My Lunch with President Ronald Reagan

Ever have a really memorable lunch?

I’m not talking about a mouth-watering meal with expensive food, vintage wine or elegant ambiance. Did lunch ever include sharing a meal with someone who gets to work in an Oval Office?

On Friday May 31, 1985, my wife and I had lunch with The Fortieth President of The United States - Ronald Reagan.

Meeting President Reagan on May 31, 1985

 My wife and I were living in Pennsylvania and owned a wholesale bakery business that my wife Rachel (now known as Ra El) founded in 1975. The business, Rachel’s Brownies was not a planned venture to build the next Sara Lee. She started selling brownies to specialty stores in Philadelphia to help make a few dollars after graduating from Cornell University with a degree in French Literature. I joined after graduating from The University of Pennsylvania in 1976.  From the Rocking Horse Ice Cream Parlor to the The Fruit Lady’s Shop, her brownies showed up in little wicker baskets with red and white gingham napkins to help create a homemade image. Through a stroke of luck and pure serendipity, Philadelphia Magazine named Rachel’s Brownies the best brownies in Philadelphia in 1975. The phone started to ring and Rachel's Brownies wasn’t the only thing rising.

Let me mix in a few more bits of information as the story gets richer.

As the business grew we built up quite a following along the Eastern US corridor selling brownies from airlines (United and People Express) to convenience stores (Wawa and  AM/PM) to the neighborhood gourmet shop to grocery stores (Kings and Publix). We didn’t have Facebook or Blogs to brag about our brownies or to market to a loyal community. It was all done through word of mouth….one moist chocolate bite at a time.

Outside of our first bakery in Malvern, Pennsyvlania
 Brownie sales were rising and at the same time our family was expanding.  Along with our three and a half year old (Sarah), we had another one in the oven…so to speak.

Then the phone rang with an invitation.

On May 27 in 1985 we were sitting in our backyard when the portable phone started to ring. Myles Tannenbaum from the West Chester Republican Party called and wanted to speak to Rachel from Rachel’s Brownies. I introduced myself as her husband and asked what he wanted? I assumed he was looking for money. Didn’t he know that he had called life-long Democrats?

Tannenbaum said that President Reagan was coming to Malvern, Pennsylvania and The Great Valley Corporate Center where our bakery was located. The President was promoting his tax simplification ideas and he would like to invite Rachel to sit on the dais with him and have lunch that afternoon. He was meeting with many small business owners and wanted to invite her to attend.

Yeah right.

Lunch with President Reagan Who is this really? My first thought was which wise guy high school or college friend of mine was trying to trick me?

If by any stretch of the imagination this was for real - didn’t this political hack who called us realize that he had reached two bleeding heart liberal Democrats? Why in the world would we want to meet Reagan? We hated Reagan or at least we hated what he represented. Why would we want to be part of any Republican Propaganda Plan? Give me a break.

What’s a Democrat to do? Do we follow our political instincts and say no thanks or are we missing something? As I often did when I didn’t know what to do, I called my father and asked him for some advice.
Letter from The White House and Governor's Office

Dad, being another life-long Democrat had a reaction that in hindsight shouldn’t have surprised me. He always had such a calm and reasonable approach to life’s dilemmas.

He told me…
“Jeff, you are a truly special person- but I doubt that during the rest of your lifetime you will ever get a chance to meet a President of the United States let alone have lunch with him. I remember what Dad said as clearly as if it were yesterday…

“Tell them yes and then ask what’s for lunch and can you bring the dessert?”  

Suddenly Hail to the Chief started playing in my head. I thought of all the movies I had ever seen with sitting Presidents at meetings and banquets with world leaders and super celebrities. I knew Dad was right and it didn’t take long for Ra El to reluctantly agree.  

I called Mr. Tannenbaum back and told him we vote yes….we would be honored to be part of this event as long as we could supply the dessert.

A few hours later Ron Fuller called back from the White House staff and we discussed the details. Ra El insisted that I needed to be part of “meet and greet” which Mr. Fuller said would be fine. Mr. Fuller explained how the day would unfold. First there would be 6-8 CEOS on the dais with the President as he spoke. Afterwards there would be a private luncheon with about 25 people including political dignitaries.

We were asked to prepare some background materials so the President could read about our business and a little bio about both of us. We were asked to bring it to a nearby Embassy Suites hotel where someone from the White House staff would take the information.

Ra El and I both thought this was a great opportunity to send along some of our brownies so in Ra El’s spectacular handwriting, she scribed a note to Ronald Reagan with a suggestion that he might want to share them with Nancy.

