As It Happens

Owner of Woke Breakfast & Coffee had no idea the name would be so fraught

When Carmen Quiroga opened Woke Breakfast & Coffee in Connecticut, she had no idea the word was politically charged.

When Carmen Quiroga opened her café in Connecticut, she wasn't ready for the backlash — or the support

A white building with a sign that reads: Woke Breakfast & Coffee. The O in "Woke" is an egg.
Woke Breakfast & Coffee in Coventry, Conn., which opened in January, has faced both backlash and support over its contentious name. (Erin Knapp)

When Carmen Quiroga opened her new restaurant last month, she had no idea she'd end up in the middle of an American culture war.

Quiroga, who is originally from Mexico, runs Woke Breakfast & Coffee with her husband in Coventry, Conn. When she chose the name, she says she was trying to evoke the feeling of being refreshed after a good cup of joe. 

"When you wake up in the morning … the first thing you want is to drink a coffee to, like, wake up, right?" Quiroga told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

She says she didn't realize the term "woke" had a different, more politically charged, connotation. Then she saw the Facebook comments. 

"I feel so sad [about] the people who don't support my business," Quiroga said. "I don't know nothing about the controversy."

A history of staying woke

The term "woke" dates back to the 1930s, when it was primarily used by Black people to describe waking up to the realities of oppression and racism in the United States. 

According to a history of the word by Vox's Aja Romano, one of the earliest examples of its use in pop culture was in the lyrics "stay woke" in Scottsboro Boys, a 1938 protest song by Blues musician Huddie Ledbetter about a group of Black teenagers accused of raping two white women.

The word saw a major resurgence after the 2014 police killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, Miss. Since then, it has been regularly used by activists and artists alike, including rapper Childish Gambino in his 2016 song Redbone, which repeats the refrain: "Stay woke."

Side by side pictures of two men.
The term 'woke' has been used by musicians like Childish Gambino, right, to mean being aware of injustice, and Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, as a disparaging term for liberals. (Octavio Jones, Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

In recent years, however, it has also become a term of derision, wielded by right-wing figures to disparage what they see as a left-wing agenda that places too much significance on oppressed identities. 

Republicans in Florida have branded a new law that restricts what schools can teach about race as the "Stop WOKE Act."  And at an event in January, the state's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, declared his disdain for "woke ideology" and said: "Florida is where woke goes to die."

But Quiroga didn't know any of that. 

She and her family thought the name was was nice and short, easy to remember. Plus, they could style their logo with an egg in place of the O. 

The diner's catchphrase is: "You woke up and made the right choice."

The word "WOKE" in a black font, but the O is an egg.
The owners of Woke Breakfast & Coffee say it would be too expensive and time-consuming to rebrand. (Woke Breakfast & Coffee/Facebook)

It took four months of work to get the restaurant ready, Quiroga said. But when she announced the grand opening on Facebook, she was shocked by the response. 

"[People wrote]: 'I'll never go there. I don't support the people who chose that name' — and many, many things. I don't read too much because I just want to cry in that moment," she said. 

She says she and her family considered changing the name, but decided it would be too much work and money. The logo is already on their menus, mugs, branding and storefront. 

"So I say, well, we're going to do it the way we know — just work hard and try to do the best food we can," she said.

Backlash, and a happy ending

The negative comments filled several local Facebook groups, according the Washington Post and CBC has not seen the comments, as they have mostly been deleted by moderators. 

The Coventry CT Republican Town Committee Facebook group addressed the backlash in a post on Jan. 22.

A plate of French toast.
French toast is served at Woke Breakfast & Coffee. (Woke Breakfast & Coffee/Facebook)

"While the name at first may set off some conservatives' alarm bells, it is clear that the owner never intended for it to be a political statement," it reads. 

"We strongly discourage any negativity toward this business or its hard-working, entrepreneurial owners — nor do we support the impulsive chatter of boycott. Sometimes, words can mean just what they've always meant."

The group did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite the rough start, Quiroga says her story had a happy ending.

When word got out about the backlash, the community rallied to her side. She's had so much business during her first couple weeks, that she's already looking to hire extra staff to keep up with the demand.

"When I open and I see a bunch of people waiting outside, I'm so happy," she said. "People look at me and say, 'Oh, we're going to support you. Don't worry. We're going to be here every day.'"

Lisa Thomas, chair of Coventry Town Council, is among Quiroga's supporters. 

"The restaurant is filled every day by people embracing and welcoming her. But just as important is that she chose our town for her business and to move her family to," Thomas said in an emailed statement.

"This story should never have been about comments in a local social media group. It's about Carmen choosing our town for her new business and the community's excitement over finally having a breakfast place with good food and coffee back in town. This type of small business is a critical asset for our community."

Interview with Carmen Quiroga produced by Chris Harbord.

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