Friday, October 4, 2013

An open letter to Kuma's

Dear Mr. Luke Tobias, Director of Operations, Kuma's

I have been to your restaurant once.  It was fantastic.  I believe I ate about 2 ¼ of your burgers that night, not to mention an ungodly amount of French fries on the side.  I confess that I am, in fact, a glutton.  This is what happens when the girl to guy ratio in your social circle hovers somewhere around 3:1 and leftovers abound.   In all truth, I have long been raving about Kuma’s to any friends who have consulted me in their quest for the perfect Chicago burger.

Unfortunately, however, I cannot ignore the elephant that you have this week introduced into the room: your new “Ghost” burger, which, in a gauche and grasping attempt at humor, prominently features an “unconsecrated communion wafer and a red wine reduction” as toppings.  As you put it on your own Facebook page: "In the spirit of our undying reverence for the lord and all things holy, we give you the Ghost which we think is a fitting tribute to the supreme blasphemous activities carried out by the band itself."

I get it.  The brand of your restaurant is predicated upon capturing the rebellious charisma of modern rock and roll.  And in order to sustain the Kuma's brand, you must constantly be pushing the envelope, poking and prodding “the man” in much the same way that the anti-establishment giants of rock did in the post-British Invasion years.  And, quite understandably, most of your customers are of the cultural persuasion not to mind a delicious burger garnished with a heavy drizzle of iconoclasm. 

But, as a Catholic – and one who does happen to have something of a sense of humor, despite your defensive assumption to the contrary – I feel it my responsibility to let you know that Kuma's has stepped over the line.  I’ll admit: when I first encountered the headline announcing “Chicago burger garnished with communion wafer,” I gave a rye, annoyed smile, rolled my eyes, and nearly moved on -- that is, until I read your truly unfortunate reaction to this whole flare-up: “There are people who are offended by it,” you observed, “but we're delighted to see that generally people seem to have a sense of humor.”  The insinuation, of course, being that those who might be offended do not have a sense of humor, and that we represent the sort of old, no-fun, fuddy-duddies that are definitely not the target audience of the Kuma's brand.

Here’s the thing, though: in a world in which not much of anything is held sacred anymore, we Catholics are dogged in insisting that the Eucharist truly is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, he who is the second hypostasis of the immortal, immutable, and ineffably sublime Trinity.  He is the Alpha and Omega, Creator and Judge, the one at whose name every knee should bend.  The Eucharist is not simply a sacred object, but the most sacred object in the Catholic cosmos, an object in defense of which saints have literally shed their blood, and before which even popes bow down in self-abnegating obedience (see here, here, and here). 

I understand that belief in such doctrines may seem at best inscrutable and at worst, downright absurd.  And I certainly am not attempting to convert you – God would be much better at that than I would.  But I do believe it my duty and responsibility to let you know that you have crossed a line, and that most Catholics with any sort of substantial piety would likely agree with me.

Further, I understand that anyone – especially someone who approaches a situation like this from such a massively different perspective as yours – can quite easily fall into an ordinary lapse in judgment.  Until I read the news article about this story, I assumed that this was basically what you had done.  But to accuse those who disagree with you as being hyper-pious stick-in-the-muds who quite obviously don’t understand that the existence of the sacred is really only an opportunity for capitalistically-motivated desecration – this is unbearable.  What you are basically saying, is: “I know I have offended many Catholics, and this is their fault, not mine.”

I know that free market capitalism theoretically sets no ethical rules on how a company can brand itself or market its products and services.  At the same time, most entrepreneurs are aware that there are certain social taboos that one doesn’t touch.  It wouldn’t be right for a restaurant to conceive, let alone market, “Jim Crow burgers” in the American south, for example.  It’s not good business.  And it’s social suicide.  At least it should be.

Then why is it okay to hit Catholics where it hurts most?  It has been said that “Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice” in America.  To quote Arthur Schlesinger, this bigotry is the “most deeply held prejudice in the history of the American people.”  We would blush at a similarly systematic, intentional, and public insult to the deepest sensibilities of blacks, Arabs, Muslims, Asians, Jews, gays, lesbians, and the mentally ill.  It goes without saying that this reticence is a very good thing, because it is a sign of the hard won public civility that these groups now command.  But it is apparent that Catholics historically have not, and still do not, command this sort of respect in the public square.  This is a serious problem which needs to be remedied, and it will not happen unless Catholics speak up.

So yes, this does happen to be one of those “You no longer have a customer in me” letters.  And this will remain true so long as you continue to blame those you have offended for their “lack of humor.”  Here’s hoping that the “Ghost” burger will “vanish” from Kuma’s menu and that you can find creative and humorous ways to further your brand without violating that which any group considers to be sacred.

-          Justin Bartkus, Chicago Resident


  1. Thank you, Justin, for defending our Lord. I'm proud of you. :)

  2. I am very inspired and proud to say Justin Bartkus is my religion teacher. Great expression of your words Mr. Bartkus I hope this makes it through to Kuma's management. God Bless You!

  3. Yet the face was different from that on which the priest had gazed so often in Portugal, in Rome, in Goa and in Macau. It was not Christ whose face was filled with majesty and glory; neither was it a face made beautiful by endurance to pain; nor was it a face with strength of a will that has repelled temptation. The face of the man who then lay at his feet was sunken and utterly exhausted…The sorrow it had gazed up at him as the eyes spoke appealingly: 'Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.'

    It's a burger, not a persecution. We should let it go.

  4. I like the Shusaku Endo reference but I don't see the connection...

  5. Thanks, James! I really appreciate your support!

    As far as the Endo passage goes, it seems like a cautionary note against Christians adopting a martyr complex in the face of seemingly minor public insults like the Kuma's incident. I agree with this -- it's not worth dwelling on once the moment has passed. However I think it's important that Christians take the initiative in defending themselves against these sorts of offenses, vote with their wallets, and move on. There is a time and a place for criticism to be made, and I think that this incident called for it.