Although many chain restaurants, think Applebee’s or Olive Garden, call upon familial themes to promote their businesses, much less often do we see a chain restaurant call upon its business to promote its family. At the Yellow Deli, members of the Twelve Tribes, a self-proclaimed “emerging spiritual nation,” serve sandwiches with a side of evangelism.
The Twelve Tribes is a religious organization initially formed in Tennessee, but now largely operates out of Hiddenite, North Carolina. Members, also called “disciples,” of the Twelve Tribes live and work together in self-sustaining communities and businesses located across several continents. The Yellow Deli is but one of many of the group’s worldwide businesses, which include cafes, bakeries, farms, and markets. Members receive no pay for their labor in any of the businesses; instead, all profit goes toward the organization. Additionally, the group commonly places its businesses near college campuses and along the Appalachian Trail, where non-members are typically unfamiliar with their surroundings, away from family members, and exploring their own interests.
The Twelve Tribes official website, operated from the group’s North Carolina location, mentions that each of the communities are self-governing. While several companies under the Twelve Tribes are registered with their respective state offices, the only apparently affiliated entity registered with the IRS is Twelve Tribes Communities, located in Hiddenite, NC. Additionally, in the North Carolina Secretary of State’s Office, Twelve Tribes is registered as a foreign non-profit corporation organized in Tennessee. The Tennessee entity’s registered Agent is under a name and mailing address connected to the Hiddenite location, while a California registration points to a registered agent of the same name, but different mailing address.
While seemingly mundane, this structure may have a direct impact on the members’ real and personal property rights. To join the Twelve Tribes, individuals must give all of their assets and possessions to the group to be shared among its members. The group is registered as a tax-exempt public charity with the IRS under 501(c)(3), which means the group does not have to file annual returns to report its activities and finances. Annual returns also track non-cash contributions to public charities, which include both real and personal property donated by members upon joining.
In the name of honoring one’s commitment, members who decide to leave the Twelve Tribes are unlikely to receive their donated property or financial assets. However, if the group does agree to return any of the individual’s contributions, it will only return that which is locatable and has not already been spent or used. This is especially concerning because the group’s tax-exempt status largely insulates it from keeping a formal record of donations. Moreover, family members have no means to claim the estates of deceased loved ones who have joined the group, because disciples have no individual assets to devise or otherwise alienate.
While the Yellow Deli is a seemingly quaint and comforting lunch spot, it also doubles as a means to recruit new members of potentially vulnerable populations. Both the Yellow Deli and the Twelve Tribes phone lines are open 24 hours a day, maximizing the group’s opportunity to appeal to others. Amidst allegations of racism and glorification of slavery, former members report that the group “actively proselytizes to African Americans,” while only revealing such beliefs after an extended period of membership. Twelve Tribes also seeks members who appear impressionable, like those who suffer from mental illnesses or those with criminal records.
When a restaurant seeks to make guests feel like family, it typically reflects the business’s intent to gain customers. However, the Yellow Deli uses similar business strategies to gain “family” members. In so doing, Twelve Tribes presents an interesting new definition of “predatory business practice.”
Landry Moye is a second-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. She graduated cum laude from Appalachian State University with a Bachelor of Science in Political Science. Upon graduating, Landry intends to practice real estate and/or family law.
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