Bo Muller-Moore is a father, former teacher and runs a small business out of his home in Montpelier, Vt. He makes shirts that have simple messages -- 'Cheese' was the first he made, then he was asked by a local farmer to make another that said 'Eat More Kale.' In the span of a few years his design, simple and effective, became widespread and sales were made global, but at a manageable pace and added to his families income ever so slightly. In 2011, faced with online copycats, he filed for a federal trademark to protect his design.
So why is Chick-fil-A trying to run him out of business? Insisting through a cease and desist letter that 'Eat More Kale' is too similar to 'Eat Mor Chikin' and could confuse people and therefore was damaging to Chick-fil-A's brand, the corporation has chosen to go after the little guy who does not live within 100 miles of the nearest Chick-fil-A, nor would those seeing a shirt or sticker that reads 'Eat More Kale' confuse a green leafy plant with numerous health benefits, with chicken. For Vermonters, a state where eating local food is the way of life, the lawsuit makes no sense and had garnered national attention for Bo and shed a negative light on the actions of Chick-fil-A, in a case of corporate bullying writ large.
Bo Muller-Moore sat down to talk with me on the phone this past weekend and shared his story, the journey he has been on the past six months and the new documentary that will shed light on the future of 'Eat More Kale.'
How did you make your way to Vermont by way of Alabama?
I had a step-uncle, my stepmother's brother, who moved from Missouri where we were living in the 1970s to Vermont to pursue a simpler life. To the rest of us who were suburban, the 'back to the land' sort of lifestyle seemed kind of bizarre to the suburban style of the Reagan '80s and Clinton '90s. When I graduated from Samford College (in Birmingham, Ala.) with a degree in history, my step-uncle's lifestyle started looking interesting to me, so I moved to Burlington since it was a bit of a family safety net for me. I wound up in North Montpelier instead of Burlington because I had a Rottweiler, a cat and a python. I planned to be a substitute teacher, but I met Seamus when I was asked to work with him at the school, and after a couple years of working with him, he became my foster son.
Although it is kind of obvious, what does Eat More Kale mean?
Well, that's the million dollar question. In the most literal sense when it was designed it meant eat more kale, when a farmer who knew I had been hand printing shirts in my garage requested the shirt
What does Eat More Kale mean now?
It seems to mean a lot of things to a lot of people. It feels more like a movement or a state of mind or a way of thinking about your food or your body or the world around you or where you are going to spend your money, where the person who gets your money is going to do about it. It doesn't mean don't eat a hamburger or don't eat a chocolate chip cookie; it simply means eat more kale. I think the phrase could be considered potentially preachy, if delivered in a certain manner. I'm an omnivore and a locavore, but I am able to realize if I want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, why not eat it on local bread, crush my own peanut butter and use organic jelly? It's all about where the money is going to go. Being told to eat more kale by a chubby hippie who eats a lot of other things doesn't make people feel defensive or preachy.
How do you prefer to eat kale?
How did your Eat More Kale small business come to be and how have you grown in recent years?
I sold the first shirt I printed that simply said 'Cheese.' Someone at school asked me to make one, within 24 hours of me screening and wearing it. Having used the screen printing machine my wife got me, and have success within 24 hours of first making the art was astounding. Some people go years working at art and literally overnight there was a positive response. It was never about getting rich, it was all about having fun. It became a few years ago, as my family grew and had two kids of my own, impractical to go to music festivals as I once did to sell the shirts and I was able to sell shirts online instead of on the road. There were some folks in the past couple years where copy-cat artists were ripping me off via Etsy or Café Press, so contacting those websites or just having private conversations took care of much of that. I addressed them all and explained to some of these people who were arguing 'it was three simple words,' but so is 'Life is Good,' so I would explain that I had a common law trademark, which led to me eventually deciding last year to apply for a trademark, so that I had the legal protection and this was before Chick-fil-A sent a cease and desist letter that started this process. They had sent one (cease and desist letter) back in 2006 that said 'send your inventory to Atlanta to be destroyed, shut your website down and don't give or sell a sticker away and don't print or sell any more 'Eat More Kale' shirts, or else. That was five years into the Eat More Kale design. I got a free lawyer from the Vermont Arts Council, Lisa Pearson who wrote a series of letters to them over a six-month period essentially saying, "He's not confusing their customers, he's not hurting their profits and he's not deluding their ad campaign. He lives in a small state with a foster kid. Do you really want to break their back? Back the hell off." At one point, Chick-fil-A stopped responding. They quit returning calls and letters and I took that as common sense, "OK, thanks, that's how its supposed to work," so I kept making shirts and stickers, with no dreams of success. I was just having fun making a product. In 2011 when they sent me a letter, essentially the same thing, except without asking for my inventory. My current lawyer, Daniel Richardson, who was doing the trademark application pro bono offered to stay on when Chick-fil-A threatened me with the second cease and desist letter.
