The Immaculate Confection or Cinnamon Sacrilege?
On Christmas Day, 1996, Bongo Java became the most famous coffeehouse in the world. And while some get just 15 minutes of fame, Bongo Java got at least three times that. This story is so crazy that the Top Three strangest parts of it may not include the fact that Bongo received a letter from Teresa, got a call from her and had someone break into the café on Christmas Eve.
This is the complete, behind the scenes true story of how a cinnamon bun that looked like Mother Teresa became a world-wide sensation.
If you want more info (some of which is true) Google “Mother Teresa Cinnamon Bun” and read all 1 million + entries including ones from NPR, BBC and a Calcutta newspaper. Or, simplify your search and type in “NunBun” and get just 18,000 or so.
Over time, the NunBun made it into the social fabric. Paul Schaffer on The David Letterman show did a song & dance routine about America being great because we could find celebrities in food items. The NunBun story also is a case of the early days of the internet. Back in the days when answering machines, pagers and down time were still things, the NunBun story managed to get 1 million hits in just 30 days – all without the aid of social media.
The NunBun wasn’t an instant sensation; at first it was more of an in-house curiosity. Somewhere in September 1996 about 6:30am, a long-time employee was about to bite into his breakfast when somehow he noticed the cinnamon bun he was holding sorta looked like Mother Teresa. Instead of biting her head off, he put the sweet aside and reached for a muffin instead. All day he showed it to customers and staff and asked whether they saw anything strange about the roll. An informal poll showed slightly more people (after a bit of encouragement) thought it looked like Mother Teresa than thought it looked like normal ridges of flour and icing. Nothing at all did take a strong second place. Also getting votes were Walter Cronkite, Jimmy Cagney and any of the Seven Dwarfs.
The quirky and creative staff immediately settled on Mother Teresa and coined the nickname Immaculate Confection (which for reasons discussed below was changed to NunBun). They preserved what they started referring to as “her” by putting it in the freezer. She was only taken out for special customers or those who knew to ask. Eventually she was shellacked and put in a home-made shrine made up of some box found at the thrift store that was spray painted gold and surrounded by red and green Christmas lights.
Just by word of mouth, the NunBun was taking on a life of her own. A couple of staff people put together a 15 minute Mockumentary and in November a legendary movie release party was held. The free event held upstairs of the café sold out so quickly that the filmmakers quickly agreed to two more showings the same night and had it on continuous play over the weekend. Maybe 300 people saw the movie that weekend, including at least one priest, two nuns and a Grammy winning singer dressed up as a nun. We quickly sold out of the t-shirts, bookmarks and coffee mugs.
The First 15 Minutes of Fame
Some still believe the NunBun was a publicity stunt dreamt up by a coffeehouse owner with a checkered past as a journalist and Monty Python fan. If that was true, he probably missed out on a darn lucrative PR career. Two media outlets were called. First, we tried (several times) to get the Tennessean to write a story. Numerous requests were made to a Tennessean reporter who was also a frequent customer. Only after the local newspaper declined, did we call a weekly tabloid.
Bongo Java’s 1996 Christmas gift was its first 15 minutes of fame. After months of saying no, the Tennessean needing a Christmas Day story decided to do a piece on the NunBun. While this was its first publicity, the piece came out only after the tabloid agreed to print a photo of the miracle.
The Tennessean article ran on a Saturday. By Monday, the NunBun had gone pre-internet, pre-social media viral. Unbeknownst to Bongo, the Tennessean story was picked up by the paper’s parent company Gannett. The media conglomerate, put the story on the front page of its national paper USA Today. Which, for anyone born after 2000 was the Instagram of its time, and was the way morning DJs across the country found news to talk about. Bongo Java and its sister business Bongo Java Roasting Co. were each inundated with requests for interviews. Two phone lines at both locations were busy non- stop through morning and afternoon drive times rolling through each time zone.
30 Minutes of Fame
Bongo got a second wave of fame when a letter from Mother Teresa and a call from her attorney asked the café to stop using the image of the NunBun. Somewhere in the middle of all the PR insanity came a phone call from someone claiming to be Mother Teresa’s attorney. This wasn’t immediately taken seriously because we also got calls from people claiming to be Dan Rather, Howard Stern and the office of the President. To his credit, Jim Towey the attorney said he understood the craziness that must be happening and would call back in a few days. He did. And he was.
In the end, Mother Teresa laughed about the NunBun. Yet along the way, her attorney took the cinnamon bun quite seriously.
Mr. Towey explained that Bongo Java could not use the name “Mother Teresa Cinnamon Bun” or use the image of the bun on T-shirts without her permission and that she does not allow anyone or any group to use her image to make money, raise money or promote their cause – even the group she headed up, Missionaries of Charity.
This position was backed up in a letter that Mother Teresa wrote to Bongo Java. In it, she said she knew the café had no ill will yet wanted to make sure they didn’t use her image for any gain. Bongo then hired a $300+/hour attorney to learn about trademark and copyright law – lessons that proved somewhat useful when the owner went on Fox’s Burden of Proof show along with Mr. Towey.
