SAN DIEGO -- While some bars across the country have reacted to concerns over Russia and its treatment of the LGBT community by doing things like "dumping" their Stoli Vodka contracts (Stoli is actually headquartered in Luxembourg and distilled in Latvia), others are working to change the conversation and encourage consumers to understand what is really happening.
SDGLN Nightlife Columnist Jim Winsor wrote last week that the boycott of Stoli that has been called for by some activists has largely been a failure in San Diego (saying that is a "good thing"), in light of bars like SideTrack in Chicago, and several in West Hollywood getting rid of their Stoli products.
Mo's Universe, which operates three restaurants and bars in Hillcrest that serve Stoli products, has taken an interesting approach and is hoping to help change the conversation on the issue, while advocating for human rights around the world.
The company on Thursday evening issued the following statement to its customers, friends and staff, encouraging the community to support our LGBT brothers and sisters in Russia:
Dearest Guests, Friends and Staff
Over the past several weeks, our company has become aware of the developing anti-LGBT attacks and legislation in Russia and in other parts of the world, with increased alarm. We have read and watched in horror the footage that has emerged of teens being ambushed, attacked, humiliated, and even tortured in broad daylight.
Over the course of our 21 years in business, we have always taken steps to pro-actively support local, regional, national and worldwide tolerance and acceptance of LGBT individuals. We have often been among the first to take a stand to address the abuses of LGBT rights, as well as those of human rights, not only here in San Diego, but across the world.
Our duty to lead in both business and the social issues that directly affect our guests is a role we take with great responsibility and due diligence. This is our invitation for you to join us in helping to change the conversation, and choosing to focus on ways to help our LGBT friends in Russia and across the world.
One pillar of our company has always been our commitment to giving back to our community. At Urban MO’s Bar & Grill, Baja Betty’s, Gossip Grill & the Hillcrest Brewing Company, we have actively given up 10% of our company revenues – in the formal ways of sponsorships, donations, in-kind contributions and financial gifts – essentially contributing millions of dollars over the years. This practice ensures that our community prospers and thrives, but also that our guests are protected from the very same types of attacks and laws that are happening in Russia today.
Since the late 1970’s, prior to establishing our present company, our President Chris Shaw owned a series of businesses with a strong history of supporting pro-LGBT companies and social issues. Those decisions helped give San Diego’s LGBT residents a place to feel safe, dine, drink and be entertained.
In the 80’s we established some of the earliest annual fundraisers for our friends, staff and guests who were being infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.
In the 90’s we were among the first to re-introduce Coors Light to our customers after the corporation made its amends with the LGBT community.
In the 2000’s we were seen as leaders locally when we joined the national LGBT boycott and took a stance against Jamaican exports by removing all products, including Meyers Rum, from our establishments, a ban that continues to this day.
As recently as 2012, we launched our Chick-fer-Gay campaign in response to a national restaurant chain of similar name, whose president was found to be donating large sums to organizations that work to oppress the lives and families of LGBT individuals living in the United States.
In June, MO’s Universe presented an in-kind donation of $5000 to the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, a local grassroots, faith-based non-profit organization that seeks to end anti-LGBT and other human rights violations around the globe.
And just weeks ago, our staff was pictured on the front page of our local papers leading the march from Urban MO’s Bar & Grill to the Hillcrest Pride Flag, in support of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings against DOMA and its decision on the Proposition 8 case.
Though we will always have more to accomplish, the renewed calls to boycott Russian products has caused us to reexamine our values, and the role that our company’s purchasing power plays on the greater global scale.
Since Wednesday July 24th, 2013 we have been actively engaged in direct dialog with Stolichnaya representatives, here in Southern California and across the nation, while also closely examining news reports and articles that have been circulating around the world on the issues in Russia. We have also been listening to you, our long time guests, friends and supporters.
While a boycott against Russian products, vodkas and brandy is in direct alignment with our values and beliefs as a company, our stance on the boycott against Stolichnaya Vodka is more complicated.
The complex legal issues that do or do not define Stolichnaya Vodka as Russian are not as easy to define, as has usually been the case when choosing to boycott other products and manufacturers.
After a legal dispute and court battle between the Russian government and SPI Group – the owners of Stolichnaya Vodka as it is known everywhere outside of Russia – the Stolichnaya brand was replicated into two separate companies with no formal ties to one another. One is 100% Russian owned, operated, produced and labeled as such, while the other – owned by SPI – is now a multinational product identified only as “premium vodka” on its label.
During our recent dialog with Stolichnaya, it was revealed that SPI is based in Latvia with offices in Luxembourg, and the company’s only interests in Russia are primarily focused on farming (wheat and rye fields) for the sourcing of its ingredients and distillation of their vodka. It is the confusion in these minor Russian interests of SPI that seem to be of primary concern to our guests.
