Presidential bear hug just the sauce on the pie

  • Article by: CARLOS FRIAS , Cox Newspapers
  • Updated: December 31, 2012 - 6:53 PM

An impromptu hug of Obama has led pizza shop owner Scott Van Duzer to witness both good and bad slices of life.

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It was the “Hug Seen ’Round the World” in Scott Van Duzer’s Florida pizzeria.

Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

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WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. - The pizza guy hugged the president and his life was never the same.

"I can't say it changed overnight. It changed that day," said Scott Van Duzer, the Fort Pierce, Fla., pizza shop owner who was so stunned to see President Obama walk into his store while on the campaign trail that Van Duzer famously bear-hugged the president.

The story, the video, the photo, it all went viral.

After the "Hug Seen 'Round the World," Van Duzer was invited to join the president at the presidential debate at Lynn University, where he sat next to the first lady. The next day, he introduced the president at a campaign rally in Delray Beach, Fla. The president high-fived him on stage.

"That was awesome," Van Duzer said. "That was even cooler than the hug."

Van Duzer, 46, became this election's Joe The Plumber, but unlike that real-life meme, he has no intention of using the fame to run for office.

Long before that genuine expression of joy, Van Duzer was making an impact in the community. Five years ago, after a St. Lucie County firefighter lost his home in a blaze, Van Duzer rallied the community to raise money to help the firefighter.

That effort became the Van Duzer Foundation and, to date, it has helped raise more than $670,000 to help 43 local families (an average of more than $15,000 in cash gifts to each family). One day a month, Van Duzer's store, Big Apple Pizza, puts 100 percent of its sales -- including all staff salaries and tips -- toward helping a family in need.

This summer, he and four teens from the Boys & Girls Club rode their bikes from Fort Pierce to Washington D.C., 1,148 miles, speaking in 30 cities in 30 days along the way, to raise awareness of the importance of giving blood before meeting with the surgeon general -- a 30-minute meeting that lasted four hours.

The publicity from his hug has only bolstered the foundation, especially after he was on six talks shows the day after his September embrace. In the 24 hours after the world saw the video, the foundation raised $24,000 with 1,100 online donations.

And now the down side

But the attention wasn't all positive. Van Duzer, a registered Republican, had voted for Obama in the last election and said he did again in November. That brought out the worst in anti-Obama zealots, who called in bomb threats, sent him hate mail with death threats, and brought out a level of vitriol Van Duzer said he had never witnessed.

Some tried to organize a boycott of his restaurant and bombarded Yelp!, the restaurant review website, with thousands of one-star reviews from first-time visitors to the site. (Yelp! eventually took down the fraudulent reviews.)

"We saw the best of the best and the worst of the worst," Van Duzer said.

Still, business is great, he says, up about 200 percent. And he had new patrons come from far and wide, including a man who drove from Philadelphia with 11 family members to eat at Big Apple Pizza and shake Van Duzer's hand.

It's stories like those, and the boost to his foundation, that Van Duzer will take from his moment in the spotlight.

"The hug was cute and funny," he said, "but there's more to what we do."

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