Bongo quickly learned that it couldn’t use the term Mother Teresa Cinnamon Bun. And for this, it apologized and agreed not to print any more than the second order of 36 shirts it had already printed.
However, Bongo also learned something else.
Mr. Towey’s claim that Bongo couldn’t use the image of the bun meant that he was making the legal argument that it truly was her image on the bun.
While many thought it did look like her, legal folks thought it was a rather crazy proposition to hold. (or was it one darn clever position to take for someone needing to prove a miracle in order to someday be named a Saint). Bongo then realized it could do anything it wanted with the image and printed another few dozen shirts replacing the black and white blob with a more clean color image and taking her name off and using the term Immaculate Confection.
Bongo and Mother Teresa’s attorney eventually worked out a compromise. Mostly he was concerned that Bongo was going to mass produce cinnamon bun that looked like the now Saint or merchandise with the confection’s image. Thus, the two agreed to limit sales of such items to $100,000 per year (an amount at least 10 times more than has been sold since 1996). Bongo also agreed to stop using the term Immaculate Confection. Mother Teresa’s representative agreed to the term NunBun (no clue why they found this more acceptable than Immaculate Confection.)
One Million Hits
The internet was in its darn new when the NunBun popped up. 1995 is considered the year the web became commercialized (it’s also the year the Vatican went online). And 1998 was the year the first major news story (Bill Clinton’s sexcapades) and the year Google began.
Thus, when a regular customer said “The NunBun needed a web page,” it wasn’t surprising when the Bongo Java owner said “What’s a web page?”
In short order, http://www.qecmedia/nunbun became a thing (or some address like that). And even with that cumbersome address, the site complete with a morph turning Mother Teresa’s image into the bun and back again got more than 1 million hits in just 30 days (or at least that’s how we remember it).
People even now in the age of instant celebrity and viral cat videos think that’s a big deal.
(Bongo Java café in 1997 - photo credit: The Tennessean)
45 Minutes of Fame – The Break In
The NunBun was stolen on Christmas Eve 2005 – nine years to the day the first article about it appeared. A thief took the hinges off our front door, broke into the café and stole nothing but the NunBun.
This triggered a third media storm. (and just as importantly, moved the owner’s first married Christmas Day celebration from his house to the café as he waited for the police). One big one was a live interview with Keith Olberman. “Did you ever think it divinely was lifted into the heavens?” the talk show asked. “Well, if it did, then there likely would have been a hole in our roof instead of a front door off its hinges,” Bongo Java owner Bob Bernstein replied.
While many involved have their own theory of who did this (with one leading candidate), nothing has yet been proven.
There is still a $5,000 No Questions Asked for the NunBun’s safe return.
So many weird things happened and misinformation about this story that just didn’t fit into this piece that we just listed a bunch here.
- This was NOT a publicity stunt.
- Would anyone else’s image been such a big deal?
- How does someone even notice that a cinnamon bun looks like someone?
- There was NO uproar in the religious community about the bun. Locally, many clergy came by to see the NunBun video and/or the shrine. The biggest reaction was laughter. The café did get a whole bunch of letters from folks around the country saying we were doing the Devils Work. However, each of them was so full of wrong information (including the part about the Devil; he’s one of the few that didn’t call) that they couldn’t be taken seriously.
- The reporter who wrote the first NunBun story in the Tennessean moved away from Nashville and changed his name. (you can’t make this stuff up!)
- Jim Towey, the attorney who represented Mother Teresa, became the head of President Bush’s Office for Faith Based Initiatives.
- A then local conservative radio reporter who even bothered to come visit the shrine, interview the staff and talk to long-time customers went back to the station and on air said something like “I don’t know. A sweet roll that looks like Mother Teresa in a coffeehouse with a Jewish owner? Seems sorta unseemly to me.” (Not sure whatever happened to that guy’s career since he was fired soon after for saying something even more stupid).
- Mother Teresa died on September 5, 1997 -- almost exactly one year after the NunBun was discovered.
And this café owner’s two favorites:
Just before Mother Teresa died (Sept 5, 1997) she had a meeting with the woman who was to replace her as head of Missionaries of Charity and her attorney (who told us this story). They talked about all sorts of stuff that had to be settled – including the proposed NunBun agreement whereby Bongo Java would sell only a limited amount of merchandise, wouldn’t mass produce similar cinnamon buns and would use the term NunBun instead of Immaculate Confection.
During the meeting, Mother Teresa smiled, pointed to her replacement and told her attorney “You tell them to find a cinnamon bun that looks like her” and then pointed to her replacement.
- The day Mother Teresa died, Bongo Java owner Bob Bernstein was attending a Tennessee Titans football game. He only answered the phone because it came from a London phone number. He was asked to comment about her life. After thinking this must be the craziest part of a wild and whacky story and wondering why he of all people was asked to comment about this future Saint’s life, he told the story in the paragraph above and said
“I’m just glad that we were able to make her laugh.”