Much of this confusion lies in the flurry of statements issued by parties on both sides of the boycott, as to whether our pink dollars are contributing to the Russian government’s violent oppression of LGBT individuals.
Therefore, effective as of 6 p.m. on Friday, July 26, 2013, in solidarity with the well-meaning intentions of our guests, we did in fact suspended the sale of all Russian vodkas and brandy in our establishments. We also enacted a temporary removal of Stolichnaya brand of products from visual display on our shelves.
Simultaneously, we have been at work with Stoli representatives here locally, as well as with Patrik Gallineaux, the National LGBT Brand Ambassador to change the conversation of how Stoli and SPI’s community involvement can make LGBT global issues a bigger priority for the world at large, which is why our company is responding today.
It is important for us to note that none of our establishments has any promise of product placement, product specials or a sales contract with Stoli , SPI or its local distributors. And in fact, our company only carries four of their products, which account for only a minor percentage of our business.
And although the removal from visual display of Stoli products had only been temporary and their products are now available and on display at our establishments, it is our belief that our company must be a leader and change the conversation.
It is also important that our company fully recognizes the wholehearted contributions that Stoli, SPI, and their U.S. distributor William Grant & Sons have made to the Hillcrest community and the LGBT community at large.
Stoli has been a leader right here in our local community, helping to produce many of the events we all know and love, most recently the Pride of Hillcrest Block Party, sponsored by San Diego Pride & The Hillcrest Business Association. They also actively played an important and critical role helping to support the fundraising efforts to erect the Hillcrest Pride Flag through the Amazing High Heel Race. In addition, Stoli recently supported the Palm Springs Cocktail Challenge with competitions at LGBT bars around the country, including here in San Diego, and launched the national search for the Original Stoli Guy, in association with GayCities.com and Queerty. And for the most recent San Diego Pride parade, they provided the funds to purchase uniforms for a local marching band- even while their logo did not appear on those uniforms.
In the past, Stoli has sponsored Hillcrest CityFest and the Hillcrest Hoedown and also participated in Hillcrest Mardi Gras, with continued assurance that their sponsorship will continue.
Stoli’s support outside of the Hillcrest community is also worth noting, and include creating a position within the company that allows their brand diplomat to serve on the Northern California Leadership Council for GLAAD, and on the Board of The Richmond-Ermet AIDS Foundation.
For the past two years they have helped present the famed White Party in Palm Springs. They have sponsored the Castro Street Fair for multiple years, as well as REAF, GLAAD, and The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence events in San Francisco. They have donated product to Project Nunway, The Harvey Milk Foundation, Red Dress Parties, and have supported the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and LA Gay & Lesbian Center through the AIDS LifeCycle Ride, both through sponsorship and engaging upper level management to participate as riders.
Stoli has also sponsored Light in the Grove, GAPA Runway, Songs of the Season, HRC, Palm Springs Pride, the Impulse Group LA, and done so much more both nationally and internationally.
In listening to - you - our guests, and the plea from known LGBT activists in Russia, MO’s Universe made formal recommendations to Stoli & SPI representatives, which are now waiting final approvals. Among our recommendations, we included a request to Stoli and SPI to directly donate to, and help raise funds for St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation here in San Diego, as well as The Harvey Milk Foundation for their work on the international level.
It is also important to note that Russia’s recently passed legislation and that government’s attacks on the LGBT community are by no means isolated incidents. Just two weeks ago, AIDS activist Eric Lembembe was brutally murdered in the West African country of Cameroon. In Uganda, the “Kill The Gays Bill” legislation promoted by the American-based “Christian right,” is still under consideration. And in Honduras, LGBT activists have been killed at alarming rates, with over 30 individuals killed since 2010. Closer to home, residents in New York City are under increased vigilance over the recent killings of several members of their LGBT community.
So at a time when our community is still under attack on several fronts, with the actual lives of Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Queer individuals at stake, we know it is our duty and our responsibility as business leaders to be global activists. With a lot of soul searching for an answer, we asked ourselves - How would Harvey Milk respond? We believe he would say that we must work simultaneously inside and outside of our communities, uniting our allies as well as our very own government to find solutions to address these widespread violations of LGBT and human rights taking part across the world.
We hope you join us in changing the conversation. Choosing to focus on the fact that our LGBT brothers and sisters are under attack each and every day, rather than what vodka you chose to drink- is the only way to make a difference. We believe our company is doing so by choosing to donate to causes that fight LGBT global oppression, and we hope you join us.
We thank you for your continued patronage, trust and belief in what we stand for after all these years. It is you and our community that are the reasons we are in business.
Your "family" of friends at MO's Universe.
Urban MO’s Baja Betty’s, Gossip Grill & Hillcrest Brewing Company