The last thing The White House needed was to do some security check which involved a series of basic questions such as where we grew up, who our first grade teacher was and some other information about our education and family. None of it was intrusive, still it all seemed odd. I have never been interrogated just to have a sandwich with a former movie star. I guess they wanted to make sure that even if we were Democrats we wouldn’t do anything to harm the President – like telling him we voted against him in the last election.

So on May 31,1985, four months pregnant with our youngest daughter Fanny, Ra El sat on the dais with The Fortieth President of the United States Ronald Reagan. She was really nervous the night before and didn’t sleep well. Being four months pregnant, she was concerned that she might get sick on stage- wouldn’t that be a picture?

I could see the headlines:

Owner of Rachel’s Brownies tossed her cookies on President.


In the bakery
The President swooped into the western suburbs of Philadelphia via helicopter and it was quite an entrance…very much like a Hollywood spectacular. After about 10 minutes from when he landed, he walked onto the small outdoor stage and was introduced by Governor Thornburgh as he made his way across the podium. The large crowd and everyone onstage rose to their feet in a standing ovation. Surprisingly Ra El was the only woman on the dais, curiously placed front and center stage with a conspicuous empty chair next to hers and several rows of Republican dignitaries like Senator Arlen Specter seated behind her. The President signaled to her to please sit down as the crowd was applauding.  A few minutes later he walked over to the empty chair, sat down and whispered in Ra El's ear, “I've been reading stories about your business on the plane.  I sure hope I am going to taste those great brownies I have been reading about.” While the applause continued, the President leaned over and in that soft and breathy kind of voice he remarked, “You know, I believe the Lord has a special purpose for everyone in life and obviously yours is to make these brownies”. I only wish he really knew Ra El’s true purpose in life but in my view his comment to her was really heart-felt and very genuine.

Fortunately, with handfuls of saltines, sourballs and a can of ginger ale she bravely sat through the speech and somehow managed to stand up and smile when the President introduced her along with the other guests on the podium. She did an amazing job being present in this remarkable moment. My brother Mitchell, 25 at the time, was with us and I gave him the responsibility of taking video of the event while I kept my camera close at hand.

After the speech, we were ushered into an unfinished building in the corporate park and inside some tables were set for lunch. It was very informal and not quite the fancy setting I expected.  However, we were inside the circle of protection along with police, FBI, Secret Service and about a dozen important officials. I got to wear one of those neat little special lapel pins you see in the movies about politicians that signified that I was safe to be near The President. It was very surreal.

Governor Richard Thornburgh, Mayor Wilson Goode, Don Regan (White House Chief of Staff), Arlen Specter and several other important dignitaries were all inside this space. There were about six other couples – all owners of businesses in our park. These businesses were very big bio-tech or software firms.

Some official looking woman came over to us and said that we would be at Table #1.

Hmmm. Table #1 was probably where they stuck all the known Democrats and Liberals that voted for Walter Mondale. Perfect.

Ra El sits next President Reagan as I sit across from him.
 The President’s aide showed us to our seats as I sat down next to The White House Chief of Staff Regan. Don Regan was the former head of Merrill Lynch and had a reputation as a real SOB. I remember Don Regan asking me in a brusque voice, “who are you and what are you doing here?” We were the youngest business leaders in the room (Ra El was 32 and I was 31). But Don Regan was so obnoxious and true to his reputation. He was surprised to learn that we made a living selling brownies. I don’t think he said another word to me but I remember how odd it was that two people with almost the same name could be so different. Reagan and Regan. Sounds like a dance team or a small law firm.

Jeff Slater and President Reagan
 Ra El was seated across from me. There was an empty seat right next to her on her left. I wondered who was going to sit there and where were they? They’d be late when the President arrived and I was surprised no one was sitting there yet. It all seemed odd but what did I know?

Moments later in came President Reagan who slowly walked into the unfinished space where this lunch reception was being held. Photographers took what seemed like thousands of pictures in a few seconds. He walked over to many people shaking hands and graciously acknowledging each and every person including the wait staff. I found that gesture very endearing.

Finally, President Reagan sat down and perhaps as you guessed, he sat at the empty seat next to my wife. Talk about sitting at the cool table…we were at the main event and somehow got the best seats in the house. I guess we got our just desserts.

Unlike the other Mr Regan, President Reagan started talking to everyone at our table and put us all at ease. He was soft spoken and his head did shake a bit when he spoke and I did pick up that characteristic, “well” before he talked.

As he chatted about his past life in Hollywood, I recall coffee being poured into little Styrofoam cups.  In this pre Starbucks world, the President took out what looked like a pencil but it was filled with Sweet and Low. He attempted to pour it into his coffee and turned to me saying, the Secret Service never trusts the caterers. The device didn’t work too well and I recall him returning it to his jacket pocket with bits of white sugary powder on the lining of his jacket. President Reagan said that he carries his own sweetener in a handy little pen. He said you can’t believe how many times I grab my Sweet and Low pen when I need to write something down.

