Cults have always been good at making money. Generally, they do this by forcing their members to hand over huge amounts of cash and all of their worldly possessions. But some groups hustle harder. The FLDS scammed food stamps. The People's Temple sold merch. Heaven's Gate members built websites.
But one cult, the Twelve Tribes (who, it should be noted, rejects the "cult" label) has a relatively simple source of extra income: It owns and operates about 20 restaurants. The eateries, which are known by a number of names, have locations in the US, the UK, Canada, Spain, and Australia. Like their restaurants, the organization itself is spread across the world. Members live communally on farms and eschew a lot of the luxuries of the modern world, like TVs and radio and newspapers. The Twelve Tribes identify as Christian but endorse heinous practices like segregation (they say that multiculturalism is "just not reasonable"), misogyny (they believe that women were "created to complete man"), and some pretty questionable treatment of children (they've been at the center of controversies relating both to corporeal punishment of kids and underage labour).
But I didn't know any of this before I decided to spend a day working remotely from the two Twelve Tribes restaurants closest to my house, both in San Diego County. I decided not to read up on them before visiting so I could experience them through the eyes of an average customer, and open myself up to any indoctrination they might try.
And all I knew about the Twelve Tribes at that point was that they're kind of Amish-y and had maybe been involved in some kind of child labour scandal, and also something about some racism in their past that current members of colour were claiming was no longer an issue. All the details I had in my head were vague, though.
The first restaurant I visited was in a tiny town called Valley Center, about 100 miles south of LA.
It was beautiful in a way I wasn’t aware this part of California could be. To get to the restaurant, I drove for miles down windy canyon roads, past lush green fields, herds of cows, and brooks that were literally babbling. When I reached the restaurant, it, too, was stunning. The Little House on the Prairie as painted by Thomas Kinkade.
The vibe of the place is exactly what would pop into your head if I asked you to picture a cult-owned restaurant: Organic vegetables and long hair and vegan cookies and psychedelic paintings and herbal tea and a selection of homemade skincare products. There was an old-timey stove and lots of leather and reclaimed wood. I overheard two separate customers compare it to the Shire.
The staff were also exactly what you'd expect: beautiful, with long shiny hair and blank, smiley faces. Everything had a very Rajneeshees-before-the-poisoned-salsa-and-drugged-homeless-people look and feel. It was almost too on the nose. Like a Mad TV sketch about a cult.
I ordered a veggie burger, a coffee, and a grapefruit juice. It was all almost unbelievably delicious. The burger was one of the best veggie burgers I’ve ever eaten.
The second restaurant I visited was 15 miles away, in Vista. It was more of the same, except it was bigger, located in a more urban area, and the people working there were communicating with each other using those in-ear walkie talkies like the bad guys in The Matrix.
Both places were pretty busy, with a typical midweek day crowd. Some cops, a couple of meetings, some people who appeared to be part of a church group. Exactly the kind of vibe you'd expect at a relatively popular restaurant not owned by a cult.
Though I'd been expecting to be bombarded by their beliefs, both restaurants were pretty un-brainwashy. There were some free Twelve Tribes pamphlets and newspapers dotted around each location, but they were as easy to ignore as a concert flier or a missing cat poster or any other piece of paper you'd see in a normal cafe.
In the eight hours I spent between the two restaurants, the staff made no unprompted mention of their beliefs.
So desperate was I for a brainwashing, I even tried to instigate it myself at one point. The menu at both restaurants had a note on the front saying, “We serve the fruit of the spirit… Why not ask?” So I asked.
“It’s… uh... because we’re also a community, we don’t just serve food? We serve the spirit?” my server said before hastily retreating.
I decided to read some of the free reading materials.
Through them, I learned the goal of Twelve Tribes communities is to recreate the church as it’s described in the Book of Acts. They like love, children, sharing, and togetherness, the literature explained. They don’t like technology, selfishness, drugs, or being labeled a cult (which they described as “something akin to the Salem Witch Trials”).
