- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
East Side Pies co-owner Noah Polk first heard of the conspiracy theory known as “pizzagate” around the time of the presidential election. The fake news story was started by an online community, fueled by misinterpretations of emails released by WikiLeaks, that claimed associates of Hillary Clinton were behind a child sex-trafficking ring headquartered at the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. The fake story turned into a real crime scene on Sunday when a gunman walked into that Washington restaurant and fired a shot.
Now, Austin police are investigating harassment and vandalism that’s been waged against the local restaurant by believers of the “pizzagate” conspiracy.
For Polk’s restaurant, the conspiracy theory first hit home when someone he’d never met left a review on East Side Pies’ Facebook page. The comment mentioned “pizzagate” and Comet Ping Pong owner James Alefantis. It was the commenter’s second post in a few days. The first had referenced pedophilia.
That day Polk was also alerted to a thread on the message board Reddit suggesting East Side Pies might also be a part of the fictional sex-trafficking ring. Once he went down that internet rabbit hole, Polk was shocked to find myriad posts falsely tying East Side Pies to the debunked conspiracy theory.
East Side Pies is continuing to suffer sporadic harassment and name-calling via social media, and one of its delivery trucks was vandalized with a scrawled epithet.
The online posts have made wild and baseless accusations about East Side Pies. They interpreted the restaurant’s logo as a symbol of the “Illuminati,” questioned the meaning of photos of pizza-eating children on East Side Pies’ Facebook account, inferred that a picture of staffers with former Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell was proof of nefarious political ties and claimed co-owner Michael Freid, an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America, had “connections to the CIA.”
“This is absolutely insane and unfounded and ridiculous,” Polk said Tuesday of his thoughts after reading the initial posts. “The dots they are trying to connect are so ludicrous. I was not happy about it.”
Polk said he became worried about the safety of his employees, as well as his restaurant’s reputation, and he contacted Austin police and the FBI on Monday.
Austin police on Wednesday confirmed that a report for criminal mischief had been filed Tuesday involving one of the restaurant’s vehicles. A police spokesman said profane and sexual statements had been carved into the vehicle in the 5300 block of Airport Boulevard. The complete report on the incident and additional details weren’t immediately available Wednesday.
The online targeting of East Side Pies had gained steam Saturday when Owen Shroyer — who hosts a live-streaming podcast called “Engage Liberty” and makes videos for the Austin-based conspiracy-fueled website Infowars.com — hosted a 21/2-hour broadcast detailing his visits to multiple East Side Pies locations.
In the broadcast uploaded to YouTube, Shroyer said he was “weirded out and creeped out” by his visits to East Side Pies. What he saw, he says, left him “gripping my gun tighter every night.”
The “weird stuff” he encountered? Employees with large-gauge piercings and blue hair, a “weird locked-up grate in the back” of one location, disturbing rock music and band fliers with “satanic” symbols. The “coup de grace,” according to Shroyer: two children playing dominoes in the presence of an adult.
He also thought the restaurant’s logo, a pizza in the shape of an eye, with the catchphrase “We know what you want,” was a nod to the Illuminati.
While the other accusations probably don’t require much explanation from a laid-back, family-friendly, rock-and-roll pizza joint in the Live Music Capital of the World, Polk offered a quick back-story on the name and logo.
Polk, who opened the restaurant with Freid in 2006, wanted to name the restaurant East Side Pies, written as three separate words. When he told a friend, the guy immediately quipped, “ESP. We know what you want.” Thus was born a clever piece of marketing, soon to be accompanied by a logo with a circular pizza minus a slice representing an eyeball.
Polk has received about a half-dozen calls over the past several days from people using unidentifiable phone numbers requesting interviews with East Side Pies management or ownership.
The co-owners refused the requests from the suspicious callers, because, in the words of Polk, “You argue with the fool, you’re the fool yourself.”
On Sunday, a North Carolina man was arrested in Washington, D.C., after entering Comet Ping Pong with a semi-automatic weapon and firing at least one shot. Police said he later told them he was “self-investigating” conspiracy theories about child slaves there. The incident, which made national news, reaffirmed to Polk that his instinct to contact law enforcement was correct.
“Luckily nobody got hurt during the shooting, but I do believe it’s come to light now, it’s a national story, about fake news,” Polk said. “I do believe people who’ve been on the fence or thought maybe there was something to it … now most thinking people will realize that this is fake and not to get behind it or think there is any truth to it.”
Freid and Polk said the false accusations and character assassination has been “alarming, disappointing, disconcerting and scary.”
“The biggest thing: It was unfair,” Freid said. “We have too many other things to do just to keep our business going every day. It’s completely unfounded and ludicrous. It is absolutely absurd.”