Choosing to fight them wasn't a done deal and Dan didn't want me to be poking the hornets nest, but I said, "we can and we're going to." With Facebook and the use of social media (this is now 2011, not 2006) and I could go into the fans/friends/followers on Facebook in mid-November and the story was out. I explained what Chick-fil-A was doing, how they were blocking the trademark and before long, local business papers started writing about it a week later. By Cyber Monday, 11/28/11, my site had 37,000 hits (the day before I had 350) thanks to articles from the New York Times, Anderson Cooper commenting on it on his show and Governor Shumlin speaking up and the response went international. I was flooded with responses and support from people all over.
People wanted to show support by spending money on my site. It was people who like and don't like kale, with some writing, "I don't eat kale and I don't wear T-shirts but I'm buying this shirt to protest Chick-fil-A." When my friends and neighbors heard I was overwhelmed with orders, people started knocking on my door, offering their lunch hour, their afternoon, helping out for the next month or so, catching up on orders. And not a single person asked a damn thing of me. I put them to work, sometimes running to pick up blank shirts. I had people who simply printed the order off the computer and handed it to someone else. My mother-in-law sent thank you notes and order updates to everyone who wrote to me.
The governor wanted to support me by creating Team Kale and tell Chick-fil-A to back down. That was overwhelming and essential, and the campaign has led to $10,000 in donations for the legal fund. Ben and Jerry's assistant called me and said they wanted to talk to me, since they had gone up against Pillsbury with their 'What's Doughboy Afraid of' campaign in the '90s. They called and spoke to me for an hour and said, among other things, to trust my gut and don't worry about being too polite.
After a successful Kickstarter campaign, you have a documentary in the works. What's the plan for A Defiant Dude?
Around the end of last December, I got a call from James Lantz who said, "this is a good story" and I realized that his idea for a film was win-win. If Chick-fil-A defeats me and pursues the cease and desist and runs me out of business, that would be a good film, although not for them. But then again, if I beat Chick-fil-A, then it becomes a David and Goliath story, and that's the one I prefer of the two. (laughs)
Jim filmed me in February, put together a 2:50 short intro film and in March we started using Kickstarter, where we raised $90,000 for the documentary film that he titled A Defiant Dude. Our goal was $75,000 so it was affirming to not only meet our goal but beat it. We even got support from classic rocker Jackson Browne, who has such a history of activism, if he puts even an idea or a minute to something like this, its notable. It was pretty wild to use Facebook to drum up interest and ultimately get 2,000 people to sign onto the Kickstarter.
April has been pre-production, hiring the crew and over the next six to nine months, we'll film and work. Business has been good, although my personal studio isn't big enough to keep up with demand, and since I couldn't build a new studio, I use a local screen printing shop who use the same materials, water based ink and screens. If I had to do it myself, they'd be waiting three to four months at this point. Money is being spent from California to Florida to Long Island and is coming right here, so .75 of each dollar goes to Tim (the screen printer) and his crew and that is very unexpected, so you could say I'm making lemonade out of lemons. It certainly raises the stakes; the business is more viable, so much so that if the rug was pulled out, it would affect more people, now that we have upped the ante and it makes me that much more determined.
How have things changed for you since the battle against Chick-fil-A started?
Well, I don't get to take as many naps as I used to. I get more email than I thought I'd ever get. And because this strikes such a chord in some people and some take it so personally, I'm doing everything I can to get back to every person who contacts me. And that's a double edged sword, it's flattering and amazing but it's honestly tiring. It adds up. One email becomes a hundred emails, and I don't want to leave people hanging. Because of the volume I was always really on top of things and it's hard to feel that I'm in control these days.
You've lived in Vermont for years with your family. What makes it such a great place to live, for those who haven't been up to the Green Mountain State?
There seems to be, at least in the people that I know or choose to be around, there seems to be a real consciousness or awareness of what your vote leads to and the effect of spending your dollar at one establishment versus another establishment. In a town so small that you can easily and realistically know the person who bakes your bread, who raised the pig you are eating, the potter who made the plates you are eating off of. That exists everywhere but I would argue not in the concentration that it does in Vermont.