CHAMBERLAIN, South Dakota—A small-town cook who said he was forced into a photo with South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem went from flipping pancakes and burgers to flipping the bird in the picture.
It made Stefen Monteau an internet sensation in South Dakota for a few days—and also cost him his job at Main Street Cafe & Market in Chamberlain, S.D. Monteau said he was fired in part because Noem’s campaign team complained about the photo.
Noem, a Republican with admitted national ambitions, is seeking a second term as governor after four terms in Congress. She stopped at the cafe on Friday, Oct. 28, to speak and take photos with area residents.
One was Monteau, who said the governor pulled him into a photo. As a protest, he flipped the bird at waist level, hoping to spoil the picture.
“Gov. Noem was on her way, leaving the cafe. The coworker that I was standing by said loudly, ‘Goodbye, Kristi!’” Monteau told The Daily Beast.
“Gov. Noem turned around and gave her a hug and grabbed my arm and said, ‘Let’s take a picture.’ I did not consent,” he said. “During the brief 20-second encounter, I made a hand gesture by my waist for the camera to see as the picture was taken. The picture was taken by a member of the campaign team on their phone.
“Gov. Noem left with her team to visit other businesses in the downtown area after leaving the cafe. Hours later, the picture that was taken was shared on social media by the political marketing team went viral,” Monteau said. “Hours went by and the picture was taken down from her political page. My quick hand gesture that I made was so that the photo would be discredited and would not be of use to her campaign in any way.”
Monteau, 30, set up a GoFundMe page after he was fired. It had an announced goal of $3,000 but had raised $6,824 as of Saturday morning.
“Hello everyone that is taking the time to read this. I’m the guy in the recent viral pic with Governor Krisit Noem. I was terminated from the place I work as of 7am this morning,” he wrote on Monday, Oct. 31. “Customers and people complained to the employer that they don’t feel comfortable with me working at the cafe due to not supporting Kristi Noem, feel that I would spit in their food etc… since I am no longer a cook at the cafe I’ll be job searching in the meantime.”
When he closed it down, he said he had found a full-time job.
“Thank you to all who have donated and for the support these past few days. I do work for another place of employment full time now and am very thankful for having a one on one talk with the employer. I plan to use the donated funds to help with any legal fees that will come my way with everything that is going on. Again, thank you all so much.”
Monteau told The Daily Beast he is “looking into whether or not the cafe’s actions were legal in the sense that I was fired for political reasons.” That’s why he mentioned possible legal fees, and why the fundraising effort is still active, despite the words “Terminated this morning” at the top of the page.
Monteau, an enrolled member of the Hunkpati Oyate, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, lives in Fort Thompson, a tiny unincorporated community on the Crow Creek Reservation, 22 miles north of Chamberlain.
“As employment is scarce on the reservation, with more employment opportunities being present in Chamberlain, I started the GoFundMe to seek help in the case that what if other businesses didn’t hire me in the area,” he said. “How would I pay my utility bills? Those are the things that came to mind. I had many people reach out to me and messaged me. They all wanted to help and they did, which I am very grateful for and appreciative. The GoFundMe is still active at this time. If I am able to take legal action, I will use the donations to help with this.”
Main Street Cafe & Market owner Margie Allen told The Daily Beast she doesn’t mind that Monteau is not a fan of Noem. His dismissal was about being polite, not about politics, she said.
“It was a HR (human relations) thing,” Allen said Thursday afternoon at the small-town diner in Chamberlain, a town of about 2,500 people in central South Dakota.
Allen said she is not very interested in politics. She hosted a campaign event for Noem because the governor’s team asked, she said. Allen said she never turns down any request to hold a gathering in her small cafe.
While she doesn’t care what her employees do politically, she said Monteau crossed the line by secretly flipping the governor off while he was on the clock.
“If he had done it out front,” Allen said, pointing to the sidewalk, “I wouldn’t have cared.”
But she said any of her employees who did that to any customer would be fired. “It’s just wrong,” Allen said.
She met with Monteau at 7 a.m. Monday, Oct. 31, to tell him he was fired.
He spoke with her briefly and left, Allen said. About an hour later, he posted the GoFundMe page and the story started to spread on social media. Allen said she has been pilloried on Facebook, accused of firing him for political reasons. She also has been called a racist, since she is white and Monteau is Native American.
Allen, who has lived in Chamberlain for 29 years and operated the cafe for 20 years, said she feels such charges are unfair and unfounded. Because of the deluge of social media attacks, she has hired an advisor, Jona Ohm of Middle America Communication Solutions of Oacoma, a small town just west of Chamberlain.
