Bongo Java became world famous three times because of a
cinnamon bun that many believe looks like Mother Teresa.
- The first wave of publicity started around Christmas time 1996 when the local paper wrote about this cinnamon bun that many believe looked like Mother Teresa. The Tennessean story was picked up by media outlets around the world. The Music City
Miracle was featured in media outlets as diverse as Washington Post,
CNN, BBC, Paul Harvey, David Letterman and (so we've been told) a
- The story of the NunBuntm died down until a few months later Mother Teresa herself wrote a letter to Bongo Java. In her letter, she only objected to us selling merchandise with her image on it. TV cameras and newspaper reporters showed up at the cafe to see the letter.
- The NunBuntm, which was never fully out of the news, became a national story once again in December 2005 when thieves broke into Bongo Java and stole it.
NunBuntm quickly become a Nashville legend complete with the customary
tall tales, exaggerations and mis-information. Despite popular opinion,
the NunBuntm didn't make the Bongo Java owners rich and our actions
didn't really upset Mother Teresa. We certainly got more publicity than
we ever deserved and for a short time we were incredibly busy. Mother
Teresa and her attorney also did contact us. In the end, though, all
parties were relatively pleased with the outcome and certainly no one
changed their standard of living.
Nothing about the NunBuntm was
planned and very little was done to spread the word. Some have accused
us of planning the whole thing. But come on. Do you really think a
bunch of us sat in room brainstorming about how we could possibly
become famous and decided that faking the discovery of a cinnamon bun
that looked like Mother Teresa was 1) a good idea and 2) would lead to
David Letterman and Paul Schaffer doing a five minute song and dance
routine about America being great because we can find pastries that
look like famous people?
One since fired Nashville radio talk
show host did say he thought it was unseemly that a coffeehouse with a
Jewish owner would make money off Mother Teresa. But he was basically a
jerk and his firing a few months later for saying other crap about
someone else proved his credibility.
Admittedly we did make a
few phone calls to generate publicity about the bun. But these calls
were made way after the bun had become an inside phenomenon amongst our
The bun was actually discovered on October 15, 1996 -- more than two months before the first bit of media attention. Store
manager Ryan Finney made the discovery when he innocently was about to
eat breakfast at about 6:45 am before the store opened.
Ryan look at the pastry before he ate it and that's when the discovery
was made. He waited patiently until 7:00am when the next employee came
in and then hurriedly pushed the bun in front of Todd Truly's face and
said "What does this look like?" A barely awake and very surprised Todd
replied "Mother Teresa." The same test on the first few customers who
came in that day confirmed the "miracle."
The bun quickly became
a store legend. Regular customers would bring their friends and family
and ask to see the bun. Not knowing the importance of what we had at
this time, the bun was preserved simply by keeping it in the freezer.
NunBuntm The Movie
a month later, Todd and fellow employee Russ McGarry teamed with a
local filmmaker (Michael McNammara) to make a short "documentary" about
the bun featuring many of the Bongo Java staff and regulars.
the incredible popularity of the documentary didn't turn the NunBun?
into the phenomenon it is today. The film played to packed houses all
night long. The 72 t-shirts and 100 prayer card/bookmarks made up to
mark the occasion sold out during the initial invitation-only
screening. Customer demand kept the film running almost continuously
for the next three days. But still the "miracle" didn't get any
The film's success did get Bongo Java owner Bob
Bernstein off his press relations butt. The former reporter called
several acquaintances in the media business -- a few who were even
regular customers -- begging them to write about the NunBuntm. Even with
these connections, nobody wrote anything about the miracle. We learned
much later that the story got discussed several times in the newsroom
of The Tennessean but none of the reporters wanted to write such a
silly story. The first media outlet that agreed to publish the story
was the tabloid The Sun.
However, the daily Tennessean actually beat
the weekly tabloid to press. Finally a reporter "was forced" to write
the story. The NunBuntm was featured on the front page of the Tennessean
on the Saturday before Christmas -- traditionally the slowest news day
of the year. From that one story, the NunBuntm went world wide almost
Publicity started locally but took off worldwide very
quickly. All three local TV networks sent out news crews the day the
article appeared. One of those stories got picked up by CNN. On Monday
the story was in USA Today, which helped generate calls from drive-time
radio disc jockeys across the country. On Tuesday a reporter from
Reuters News Service came by for an interview, which helped make this a
world-wide story. Soon calls were coming in from BBC radio, stations in
Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The Bongo Java staff thought
they hit the Big Time when on Sunday after the CNN report a Chicago DJ
called and scheduled an interview for Monday morning. Bob and Todd
listened in on extension phones as Russ (chosen because he's from
Chicago and because he's a former stand up comic) did the phone
interview. Bob and Todd's jealousy quickly went away as the two phone
lines at the store rang non stop. DJs across the country wanted to talk
about the NunBuntm. Todd and Russ handled the phones at one store. Bob
went to the other store where the manager reported there being 65
messages on the answering machine by 7 am.
The publicity only
slowed down because of New Years. We estimate that Bob, Todd and Russ
each did about 100 interviews that first week and probably another 100
the week after New Years. First the East Coast morning DJs would call.
Then it was radio stations in the Midwest followed eventually by those
on the West Coast. A quick break for lunch. And then the phones would
ring from DJs doing evening drive time on the East Coast, then the
Midwest then the West coast and then from oversees. This happened day
after day for a couple of weeks.