This man didn’t need anything to sweeten him up.

Much to my Democratic chagrin, he was pure charm. His ability to make everyone feel comfortable was uncanny. He asked us about our business and we told him our story of how it started. The strangest part about it was I was so prepared to dislike this man whose politics were the antithesis of my own. This was someone who I thought wasn’t smart enough to be President and I just didn’t want to like this man.

But there he goes again….being the charming remarkable man that people always talk about when they discuss a first hand experience meeting him.

He told us stories about his time in Hollywood and some of his experiences during the 1950’s making movies in London. He discussed his friendship with people like Henry and Shirlee Fonda, Jimmy and Gloria Stewart and plenty of other A list stars. He made us laugh and he was so authentic and relaxed that it really put us at ease.

We were sitting with the most powerful influential man in the world. Somewhere within a few feet of us was the “football” with the nuclear codes that could launch war. Yet here he was opening up a boxed lunch talking about the movies while examining the contents of his mid-day meal.  

Both Ra El and I were dismayed that the gift boxes of brownies we provided to Ron Fuller didn’t make it in the boxed lunches. Even a special box for the President that we had the Secret Service put under X-Ray and special scrutiny was nowhere to be see. Oh well, we figured, let’s focus on the positive.

During the meal there were heated conversations about the President’s tax plan and several funny stories. About three quarters of the way through the meal a staff member came over to our table and said, Mr. President would you like a brownie?” The President turned and said, “I love brownies - what a treat!”

Our brownies were not the easiest thing to open. In trying to explain to President Reagan the trick of how to get the film off the package, Ra El leaned over and said, Mr. President can I help unwrap the brownie? Ra El showed him the secret piece of film to pull upon and suddenly the brownie was free. 
President Ronald Reagan holding a Rachel's Brownie

I realized I had an unbelievable opportunity. What if I could get the President to hold up the brownie while I took his picture? What a coup! I remembered that he used to do commercials for all kinds of products like Chesterfield cigarettes and Van Heusen shirts. Can you image the PR benefit I could get from that photo?

I said Mr President, would you mind if I took your photograph holding our brownie?
He looked at me and without a moment of hesitation said, I’d be happy to have you take a picture. You know, he said, I used to do this for a living.
The Actor Selling Chesterfields
So I took out my Nikon SLR and started to click away. I knew I should bracket for the light just in case so I got off at least 8 or 9 pictures within a few seconds. But those seconds seemed to last for an hour. Talk about special moments…I am taking a photograph of the leader of the free world holding a brownie my wife and I sell in our bakery? The President just held the pose like the consummate actor and I just clicked and clicked and clicked away.

After this informal photo shoot, the President unwrapped the brownie and took a bite. I remember a glint in his eyes as the rich chocolate trickled down. He savored the brownie and appeared to really enjoy it. He shared how often he eats things that are so fancy and elaborate and that a wonderful brownie is truly a gift.
As the luncheon was breaking up, one of the perfectly hand wrapped boxes of brownies was brought over to Ra El so we could have a photograph taken with the President as we presented the box of brownies. At this moment as we stood up, Ra El said to the President that it was really a thrill and that I look forward to telling this little baby (as she patted her abdomen), that she or he had lunch with the President. The President turned and said, “I didn’t know you were pregnant but lots of luck to all of you.”

As the President left, Governor Thornburgh came by and said, “I think you have a new devotee for your brownies.” Like the President, Governor Thornburgh was a very authentic and warm person.

This exciting day was filled with plenty of interviews on local TV, syndicated radio and newspapers like The Philadelphia Inquirer. We must have done a dozen interviews including a call from a reporter from The New York Times. It was quite a day and we were exhausted.
A slip of the tongue- It's not Nancy's Brownies

About two days later, we got a call from CNN asking us to comment on The President’s gaffe. I told the reporter that I didn’t know what he was talking about. He told me that President Reagan was giving a speech that morning and told the crowd that he met a young couple in Pennsylvania this week and that “Nancy’s Brownies were the best he had ever eaten”. Obviously, the President made a mistake but that little error kept the news alive about Rachel’s Brownies for several more days.

In a few months from now on February 6, 2011, it would have been President Reagan’s 100 birthday. It's 25 years since that extraordinary lunch took place in an unfinished Meridian Bank building in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Funny how a little chocolate dessert can bridge a gap between a Democrat and a Republican. 

                                        Happy 100th Birthday Mr President. 

Happy Birthday Mr. President

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