They huddled at the cafe on Thursday, and are dealing with the criticism Allen has received, including for Arieyl—an online marketing company she works for as a side job. She also drives school buses to make some extra cash.
So far, there has been little impact on her business, but her online ratings plummeted so much she blocked future assessments.
Monteau said he has worked in all areas of the food and beverage industry for a decade. He was hired by Allen a few months ago.
“After my previous employment was sold to a new owner and changes were being made, I was replaced as the general manager. Margie reached out via Facebook message and let me know that she had a cook position available,” he said. “The cafe business hours are 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. I worked as her second cook most days, which meant I closed the kitchen for her while the first cook came and opened the kitchen and usually left by 2 p.m. I enjoyed working there. I got along with the staff very well. I helped when asked upon. Took the initiative to cook daily specials and make soups for the day.”
Monteau said he could sense Allen was unhappy with the photo.
“The following day after the picture my employer avoided me at work. She left for the day,” he said. “The staff and I carried on as if it was a normal business day. I received a Facebook message from my employer that she will not need me for Sunday’s scheduled shift due to business being slow. I replied back, ‘OK, sounds good.’ I do have a screenshot of the message and pictures of my schedule. I also have a message from a friend that Margie made the comment that Noem’s team called her about the picture Friday afternoon.”
Ian Fury, Noem’s spokesman, denied that anyone from the campaign demanded Monteau be sacked.
“Nobody on the Governor’s team ever said that Mr. Monteau should lose his job,” he said.
Allen declined to reveal who had registered complaints, saying her decision was based on her expectations of her employees.
Monteau said when he arrived at work at 7 a.m. Monday, Oct. 31, he noticed his name had been removed from the schedule.
“In the process of taking pictures of the edited schedule the employer asked to talk to me. She took me to the back of the building. She notified me that I am terminated,” he said. “She stated that she has received numerous complaints and phone calls from people and customers that told her they will no longer be eating at her cafe as long as I am an employee due to the picture. She told me that customers said they don’t feel comfortable with me cooking their food because I might spit in their meal or do whatever I want to their meal because I don’t support Noem.
“I told the employer that I understand her reason for termination and asked to be notified when my last paycheck will be ready. The employer stated it will be ready later in the day and that I will be messaged,” Monteau said. “Upon my termination, I went viral again due to the picture with Gov. Noem and also for the GoFundMe account that I had set up. The former employer also made a comment on her social media business page stating she terminated me for ‘employee misconduct,’ but that comment she later removed.”
Allen said Monteau told her he purposely wore a blue T-shirt when Noem came to the cafe, since blue is a symbol of Democrats. She provides work shirts with the company name on them, allowing workers to decide which ones they want to wear each day.
Monteau did not describe himself as a Democrat or a Republican.
“I am an Indigenous voter. I vote for the side that is willing to address tribal matters and sovereignty,” he said. “If they are involved with a solution and take actions to these issues, they have my vote. I do vote in state elections and I also vote in tribal elections. I have been active a few times in the past with tribal elections but not this past election.”
On Wednesday, he posed for a photo with Jamie Smith, a Sioux Falls state representative who is the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Both men wore broad smiles in the photo.
“I was able to meet Jamie Smith when he came and visited at the Fort Thompson Community Center,” Monteau said. “I was also introduced to other (Democratic) candidates; Brian Bengs, Shawn Bourdeaux, and Tom Cool. Jamie Smith and his wife sat at the table I was at. The table talk was more than just politics. We talked about life in general.”
Alex Matson, Smith’s communications director, said South Dakotans should not be political pawns for Gov. Noem. “Stefen told us his story and we learned from him that he was uncomfortable taking that photo with her,” Matson told The Daily Beast. “He said she came into the restaurant for a quick photo op and promptly left. We took that photo with him in Fort Thompson at our scheduled meet and greet with the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe.”
“Although he approached us to take a photo with him, it’s important to always get permission from constituents,” he said.
Noem is favored to win the race for governor. The last time a Democrat was elected governor was 1974, and in the state’s 133-year history, five Democrats have only served as governor for a total of 18 years.
While a South Dakota State University poll earlier this fall tipped a close race, a recent poll said Noem, who won in a nail-biter in 2018, has a comfortable lead.
Monteau said he has had a lot of support in the wake of this tumultuous event, and he did learn some important lessons.
“Every decision that someone makes has an outcome whether it’s good or bad for some people or others,” he said. “This experience is very eye-opening. Many people in the local area I feel have truly expressed themselves about the viral picture which they all do have the right to do so. My family and friends are here for me and are part of my strong foundation during this time.”