If you’re launching a local business and want to know how to bungle the opening, you have to look no further than the recent saga of Canadian transplant Becca Brennan.
Brennan is a former corporate tax attorney who opened Summerhill—“a boozy sandwich shop” as her website proclaims—this summer in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. To publicize her opening, Brennan issued a press release featuring a bar drink in front of what she described as a “bullet hole-ridden wall,” referring to the one-time rumored backroom illegal gun shop in her venue.
She heralded the scene as “Instagrammable,” vowing to serve 40-ounce bottles of rosé in paper bags at the shop, which featured “cheekily wallpapered bathrooms.” “Yes, that bullet hole-ridden wall was originally there and, yes, we’re keeping it,” she says in the release.
Local residents, however, felt ridiculed and accused Brennan, who is white, of capitalizing on the predominately black neighborhood’s struggle with violence and poverty, all in an area feeling the effects of rapid gentrification. The headline bills the opening as a story about a former corporate tax attorney turning a “vacant bodega” into a “surf-club style” shop. Summerhill, it stated, was an “oasis” in the midst of it all.
Residents quickly began to register disgust.
A debate ensued, with Brennan’s remarks picked up by local publications, social media platforms, foodie websites and a few national outlets, with opinions filling online comment sections. At least two protests, a stretch of signs declaring the bar “racist,” and a number of negative Yelp reviews later, Brennan had gotten plenty of attention, but not the kind of publicity she wanted.
Her response began with a formal apology to Gothamist. "I recognize that I have more work to do,” she said. "I truly never meant it in that way, but I recognize that it was insensitive.”
Another apology through publicists stated: “I deeply apologize for any offense that my recent comments might have caused. I did not intend to be insensitive to anyone in the neighborhood, and I am sorry that my words have caused pain. I made light of serious issues and that was wrong.”
The bottles of rosé will be served in ice buckets, she explained, adding that she planned to speak with neighbors about positive ways to be more involved. The bullet holes, she later revealed, weren’t bullet holes at all, but simply damage from anchors that had been removed.
But despite those efforts, Summerhill seemed to amount to a case of poor judgment compounded by more poor judgment. Here are some of the highlights of the press release aftermath and why other statements made by Brennan were problematic:
The Statement: Brennan’s apology to Gothamist also stated, "I was excited to keep the wall as a shout out to the different businesses that occupied the space before us but my intention was misinterpreted and I'm sorry for that."
The Problem: The statement made her apology seem insincere, and betrayed an inability to grasp the impact her words had on residents even in the simplest terms. The community accused her of using representations of violence and poverty for the purposes of selling bar drinks. What she actually did was … used representations of violence and poverty for the purposes of selling bar drinks.
The Statement: At a community forum called to discuss Summerhill, Brennan opened her remarks by wondering if anyone had ever been to her venue before they were “told to be offended by my bar.”
The Problem: This statement insults the intelligence of the audience, suggesting they can’t think for themselves and are simply imitating the reaction of others. It doesn’t allow for the possibility that their feelings of racism could have been real.
The Statement: “I'm sorry I have a sense of humor,” she said during the forum, “I'm very sorry that you were offended.”
The Problem: This is a classic case of the “non-apology” apology. It makes her appear flippant and dismissive, and takes a defensive posture.
The Statement: The community asked that she plaster over the fake holes, but Brennan refused, saying to forum attendees, “You moved the goalposts … I mean, you see me try to talk and nothing I say will ever be good enough.”
The Problem: This statement attempts to make Brennan the victim, and gives the false impression that she worked exhaustively to make amends with a community that was simply unwilling to forgive her. In all likelihood, the neighbors felt she failed to deliver the one thing they were asking for: contrition.
Weeks after the launch, the controversy remains in the news, the “bullet holes” remain unfilled, and the hashtag #shutdownsummerhill has gained steam. Politicians have added their voice to the conflict and Summerhill has assumed the new moniker of, “the fake bullet-hole bar.”
What went wrong? The biggest error is offending in the first place. But Brennan was ultimately branded a callous interloper because she lacked humility and understanding, and felt entitled to hide under a cloak of humor. She failed to see that allowing herself to be vulnerable in a moment of true self-reflection, accepting that her words hurt a community, even if she didn’t understand how, can sometimes be a sign of strength.
So, what should Brennan’s response have been? In the words of Twitter commenter neuroradical, everything could have been solved with, well, “an apology and like $5 worth of spackle.”