The wolf of White Moose doesn’t let a crisis go to waste

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The Moose Box, a lifeline for the White Moose Café in hard times

DUBLIN’S White Moose Café, and its connecting hotel, Charleville Lodge, have found a way to endure in the midst of the current crisis. They were quick to adopt delivery and click-and-collect models, while managing to maintain staff and keep the businesses afloat.

What’s not to like? A local business, on the North Circular Road between Hanlon’s and Phibsboro, doing well in the midst of a crisis? Well, its owner Paul Stenson, creator of a compelling and divisive online persona, is never far from controversy. In fact, he has become something of a master of it.

While his businesses are known locally for their cheerful staff, solid prices and great food, Stenson has created a more complex image of himself – hailed by some as a delightful antidote to politically correct culture, derided by others as an attention-seeking bully.

The White Moose Café’s website greets potential customers with the simple creed, “No assh*les allowed”. And if you do make it as far as the physical cash register, you may find jars supposedly containing the “ashes of vegans” and “tears of bloggers”.

What’s his beef with bloggers? Stenson was already a social-media critic of ‘influencers’ when, in 2018, a British-based digital influencer contacted the hotel part of his business, the Charleville Lodge, seeking free accommodation in return for a plug on her Instagram. The email was clearly a copy-and-paste, blanket mailout: it didn’t mention the hotel by name, simply “your stunning hotel”. (As Stenson said himself, his hotel is “nice, not stunning”.)

Stenson shared the email and his own biting response on social media to make his point.

The blogger then decided to out herself as Elle Darby. The back and forth between them is well documented online.

After the spat with Darby went global, he invoiced her for the publicity she received off the back of his stunt. The tongue-in-cheek invoice of €5,289,000 was for: “The provision of features in 114 articles across 20 countries with a potential reach of 450 million.”

So, what exactly is Stenson’s tactic of “outrage marketing”? In a nutshell, Stenson posts ‘outrageous’ content to the social media accounts of his businesses. Some people are amused; others are, you guessed it, outraged.

“It is lots of fun! Watching people getting needlessly offended can be really entertaining for other people,” Stenson explains. “Eighty-five to 95% of people have enough cop to recognise satire when they see it. Ideally though you want a 50/50 split of your audience arguing for and against you in the comments. That creates huge engagement and gives you a big reach, for free.”

Shortly before the Covid crisis hit, he was at it again: using social media to amplify his row with a driver who was regularly using his small car-park without patronising the café or hotel. The comments were predictably “outraged”, and the story got international press coverage.

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Other past stunts include a supposed ban of bloggers on his premises, threatening to charge breast-feeding mothers a “corkage fee”, and insisting anyone claiming to be gluten-free must provide a doctor’s note.

The café’s Facebook account alone has amassed over 205,000 followers via such digital antics – but is he worried how people may perceive him in the real world?

“Some people think I’m a big bad wolf, but I’m not really. I know it is only a bit of fun. We only live once, so we may as well spend that time laughing and enjoying the world as much as we can,” he says.

Stenson has been invited to give lectures on his divisive methods to various colleges and societies, including the American Irish Historical Society in New York.

Stenson’s lectures include tips on how to ‘milk a story’

Now Stenson has risen to the challenges that have come with the Covid-19 emergency.

A retro-fitted horse box, purchased last year, wound up being what Stenson calls the best investment of his life. While many businesses were struggling to find ways of adapting to the “new normal” of pandemic life, Stenson already had the ball rolling.

With a social-distance-friendly, click-and-collect system in place, he now sells coffee and sandwiches from outside the café, in “The Moose Box”. He also has a team on the road delivering food cooked by the still-employed kitchen staff.

“We are still paying every member of staff and the government is subsidising 75% of that, which is great. The hotel side of the business is dead but the Moose is keeping things going,” he says.

“The café has quite a limited capacity for customers so we haven’t been able to leverage our huge online following fully. Now though, we have up to six drivers on the road at any one time. We have been able to leverage our following in a new way by bringing our food to them.”

Behind the controversies is an Irish small-business owner keeping staff employed and customers fed. Whether he always goes about it in the right way or not, that’s up for discussion. And that’s pretty much the point.