MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
HOLYOKE — Business owners in Western Massachusetts apparently associate themselves with the 45th president at their peril.
Just ask Dave Ratner, owner of Dave’s Soda and Pet City, a small chain of shops selling the unlikely combination of pet supplies, birds, fish, and beverages for humans. Ratner attended President Trump’s signing Thursday of an executive order authorizing changes to the Affordable Care Act designed to create cheaper — and less comprehensive — health insurance plans. An Associated Press photograph of the event, with Ratner smiling broadly behind Trump, has come back to haunt him.
“It was 42 years of building a wonderful brand and having it destroyed in one day,” said Ratner, interviewed Sunday morning after what he terms “the worst two days of my life.”
Ratner has been excoriated on social media, and many customers are calling for store boycotts. He was not prepared for the strong reaction.
“I feel like I walked into a room, and somebody shot somebody when I was in the room, and so people are looking at me,” he said.
Ratner, a Springfield native who opened his first store in Hadley in 1975, said he built his brand on the idea that customers want to feel connected to the owners of the shops they patronize.
“My theory on doing business is that all things being equal, people do business with people they like,” he said.
Indeed, Ratner is a presence in Western Massachusetts. He appears in zany television commercials, prompting strangers to stop him on the street to say hello. He makes robo-calls to a large customer base — it’s not uncommon for his customers to come home from work to a message with Dave’s voice informing them of a sale. His recorded distinctive voice answers the phone at all the stores, from Stafford Springs, Conn., to Agawam, Ware, Northampton, Ludlow, and Hadley. He tracks purchases in order to provide better service.
So why did he kick this hornets nest?
Ratner said he didn’t fully understand what he was going to the White House to witness. He said his wife now tells him that was naive, and he’s deeply regretful of his actions. He has tried to explain this to his customers, and he’s pained that many of them won’t even listen.
For those willing to hear it, here’s the back story: Ratner is an active member of the National Retail Federation, a trade association supportive of small businesses. For years through this federation, his company and others negotiated for cheaper group insurance rates, giving them some of the advantages large companies have. With the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act, this negotiating power vanished. Since then, he has trekked to Washington, D.C., annually, talking to anyone who will listen about how unfair that is.
Fast-forward to two weeks ago. Ratner received a call from the federation, inviting him to a ceremony in which Trump would sign an order restoring that power to small businesses.
“My first reaction was ‘Holy smokes, he’s doing something good,’ ” Ratner said. He didn’t think long or hard about whether to attend. He said he had no idea about the scope of the rollback of the ACA included in the executive order.
Trump’s order was swiftly followed Thursday by a second move, halting a subsidy that makes health coverage affordable for many low-income citizens — an action that drew a lawsuit from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.
“I absolutely abhor what he did, and I would not have been there had I known what was happening,” Ratner said.
For some customers, that is not good enough. Comments on the company website and on social media have been brutal. Some have called him a scumbag or a fool. In an interview with the Globe, Ratner was moved to tears several times.
Ratner’s Northampton store manager, Shannon Durand, said her shop has been swamped with angry phone calls. Most people, she said, “just wanted to yell.”
Durand said her boss acted out of a desire to obtain better insurance coverage for his 150 employees. “I really believe that he was motivated to do a very good thing for all of us.”
On Sunday, nearly every dog owner interviewed at an unofficial dog park in Northampton was familiar with the controversy. Asked if he is a Dave’s customer, Northampton resident Eric Olsson, out walking his 8-month-old puppy, Mochi, said simply, “I was.”
He said the image of Ratner standing behind Trump caused him to reconsider his patronage, even as he acknowledged Ratner is in a tough position.
“I’m sure that there are people who are Trump supporters who are happy, but I don’t have to be,” Olsson said. “I live in a very, very left-wing area that has a lot of unhappiness about the [Trump] attacks on LGBTQ issues, the attacks on women’s issues. If you want to stand next to that guy, you can choose that. And I can choose not to shop at your store.”
Brad Tim of Northampton said he’s circulating a boycott petition. “To know what Trump stands for and the things he’s done, it’s shocking,” Tim said. “It’s a deal-breaker for me.”
Not all agree. Plenty of social media posts lambaste the calls to boycott Dave’s, calling it political correctness run amok.
“I think he was duped,” said Wanda Vazquez of Holyoke, a longtime customer, interviewed outside the Dave’s store in Northampton. “I don’t care. I’m here to buy dog food.”
Ratner hired a Boston PR firm to help in what is a crisis for his business. He’ll send a letter to customers that says, in part: “I have never brought politics into my business — but I have always tried to operate in a way that makes our community a better place. I thank you in advance for your understanding. Sincerely, Dave.”
Asked if he supports Trump — a stance many say is suggested by the picture — he paused to consult his PR adviser and then said, simply: “I’m not a Trump supporter.”
He knows that won’t be enough for some. “The frustrating part,” he said, “is that people don’t listen the minute they hear the word Trump.”
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