Barry Saunders

The barbecue restaurant, the police union officer and a hurtful viral story – Saunders

'It's been very emotional' says David Harris of Smithfield's Chicken 'n Bar-B-Q about recent allegations

David Harris of Smithfield's Chicken 'n Bar-B-Q addresses allegations by Raleigh police officers that employees sang 'F--- the Police' while officers were in a store located at 4000 Jones Sausage Road store Friday.
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David Harris of Smithfield's Chicken 'n Bar-B-Q addresses allegations by Raleigh police officers that employees sang 'F--- the Police' while officers were in a store located at 4000 Jones Sausage Road store Friday.

I think it was Mark Twain who said, “A lie can slaughter the hog, barbecue it, eat that sucker with all the fixin’s and take a nap before the truth has had a chance to heat up the hushpuppies.”

OK, that may not be the precise quote, but you get the point. Lies spread like fire on a bacon-coated Formica countertop, while the truth is considerably slower.

That’s what happened with the story spread by Raleigh Police Protective Association President Matthew Cooper that employees at the Smithfield’s Chicken ’n Bar-B-Q restaurant on Jones Sausage Road serenaded dining police officers with that sweet, lilting N.W.A. tribute to law enforcement, “F--- tha Police.”

On Facebook, homes poured it on like barbecue sauce on an overcooked brisket, facetiously thanking the restaurant for its “class and professionalism as you sang ‘F--- the police’ as my brothers at Raleigh Police Department attempted to eat at your restaurant. The manager sang along as well.”

Thanks to incontrovertible video proof, Cooper’s contention was disproved – although not before, Mark O’Mara, the attorney representing the company said – 400,000 internet hits reinforced the idea that Smithfield’s is “the company that doesn’t like cops.”

Do you have any idea what a story like that can do to a man’s business, his reputation, his soul?

I do, because I asked Willie McKennies.

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Mark O’Mara, center, the attorney for Smithfield’s Chicken ’n Bar-B-Q, talks with the media alongside franchisee David Harris, right, and store manager Willie McKennies, left, during Wednesday’s news conference at the restaurant. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

“It kind of hurts your soul,” McKennies told me Wednesday, moments after a news conference in front of the restaurant at which he serves as manager.

“I normally take kids that no one else will deal with,” McKennies, who is black, said of the restaurant’s employees. “Maybe they’ve been in trouble once or twice. ... I always tell my kids that because we are who we are, because of our complexion, we always have to try to put our best foot forward. Our place has to be cleaner than anybody else’s, we need to try to do it faster than anybody else. We have to be concerned about how things are interpreted.

“We’ve built a really good customer base here with police and firefighters and regular people,” he said. I could see tears streaming down his cheek before he turned abruptly and walked away.

Four times during the 10-minute conversation in his restaurant’s parking lot Wednesday as the lunchtime crowd started pulling up, McKennies, a former U.S. Marine, had to wander away to compose himself before he could continue speaking. He was especially emotional when talking about how the phoned-in death threats frightened his employees and forced them to unplug the store’s phones and put them in a safe.

He also had to stop for a minute when recounting how his mother moved his family, when he was a tot, from Chicago to Mississippi after two children in a building next to theirs were thrown to their deaths. She feared she couldn’t protect her children there.

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Barry Saunders Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

McKennies composed himself long enough to tell how he had to pass up a college football scholarship to go into the Marine Corps to help out his family financially.

And now, this.

“You come from nothing, you put your whole heart and soul into something,” he said, “and in two minutes everything you’ve worked for over 17 years just gets thrown under the bus because of what someone says that’s not really the truth.”

Not really the truth? Man, it was a lie.

Instead of the entire staff – along with the manager – putting on a cop-hating floor show for several cops, it now appears that a single employee made eye contact with one cop from behind the counter and mouthed the song’s title. Any black dude who would do that to a cop doesn’t need a job: he needs a shrink.

In a statement on its Facebook page Wednesday afternoon, the RPAA said, “Last Friday, we shared a post on our Facebook page about Smithfields Chicken and BBQ. There was an investigation conducted and while there were inappropriate comments made by an employee of the restaurant, not all the information in the post was accurate. Smithfields has taken all the appropriate steps to deal with the manager involved and our organization appreciates Smithfields proper investigation and swift action on dealing with the employee.”

Still, one could ask why would Cooper promulgate such disproved propaganda as he did Friday? Was he trying to show just how difficult it is being a cop?

We already know that, Matthew.

Does the RPAA or Cooper own stock in a rival barbecue joint? Is it secretly funded by PETA and trying to prevent us from piggin’ out on pig? Was Cooper angling to get free hushpuppies for aggrieved officers?

McKennies said he forced the one employee who allegedly mouthed the noxious sentiment to call the police department and apologize.

David Harris, the restaurant’s owner, said one employee who was questioned about the incident quit.

That’s standup corporate behavior right there.

Cooper should be standup, too. He should call McKennies and every employee of the Jones Sausage Road Smithfield’s restaurant and apologize. He should do the same to his “brothers” at the cop shop whom he supposedly represents.

He was reckless with someone else’s livelihood and reputation – doing, in essence, what the words to the song say.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9

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