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Know the West

The entrepreneurs


A crowd stood at the corner of Blake Street and the 16th Street Mall on Monday, flanking a pushcart overflowing with t-shirts. A painfully cheery young man named Toby wore one that was blazoned with the Qdoba Mexican Grill cartoon cactus. On the front it said “Burritos for Obama.” Other t-shirts offered up quesadillas and nachos to the candidate instead.

“So,” we asked, “why are you a burrito?”

“A burrito is just kinda like all the good stuff wrapped in one, like Obama,” Toby, presumably a Qdoba employee, said. Not sarcastically. “It’s just something fun, funky and fresh.” (Each entrée, it turns out, refers to a personality type. If you have a lot of time on your hands and want to find out your own “q-dentity,” you too can divine your fate in a pile of refried beans.)

In exchange for a video promo in which they had to profess their love for Obama while holding up a t-shirt, passersby got to keep a shirt. Toby admitted that the Qdoba Restaurant Corporation will be selling slightly different t-shirts at the Republican Convention.

Further down the road, a sometime florist named Michelle was demonstrating the mobile hips of the Obama Action Figure. (“An action figure we can believe in,” said the box.) “Some people are buying them for their kids, some people are keeping them in the box for collector’s items,” she said, flexing one of Obama’s elbows. The figure retails for $15. McCain—“A Call to Action Figure”—exists as well, “but we’re not promoting it,” Michelle whispered conspiratorially.

Near the south end of the mall, hipster t-shirts and baby onesies hung from the roof of the Barackstar08.com booth. In February, Zoe Montalbano of Boulder was so inspired by Obama and his message that she designed a black and silver “Barack Star” tee and took the first 25 she printed to an Obama event, where fellow volunteers snatched them up. And, she explains, the demand for more was the impetus behind additional designs, such as the “Barack and Roll” tank top. One of the few vendors along the mall that didn’t appear to swing both ways, Zoe and her husband, Mark, donate 10 percent of the Barack Star proceeds to the campaign. To date, that’s added up to about $1,000.

By this time we were hot and thirsty. Up ahead, lay the Sno-ball Shack, an oasis in the median. This vendor is a permanent Denver fixture, not part of the ephemeral convention entourage. While pondering the gazillion flavors, we noticed a big sticker on the window: “Obama Ya Mama.” This mixture of passionfruit and guava (a rip-off of Bahama Mama) is a top seller, according to employee Elliot Sawyer, whose lips were stained orange. “I just get in there and mix them all,” he said.

Despite being “just a local boy from Denver,” Michael Herold’s merchandising ploy stood out with the best of the corporate behemoths. His brother-in-law’s truck sat on corner of the 16th Street Mall, covered with patriotic bunting. In the back stood a life-size cardboard cut-out of Obama encased in a giant plastic bottle.

“I just dreamed it up one day hiking,” Herold said. “I thought, what could I do that was wholesome, something just nice.” What he did was fill dozens of regular-sized plastic bottles with Obama buttons, bracelets, stickers, sunglasses, party horns and flags. Sales, he said, have been pretty good, even at $15 a pop.

Among the more enterprising vendors were Nathan Moore and Sanjay Bapat, creators of the Gay Republican Hypocrites playing card deck. The pair stood at the so-called “perimeter” of the Pepsi Center, hawking their wares. The cards feature "politicians who were anti-gay and got caught in homosexual situations," Sanjay says. Westerners Ted Haggard and Idaho senator Larry Craig were among those pictured.

Moore and Bapat – straight supporters of gay rights who graduated from the University of Texas this spring – came up with the idea while drinking, and followed through with it partly because they thought it “might help them meet chicks.” They sold enough cards to buy plane tickets to Denver but have not yet sold enough to pay their way home. Convention officials have refused to give them credentials to get into the Pepsi Center.

"We don't think the Democratic Party is friendly to small business," says Sanjay. Pro-business Democrats can prove them wrong.