Using a Restaurant to Smash HIV Stigmas

Casey House Staff


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In November 2017, June’s HIV+ Eatery opened for three nights to break the stigma surrounding people living with HIV in Toronto. Operating under the slogan “Break Bread, Smash Stigma”, all of the food served at June’s was prepared by HIV positive individuals-turned chefs. All of the seats at the pop-up restaurant sold out within two weeks, and the event garnered widespread worldwide media attention.

June’s was conceived and implemented pro-bono by creative agency Bensimon Byrne on behalf of Casey House, an independent hospital devoted entirely to caring for people with HIV/AIDS. The “Break Bread, Smash Stigma” campaign was created in response to a survey that revealed half of all Canadians would not eat a meal that was prepared by someone with HIV. Casey House sought to inform the public that HIV cannot be transmitted through food. To fight this misconception, they opened a three-night-only pop-up restaurant that served food exclusively made by HIV positive people. The goal of the project was twofold: get people talking about HIV, and dispel myths about the transmission of HIV.

Casey House worked with an advertising and public relations firm to create a compelling campaign and promote the event as much as possible. Part of the success of the “Break Bread, Smash Stigma” campaign was their smart content-marketing and engaging brand storytelling. They used pictures of the chefs in confident poses wearing aprons with slogans such as “Kiss the HIV+ Cook” and “I got HIV from eating pasta. Said no one ever." The engaging and almost humorous advertising invoked curiosity while forcing people to think about the stigmas that surround people living with HIV. The 30-second promotional video was targeted and thoughtful in its approach to grab viewers’ attention. The visuals the video presented were effective in engaging those watching to think critically about their perceptions connecting HIV positive people and food.

Leading up to the event, Casey House utilized social media platforms to publicize the event and open a dialogue about HIV. While there was a large amount of negative feedback, it served as an opportunity to educate people about HIV and break down misconceptions. 

The pop-up restaurant was made possible because it was led by a professional chef, Matt Basile, and his team. The week prior to the event, 14 individuals, some of whom were former clients of Casey House, were trained in the art of preparing food by the chef who also created the menu. Their time at June’s not only taught them new skills in the kitchen, but it also gave them an opportunity to share their story and engage with the community. In three nights, the restaurant served over 300 people. It created a space for people to gather and learn more about the disease and the challenges that HIV positive people face. Since its creation, June’s garnered over 150 major news stories globally. It was also calculated that over 730,000 Canadians were reached about the issue on social media. While the “Break Bread Smash Stigma” campaign continues, Casey House is planning another June’s HIV+ Eatery restaurant event in 2019.

In April 2018, a documentary about June’s was released featuring the personal stories of the chefs who boldly stepped out to break the stigmas that surround them daily. The trailer for the documentary is visually captivating and rejects society’s notion of how an HIV positive person should look like by highlighting the diversity within the HIV community. The premier showing of the documentary drew in about 400 people and was followed by a panel discussion with the filmmaker, participants of the “Break Bread Smash Stigma” campaign and Casey House’s CEO to discuss the impact of the campaign and address the need for conversation about stigma around HIV. 

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

This tactic offers a creative way to address stigmas and ignorance. Publicly serving food made by individuals living with HIV responded to false ideas about transmission and the fears people have of consuming food prepared by someone with HIV. The “pop up” restaurant allowed Casey House to break down misconceptions, while also educating the community about HIV. It also served as a way to empower those living with HIV to open a dialogue about the challenges they face living with the disease.

Operating a full-service restaurant for three nights is a large undertaking and is extremely costly. This tactic might work best for large organizations that have the financial means to implement such a program. The underlying idea of the tactic though has the potential to be successful in a variety of settings. Existing restaurants might be willing to partner with an organization, small or large, on such an endeavor. If thinking creatively and combined with effective fundraising and outreach tactics, this could be replicated on a smaller, more cost-efficient scale.

This tactic also highlights the power of effective marketing. When framing the issue in an engaging and thought-provoking way, it is easier to capture the attention of audiences and pull them into the dialogue. While Casey House utilized a marketing firm, creative social media campaigns could serve as an effective low-cost alternative.

This video shows how youth in Egypt used the New Tactics Strategic Effectiveness method to develop another tactic for addressing the stigma of HIV while protecting the identities of people living with HIV.