Mr. Chatterbox: Terrorism, Freedom of Speech...and Bradenton

Conservative preacher Terry Jones (the man who wanted to burn the Koran) opens a French fry stand with his brothers in a Bradenton mall.

By Robert Plunket March 1, 2015

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Why is it that every time some earthshaking event happens, something that really changes the world, there is always a Sarasota connection? Why is there always some piece to the puzzle that can be traced back to our particular neck of the woods?

The infamous 2000 Presidential election, which set into motion the Bush presidency, was decided by a woman from Sarasota (then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris.) And 9/11 packed a double whammy: Not only was the president here that day, but many of the hijackers had spent the previous year here, learning how to fly and partying at the Cheetah strip club.

But what about the Charlie Hebdo massacre and all the marches and riots that followed it? Surely they had nothing to do with Sarasota. Well, for once that’s true.

This time it was Bradenton.

It seems that the No. 2 guy on the official Al-Qaeda hit list, right up there with the cartoonists and Salman Rushdie, now runs a French fry stand at the mall in Bradenton. And on any given day he’s up there, cooking and selling his fries.

His name is Terry Jones and he first entered the public eye as that preacher in Gainesville who announced he was going to burn the Koran. Everybody begged him not to—the president, Hillary Clinton, Gen. Petraeus. He finally relented but kept up with his provocations. He wrote a book called Islam is of the Devil. He announced he was running for president. Then he said he was going to burn the Koran again, only this time 2,977 of them, one for every person killed in the 9/11 attacks. His plan was foiled when he was arrested for improperly transporting fuel, in this case a trailer full of gasoline-soaked Korans and a barbecue grill. Then he sort of faded from view until the Charlie Hebdo killings proved that Al-Qaeda does not forget about its enemies.

What’s he like, this unlikely provacateur? Is he an opportunistic nut case or are his beliefs, in the latest catchphrase, “sincerely held?” Does he breathe fire and have horns? Is he scared to death? And most importantly, are his fries any good?

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To try and answer some of these questions, I’ve been spending a lot of time up at the DeSoto Square mall. As you probably know, it is what is known as a “dying mall,” an unfortunate phrase under the circumstances but one which means that a lot of stores have closed down and its future doesn’t look so bright. In fact, just about the only bright spot lately has been the addition to the food court of The Fry Guys.

Their gimmick—they being Terry and two brothers—is “gourmet fries,” and after sampling quite a few in the past couple of weeks, I can say that’s there’s nothing like a really good French fry. My doctor doesn’t allow me to eat them, but I figured I could do so in connection with this story, since it’s for investigative research.

The fries are cooked in peanut oil, and they come across like really good McDonald’s fries, only a little bit thicker. This is a big compliment in my book, as McDonald’s are among the best in the land. A regular order costs $1.99 and for that you get a heaping helping, almost more than you can eat. You also get your choice of topping for no extra charge. They have chili cheese, bleu cheese, wing sauce, even something called tzatziki. I always stick with plain old mayonnaise, which Terry lets you squeeze on yourself from a big plastic bottle, as much as you want.

Terry turns out to be a tall lanky man in his 50s, very polite and soft-spoken. He has a full head of thinning hair and one of those old-fashioned mutton-chop mustaches. His manners as a restaurateur are extraordinary. He let me borrow his big canister of salt to take to the table so I could keep adding sodium to the lower layers of my fries. He even said, “Go eat now while it’s hot. You can pay me later.”

And when a big Mexican family showed up and all the kids wanted something different and kept changing their minds, he was the soul of patience and grandfatherliness.

Over the course of several days I conducted surveillance at the food court, watching Terry as he waited on customers, cooked up fries, and talked on the phone, which he did a lot. (Planning his 2016 presidential bid?) Sometimes he had a woman helping him, sometimes he was by himself. At one point, a man in a tie, accompanied by a mall security guard, came up and had a short conversation with him. The man looked like he might be the mall manager. Was he reporting another threat? Terry gets them all the time. An Egyptian court has sentenced him to death and there is a $2.2 million bounty on his head.

As I began my second order of fries and a hot dog (Hebrew National) I began to wonder about a couple of things. The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are being turned into martyrs. Terry Jones is pretty much ridiculed and despised. Why? Is it because he seems to be motivated by hatred of the devil and they were motivated by an intellectual concept? What’s the difference? The Western world has declared, post-Charlie Hebdo, that people can say terrible things and they must be protected. Much—OK, part—of the Islamic world is saying, not so fast. And Terry Jones is caught in the middle. (Along with, I might add, the management of DeSoto Square mall. They’ve already made him cover up his logo, a cartoon (!) image of him and his brothers.)

I looked around the food court. The mall may be dying, but things were bustling on a busy Saturday afternoon. A group of Mexican teenagers was celebrating a quinceanera party, all them dressed in pink and white formal wear. There were other teenagers, many of them African-American, and some families, also many African-American. What I’m trying to get at is that this was not the natural demographic for a white Southern preacher.

As I licked the mayo off my last fry, I saw a woman come in. She was wearing a Muslim head scarf and pushing a baby stroller. Uh-oh, I thought. Then I looked at the baby.

Only it wasn’t a baby. It was a package.

Very calmly I stood up and walked to the far end of the food court. The woman could be going anywhere in the mall, of course, so it was with a growing sense of horror that I watched her make a beeline toward the fry stand, where she stopped.  Terry didn’t see her. He was standing on a stepladder, dumping ice into the top of the Coke machine.

As she studied the menu I did what any normal person would have done—I positioned myself behind a pillar and began to pray. Yes, I made my peace with the Lord, right there in the Bradenton mall. Time stood still. So still that after a moment or so, I peeked out to see what was going on.

The woman appeared to be buying some of Terry’s fries. He was calmly dumping a fresh batch into the fryer. She may have been a Muslim, but she was a Muslim with $1.99, and that was all that mattered now.

Feeling relieved but slightly deflated, I went out to my car. Is that the secret to world peace—have all the world’s conflicting religions sell each other French fries? It seems to be working—at least in Bradenton.

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