The Austin Chronicle

The Take-Out

By Brandon Watson, October 23, 2015, Food

Things would surely be easier if I were a hard-line conservative. I could sip 50-year Balvenie in a cartoonish top hat, blissfully making fun of liberal guilt without involving myself in the complicated business of actually feeling it. Instead, I fret that the new American cafe using local product was built by exploited labor, or that the lauded craft cocktail bar displaced working families. I know that progressive politics and the food business are not always comfortable bedfellows, but I still don't know what to make of the fracas involving the Blue Cat Cafe.

To be clear, there was absolutely no excuse for the demolition of Jumpolin, the family-run piñata store that made a modest business where cars now park. It angers me that Jordan French and F & F Real Estate Ventures are making a profit off of that cowardly act. It pains me that Jumpolin owners Sergio and Monica Lejarazu have still not been able to find an affordable storefront. It worries me that such evictions, while usually carried out in a much less explosive manner, are not so rare.

But I am not sure that it's entirely fair to so sharply focus that anger on Blue Cat. Principals Jacques Casimir and Rebecca Gray did not have any involvement in the demolition and, although some may see signing a rental agreement as tacit approval of F & F Real Estate Ventures' tactics, affordability and availability were probably at the forefront of their minds. Yes, there is a certain silliness to the concept, but on some level all dining out is frippery. And Gray and Casimir have just as much right as anyone else to set up shop.

But I also think it is fair for protesters to use the grounds to draw attention to the raging wildfire of gentrification and the inequalities of a segregated city. It stings that outsiders in the neighborhood were able to convince 1,146 backers to pledge $62,533 on Kickstarter to open a business on the grounds, but even after a round of national outrage and eight months, the Lejarazus' GoFundMe sits at 184 backers and $5,775. It stings that Blue Cat was the beneficiary of largely positive press. Blue Cat did not put Jumpolin in a position of having to rely on kindness, but they are in the position to engage with the existing community in a less invasive way.

Whether Gray and Casimir like it or not, they – and really all of us involved in a food business – aren't entirely off the hook. I have seen a lot of defensiveness from Gray and other foodies on social media, but not a lot of listening – even from those who purport an interest in social justice. I too think that Blue Cat is cute and fun, and my instinct is to defend it. But maybe the most progressive thing I can do is just shut up.

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