The pages were dotted with photos of smiling people of a variety of races pushing wheelbarrows full of apples and feeding baby goats and dancing hand-in-hand in nature. In keeping with the 70s hippie cult aesthetic, there were references to the Grateful Dead, Timothy Leary, Joan Baez, and Haight-Ashbury.
Based on what I'd seen there, my overall impression was that this was a pretty chill cult that I would not hesitate to join were I in the market for a cult. Also that their ideology somehow results in incredible veggie burgers.
But when I got home, I googled them.
It seems the pill their restaurants serve is HEAVILY sugared.
Their attitude towards race is a far more extreme than they make it out to be—one tipoff is that “are you racist?” is included in the FAQ section of their website.
“The reality is that blacks function in responsible positions in every aspect of our communities,” reads their answer. “There are black elders, black apostles, black heads of households, black teachers, as well as whites. Race is not, nor has it ever been, an issue in the Twelve Tribes.”
Which is slightly at odds with other sections of the website. Like the part where they explain that they're pro-segregation because “multiculturalism increases murder, crime, and prejudice.” Or the bit where they say that politicians who “rally different races to be one are forerunners of the antichrist.”
Women aren’t viewed much more positively than race-mixing. They are expected to submit to the authority of all male members of the community, and shouldn't “say no to her husband’s physical needs.” Feminism, the Twelve Tribes believe, leads to adultery and homosexuality, and women should stick by their husbands even if they’re being physically abused.
In 2013, a journalist with Germany’s RTL channel went undercover with a Twelve Tribes group in Bavaria. He reported that children were woken at 5 AM for an hour of prayer and forced to spend their days doing farm work. He collected 50 video recordings of children being beaten. “It is normal to be beaten every day,” one former Twelve Tribes member told him.
A journalist who went undercover with a Twelve Tribes group in Winnipeg, Canada, a year later did not see any children being beaten, but reported seeing about 20 rods around the group’s property that he believed were used for hitting children.
“We know that some people consider this aspect of our life controversial,” the group writes of spankingon its site. “But we have seen from experience that discipline keeps a child from becoming mean-spirited and disrespectful of authority.”’
They are, you will not be surprised to hear, not into gays. On the site, they call homosexuality “a great evil” and say it will “lead only to misery and destruction.” They’ve also compared gay people to dogs, writing that “dog” is “the only name that the righteousness of God can call such people, for they have degraded themselves to the lowest of all creatures, dogs.” Which seems unnecessarily mean to both gay people and dogs.
You will most definitely not be surprised to learn they’re opposed to abortion. And probably only slightly surprised to hear that they’re anti-birth control, anti-divorce, and don’t allow their members to have TVs, radios, or newspapers. You might be a little surprised to learn that they’re opposed to children playing, short hair on women, and taking painkillers during childbirth, though.
After spending an entire day in their establishments, I hadn't come across any of this. Not just the stuff about child abuse that the group obviously doesn't want publicized, but the Twelve Tribes' core beliefs on sexuality, women, and minorities. I wondered if perhaps there had been some effort to conceal those beliefs from their customers.
I called the Yellow Deli in Vista and put this to one of their employees, a man who identified himself as Jacob Franks. He told me that while he was aware people found the beliefs of the Twelve Tribes to be objectionable, they were not attempting to conceal them. "I think we live and speak pretty openly about what we believe," he said. "As far as what I have in my heart, and what I’ve understood, is that we love all people. Every human being. Doesn’t matter who they are or what they’ve done or anything. We would be free to express what we have in our hearts if a customer would come in and ask specific questions on how we feel or what we believe."
He also told me that the money the restaurant makes goes towards funding the Twelve Tribes and their activities.
Which... doesn’t make me feel great. I guess if you want a nice veggie burger and are looking to financially support homophobia, segregation, the hitting of children, and the subjugation of women, then I would highly recommend this place. Everyone else hit up the Cheesecake Factory. Their veggie burger is better than you'd think.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.