washington D.C., and 300 municipalities that fully and explicitly prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Conversion therapy is still allowed in 29 states. LGBTQ youth homelessness and suicide continue to be real issues for our community. There are several LGBTQ cases in the courts right now, the fight for equality is far from over.
- Support Local: COVID-19 has changed everything. Five years later, our local LGBTQ organizations and restaurant partners are hurting. As it was, operating a small business or organization had its challenges. Today, 16 of our 50 partners have closed. If you can, please support our 2015 partners in your nearest or favorite city. Again, you can find the full list here.
- Team Updates: So what’s up with the gang? Luckily, they still like me enough after everything to keep in touch! In their own words:
Andrew: Talk about a life-changing event. Traveling the country for months in a car with four other people is an experience all on its own. The BLgT tour took me on a journey. I learned so much from other people and gained valuable experiences. Since the tour ended, I rejoined the events industry working for an event tech company named Luster, the same company that first introduced me to Peter and Taryn! I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for everyone involved in the tour and everyone we met along the way. It opened my world up to new ideas, experiences, people, and opportunities.
Katie: The BLgT tour radically changed how I think about LGBTQ identity in the United States. Having the opportunity to travel the country and meet enclaves of LGBTQ people, in both expected and unexpected places, gave me experiences that I regularly consider five years later. It was an unforgettable experience. These days, I work at ESPN as a feature writer, covering the intersection of sport and gender. BLgT laid the foundation for how I approach my work, even today, and I carry it in my heart, always.
Peter: Creating something new is never easy, and every day during and leading up to the BLgT summer there were challenges. But every day I had the opportunity to see kindness, excitement and heart. First in the planning phase with Taryn, Katie and Andrew, and then with everyone we met during this BLgT experiment. Looking back during these really tough times, I find solace in a few principles that I learned while working on the BLgT tour.
First, people want to help. When reaching out over email to restaurant owners with tight margins and full plates managing a business, family etc, many couldn’t get back to us. But when we got them on the phone to chat and learn more, the response was often not only a yes but, ‘What else can I do?’ The kindness and support we were given at every turn was astounding.
Second, people seek community and acceptance. I remember a conversation with a mother in Huntsville AL, her high schooler wanted to come to the event and she was apprehensive. But after eating sandwiches and talking to the other attendees, she came and sat next to me and said “thank you, this was all so normal”. I will never forget the excitement in her face and the conversation that followed. These interactions fueled all the hard work we did in 2015 and made it all worth it.
Third, there are amazing people working on the ground supporting local communities. Throughout the summer we were lucky enough to tour and meet with staff and members of the various LGBTQ community centers. People working long hours, often with few resources doing so much. The heart from the people we met, giving everything every day to tough situations reminds me to be more compassionate, more connected, and kind.
Thank you to everyone who helped us through. I will forever remember your kindness, excitement and heart.
Currently, I am surviving quarantine with my partner and pup, gardening, baking and consulting for companies big and small.
Taryn: As for me, it’s taken 5 years to write about the tour. Reflective quarantine time during COVID-19 has cracked me open. When I look back, 2015 was one of the hardest years of my life. I saw someone recently who supported the campaign and they said with a big smile, “Did you have so much fun?!” I laughed because we did have fun, but fun is not the overall feeling I experienced. It was growth — often painful growth.
We were “on” 24/7, organizing, holding space for people’s stories, falling short, making mistakes, not sleeping (hotels, Airbnbs, motels, lover of the night, friends’ couches, you name it), learning on the fly in every moment. We were sprinting through a marathon. The experience was raw and out of body. At the end of July, I hadn’t slept for days and we were running lower on funds than we predicted. I thought, “I can’t do this anymore. It’s too much.”
After a raw, public fundraising campaign, I was feeling very dark. As a last resort, I emailed a good friend in the middle of the night. “C, we need a bridge loan. Would you be willing to lend me the money?” He wired it immediately. Charles was an older, straight male mentor and one of our biggest supporters. He sadly passed away from ALS just over a year ago. I love how much he loved the campaign. “It’s a no brainer.” He and other friends, family, and strangers showed up, in small ways and momentous ways, and are the reason we made it through. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
After 128 days on the road, I was burnt out, lost, depressed, and broke. So much fun! Even though we were proud to complete all 50 states, it was difficult to say how successful we were from an impact point of view. The sheer exhaustion clouded a positive ending. We weren’t able to quantify the stories and local impressions from the campaign, so it made it hard to quantify the total impact. We knew this going in, but when it was over, it felt heavier.
I slept for a month, got it together, landed a dream job, put BLgT USA and GET//OUT (the entity Peter and I had launched to run the campaign) on the shelf, stopped eating bacon, moved to Berlin, Germany then back to NYC, paid off the personal debt that I incurred from the campaign, met my now wife, and here we are quarantined in COVID-19 twilight zone five years later with my stepsons, their girlfriends, our pup, and cat at our home in Provincetown, MA — the location of the first stop on the BLgT tour. The circle of life is wild.
When I reflect on the people we met and the stories we heard, made, and shared — my heart bursts. Every one of the 1,300+ people who showed up at our events and the 1,000+ supporters who made it happen impacted me. You showed us kindness, compassion, and grace. You helped me become more of myself, and in turn, made me better for the world. If you’re still reading this (almost there!), I am forever grateful and will continue to pay it forward however I can, as often I can.
Today, I consult on community, change, and impact-driven initiatives for big companies and new projects. Right now I’m helping my family’s fourth-generation family business, Miller Farms, launch something special for Thanksgiving 2020. It’s called the Thankful Turkey. (If you loved BLgT, you will love this, too. You can learn more here!)
Feel free to reach out anytime to connect or reconnect. Please stay healthy, stay safe, and support each other. We’re in this together.
BLgThank you. You are loved.