Stickers a message to the world
It’s a congenial affirmation, with perhaps a whiff of admonition, on the back of the car in front of you on Federal Highway, and a motherly reminder that may feel sneakily subversive in the parking lot at Publix.
If the genesis of the ubiquitous “be nice” bumper sticker that has bonded a growing community of South Florida motorists is a deliberate mystery, its modest intentions are in plain sight.
“It’s a simple message. We need to be nice. There’s nothing wrong with it. We need to remind ourselves sometimes,” says Elliot Wolf of Be Nice Restaurants, a group of seven Fort Lauderdale eateries that began with Coconuts on the beach. “It makes people feel good, makes them smile. If you can put a smile on someone’s face, why not?”
The sticker idea began five years ago as a lark, Wolf says, just to see if anyone would actually put
them on their car.
It wasn’t part of any grand marketing plan: The stickers included no website or phone number for any of the restaurants, just the words “be nice” on a clear background. The casual, handwritten typography and all-lowercase letters gave the message added humility.
Sasha Formica, marketing director for Be Nice Restaurants, placed the first order for 1,000 stickers, which are handed out to customers by request. She soon learned she hadn’t ordered enough. In 2018, the restaurants have distributed 11,000 stickers.
Formica fields emails every day with a request for a sticker to be dropped in the mail.
“They’ll say something like, ‘We like that statement’ or ‘I say that to my kids all the time.’ It’s that they share that belief, that motto,” Formica says.
“There are so many great people out there, and a lot of times the people who are not nice, the loud ones, overshadow the nice people.”
People also send her pictures of the “be nice” message’s migration far beyond South Florida.
You’ll find the sticker posted on the Beatles’ famed Abbey Road in London, stuck to the touristy Gum Wall in Seattle, in the Bahamas and Berlin.
Susan Penrod, who owns a Fort Lauderdale publicrelations firm, has started each day with the “be nice” message since she put a sticker on her bathroom mirror a few years ago.
“It’s a constant reminder of how I treat people and how I want them to treat me. It’s just a great way to live your daily existence,” she says.
Recently elected State Rep. Chip LaMarca had a “be nice” sticker prominently displayed on his laptop during his tenure on the Broward County Commission. Each time he got a new computer, he went to one of Wolf’s restaurants and got another sticker.
“I purposely put it on the top of it so that when people would go to the meetings or see the meetings covered on TV they would see the top of the laptop,” LaMarca says. “In the political world it’s not the worst thing in the world for someone to remind each other to be nice.”
LaMarca plans to display the message on his stateissued computer when the State House officially convenes in January.
“Hopefully nobody will say anything,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know the rules there yet, but I think it’s better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, especially when you’re telling people to be nice.”
Before Wolf began running his own restaurants he worked for a national chain that one day requested he fire one of his employees, a single mom who, Wolf says, did not deserve to be fired. Wolf refused, and soon left the company.
Just after opening Coconuts a decade ago, when a customer asked about his big-picture plans for the place, Wolf said, “I just want to open up a restaurant and be nice to people.”
Thus a pithy mission statement was born. Wolf acknowledges the phrase also makes a saltier allusion to a classic Patrick Swayze line, obvious to “every guy in the world who has ever watched ‘Roadhouse’ and had a good laugh,” he says. “We’ve always made that part of the fun side of it.”
As the stickers caught on, the message has been added to business cards, Tshirts and some walls in the restaurants. Wolf ’s Top Hat Deli in downtown Fort Lauderdale has an outdoor mural that includes “be nice.”
Beyond the public-facing message, the words symbolize a culture, Formica says. On the first day of training at Coconuts, Formica learned that a new employee must memorize the names of everyone who works there, from the general manager to the dishwasher, and to address them by their names.
“The joke is that it takes Elliot 30 minutes to get out of the building because he will go and say goodbye to everyone who’s working that shift,” Formica says.
A greeter at Coconuts, a high school senior at Pine Crest who just got accepted to prestigious Babson College, wrote his college essay on his experience at the restaurant, Formica says.
Asked why he goes out of his way to make sure kindness governs his business, Wolf seems not to understand the question. He comes from nice people, he explains. It’s how his father and his father’s father treated people when Wolf was growing up in Miami. How else should one live?
“People are valuable. They’re precious commodities,” Wolf says. “Look, we’re not perfect. There are people out there that don’t like me, but for the most part we try to do the right thing by people. We try to do the right thing.”
Elliot Wolf, founder of Be Nice Restarant Group, serves customers at the Top Hat Deli, one of his company’s seven restaurants in Fort Lauderdale.
Ubiquitous in South Florida, this be nice sticker found its way to the Beatles' iconic Abbey Road in London.