WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The hulking pizzeria owner whose presidential bear hug has thrust him into fame is ready to hit the campaign trail if he’s asked.
Scott Van Duzer made headlines around the world when he lifted President Barack Obama off the floor in a weekend visit to his Fort Pierce restaurant, Big Apple Pizza and Pasta Italian Restaurant. Van Duzer made a whirlwind New York media tour, but was back behind the counter Wednesday.
The 46-year-old, 6-foot-3 Republican enraged some conservatives with his embrace of the president, but he says the vitriol online has so far had the opposite effect.
“It couldn’t have backfired more,” he said.
He’d likely agree if Obama sought to harness his newfound celebrity by campaigning.
Supporters have flooded sites including Yelp with positive reviews and have phoned in orders from around the country, having pizzas delivered to police and firefighters, and shelters for pets and the homeless.
Among those who have come to show their support was another man who gained enemies after hugging Obama — former Republican and former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. He stopped in the restaurant Wednesday afternoon.
“You know why I’m here,” Van Duzer quoted Crist as saying, before sweeping him off his feet in a hug.
Though some waged a campaign to flood Big Apple Pizza with negative online reviews, by Tuesday, they were far outnumbered by thousands of positive ones. Jeff Greene, a 33-year-old legal consultant in West Palm Beach, was among those praising Van Duzer.
“To attack a guy that hugged the president just really, really made me feel bad for him,” he said.
Van Duzer said he had never supported a Democrat running for president prior to Obama, but that he felt “he was the right guy at the right time” despite being of the opposite party. He said his choice was only affirmed by the president’s visit.
“Four years ago, he was so young, so enthusiastic,” he said. “When he came in my store, he had that same enthusiasm.”
The naysayers, Van Duzer says, have so far kept their dissatisfaction online, not protesting outside or airing their views to him in person. He says they’re entitled to their opinion and that he won’t say anything nasty back.
As for his brush with fame, he thought at first it would be over by now, but now he’s not so sure.
“It’s been a great run. I thought Monday, Tuesday it would be over,” he said. “I don’t think it’s slowing.”
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