VERNAL — When George Burnett first set up shop in Vernal, he knew he had to find a way to connect with his adopted community if his custom seat-cover business was going to survive.
So, armed with a sandwich board emblazoned with the phrase "Honk If You (Heart) Drilling!," Burnett took to the corner of 500 East and Main Street and began his one-man crusade to boost the spirit of a community that was getting its first glimpse of another oil and gas bust.
Fast-forward nearly five years and Burnett — now a local celebrity for his tireless support of the Uintah Basin's energy industry — has launched a new business that's earning rave reviews just weeks after opening its doors.
"I love this place. I will support this place with every fiber of my being," said Corey Peterson, a personal trainer who stopped by the I Love Drilling Juice & Smoothie Bar on Monday morning for a thick, green drink filled with avocado, spinach and fresh apple juice.
"It's a good place to come for lunch," added customer Shauna Snow, "or for a good snack that's healthy, not processed and also can give you good nutrients."
But there is one thing about Burnett's latest venture that's left some folks with a bitter taste in their mouths.
"I'm very open about it, very public about it, that I'm going to charge them a little bit more, and I have liberals come in and pay the extra dollar surcharge," Burnett said, referring to his unique pricing structure.
Yep, Burnett, the diehard supporter of domestic energy and longtime health food fan, charges those who identify themselves as liberals $1 more for their drinks. The money, along with any tips received, is donated to conservative causes like The Heritage Foundation.
"And actually all three liberals have been happy to pay it," Burnett said.
"We had a husband and wife come in — he was conservative and she was liberal — and he paid conservative for himself and liberal for her," he added. But a few people have cried foul on Burnett's Facebook page.
"This is pathetic," one person wrote. "One place in town I won't be going," another said. "Highly offensive and inappropriate" is how third person described the price differential.
Burnett said his goal isn't to offend. First, it's to provide people with a healthy product. Second, it's to start a conversation about what he sees as the over-regulation of the energy industry and the continued financial problems facing the United States.
"Really what I'm focused on is the fiscal differences between big government/small government and liberal ways, as far as entitlements and spending," he said. "We have a fiscal problem in this country. We've got to deal with it or we don't have a country, so to kind of help make that point, just a little bit, I charge (liberals) just a little bit more."
Conservative customers like Peterson support Burnett's message and his method.
"For him to do this kind of puts a face out there on people who are, in my opinion, in the wrong. 'In the wrong' being liberals," Peterson said. "To see them being charged a little bit more, it makes me happy."