A public feud between Whole Foods and a customer who accused the store of scrawling an anti-gay slur on his cake escalated this week with dueling lawsuits, inspiring hundreds of online sleuths to debate the clues in security footage and in the hand-lettered icing.
The trouble began April 14, when Jordan Brown, an openly gay pastor, bought a pre-frosted chocolate cake from a Whole Foods bakery in Austin, Texas, and asked an employee to write the words “Love Wins” in icing on top. It was to be a gift for a member of his congregation.
Accounts diverge from there.
According to Brown, 31, as he was driving away from the store he looked down through the clear-top of the cake box and was horrified to see a slur scrawled beneath the “Love Wins.” He called the store and received an apology, he said. But a short time later, an employee called back and denied that the offensive word was written by anyone at Whole Foods.
On Monday, Brown and his lawyer announced a lawsuit against Whole Foods at a news conference, during which the pastor choked back tears as he described the humiliation of the experience.
At the same time, the lawyer, Austin Kaplan, posted a YouTube video showing Brown fuming over his treatment by Whole Foods and presenting evidence that he said implicated the grocery chain. He held the cake box up to the camera to show an unbroken label along an edge of the box, where the lid meets the bottom.
“I have not opened the box,” he said in the video.
A day later, Whole Foods denounced the episode as a fraud.
The company released video surveillance footage from the store, located on North Lamar Boulevard, that it said showed Brown holding the cake at the checkout line. In it, a label can be seen affixed to the top of the box, the store said, not on a bottom edge, as it appeared in Brown’s video.
“This is evident as the cashier scans the UPC code on top of the box,” the store said in its counter lawsuit.
Whole Foods is seeking $100,000, contending Brown acted with malice to damage its reputation.
Questions about Brown’s accusations have enthralled the Texas capital, where Whole Foods is based, as hundreds of online detectives have debated the case on social media and in the online comment threads of The Austin-American Statesman. Their fascination is driven in part by the unlikely adversaries: a gay African-American man and a grocery chain that promotes itself as a steward of social and environmental responsibility.
Some have expressed disbelief that the pastor didn’t notice the slur while in the store. (Brown noted in his lawsuit that he rushed out of the Whole Foods after his purchase.) Others have pointed out what looks like a possible discrepancy in the cake’s lettering.
Lisa Mansour, a cake decorating instructor in New York City, concluded that the “Love Wins” and the slur were not written at the same time. The colors of each word, written in blue icing, seem to match, she said, but not the lettering.
“The ‘Love Wins’ is thicker, and the second word, it’s much finer,” she said. “It’s not consistent.”
Asked if a disgruntled employee could have written the slur without being detected, Robin Kelly, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, said in an interview that the company stood by the bakery team’s version of events: that Brown exited the store with an unadulterated cake.
Kelly added that Whole Foods bakery sections follow a “general practice” of having customers look at their cakes to be sure they are satisfied. That’s the reason for the clear-top design of the boxes, she said.
Kaplan, the pastor’s lawyer, said in an emailed statement Wednesday that he was continuing to investigate the lawsuit and called on Whole Foods to provide any evidence it had connected to the case.
He did not respond to a request for further comment through his spokeswoman. Messages left with Brown were not returned.
“Pastor Brown never asked for this to happen,” Kaplan said in a statement when his lawsuit was filed Monday. “He continues to be overwhelmed by the feelings of pain, anguish, and humiliation because of this incident.”