The national TV shows also started
calling. The NunBuntm was featured on such shows as Prime Time Country,
Strange Universe and joked about by Letterman and Jay Leno. Other shows
such as Mad About You, Homicide and The Nanny made references to the
cinnamon bun that looked like Mother Teresa.
One Million Hits
We even managed to
quickly throw up a web site. The site went live on January 1, 1997
complete with the morph that turned a picture of Mother Teresa into the NunBuntm and then back again. This site generated one million hits in 10
days. For those who don't know remember, in 1997 one million hits was a
darn big deal.
Our 15 minutes of fame lasted about two weeks.
Then everything got quiet. The pilgrimages to the store slowed down and
the sales of t-shirts and prayer cards/book marks came to a stand still.
something that seemed like a joke during the media frenzy proved to be
real and sparked a second wave of publicity. During the fury of DJ
interviews we got all sorts of prank calls. At first we fell for them.
After a few we became darn skeptical. After waiting on hold for Dan
Rather to realize it was only a DJ doing a bad impression of the
newscaster and after discovering Howard Stern wasn't really on the
phone you can imagine we were pretty darn suspicious when some guy
called claiming to be Mother Teresa's attorney. He seemed to
understand. He said he'd call back in a few days when things calmed
The caller proved to be Mother Teresa's attorney. In a
very nice and reasonable way he explained to us his problem with us
marketing NunBun? merchandise. He assured us that Mother Teresa had a
great sense of humor and enjoyed hearing about the bun that looked like
her. However, she didn't like it that we printed "The Mother Teresa
Bun" on the back of our t-shirts and on our prayer card/book marks. He
went even further and said that he didn't think we should be using
pictures of the bun on our merchandise because it was her image.
quickly called his attorney who suggested hiring an expert in
intellectual property law and at $250 an hour whatever profits from
merchandise sales that weren't eaten away by developing a web site were
spent on legal fees.
The legal expert agreed that we needed to
stop using the words "Mother Teresa Cinnamon Bun" but he assured us
that we had every right to use the image of the bun. Legally the bun
wasn't Mother Teresa's image; basically it was just a pastry that many
people believed looked like her. Actually some people still insisted it
looked more like Jimmy Durante or one of the Seven Dwarfs. If Mother
Teresa was going to claim the bun was actually her image then she was
going to have to argue and prove that this bun truly was a miracle.
took the lawyer's advice and quickly adopted and even trademarked two
names: NunBuntm and Immaculate Confectiontm. We continued to print the
image of the bun with these new slogans and felt perfectly fine legally
and morally about our actions.
Then we received a letter from
Mother Teresa, which pretty much re-iterated what the attorney said:
she didn't mind the bun itself but she didn't want us making money off
her name or image.
Mother Teresa's letter started our second 15
minutes of fame. The newspaper reporters, TV crews and DJ calls started
all over again. The Big Time this time was a call from the producers of
CNN's Burden of Proof. They wanted us to debate Mother Teresa's
attorney on the show.
Mother Teresa's letter played badly in the
press. The legal argument proved hard to make to a public which wanted
simple slogans not nuanced legal arguments. We went from the fun guys
with this bun to bad people who didn't respect Mother Teresa. Our
regular customers (and most of our family members) understood that we
really weren't doing anything illegal, immoral or ill advised. More
importantly, we were barely doing anything against Mother Teresa's
wishes. Again, she thought the bun was funny and didn't care if it
stayed on display. She just wanted us to stop selling merchandise that
displayed what she strangely claimed was her image.
masses misunderstood. They confused the whole issue and felt like we
were doing something completely dishonorable. Some somehow had the
impression that had a deal with Sara Lee to mass produce NunBunstm.
legal argument proved hard to explain. The bun isn't her image, we
re-iterated. It's a cinnamon bun that many people happen to think looks
like her. Heck, if it really was her image, it truly would be a
miracle. We had every legal right to market the image of the bun.
being a bit media savvy proved to be no match for the question "why are
you doing something that Mother Teresa (implied "a living saint") asked
you not to do?" So despite having an owner who was a former reporter, a
true believer in the First Amendment and a true rebel from way back,
Bongo Java decided to at least temporarily back down.
Mr. Bad Guy" was the front page headline when we announced we'd
temporarily halt sales while we discussed the whole thing with Mother
Discussions with Mother Teresa's attorney
proved fruitful. Away from the cameras and the news media both sides
understood each other and the strength of each other's arguments: one
side had Mother Teresa's clean image; the other had the law. With that
in mind, Bongo Java and Mother Teresa reached a compromise before she
died. The result was that Bongo Java would not use Mother Teresa's name
or the term "Immaculate Confection?" to market the bun or on any
merchandise. In return, Mother Teresa would not object to Bongo Java
selling a limited amount of merchandise with the image of the bun
and/or the term NNunBuntm. Thus, we cannot sell NunBuntm merchandise on
the web or via phone. If you want NunBuntm gear, you gotta come to Bongo!
Momma T laughs
prove Mother Teresa's sense of humor and her enjoyment of the bun, her
attorney told us the following story. He met with her and her
replacement a week before she died. They all knew she was dying and
they wanted to clear up a few urgent matters ? one crazily enough was
the NunBun?. After he explained the agreement worked out with Bongo
Java and asked for her approval, Mother Teresa looked at her
replacement and said "You tell those guys to find a cinnamon bun that
looks like her."
attorney discussed in this story, Jim Tewey, later became the head of
President Bush's Faith Based Initiatives program. In a New York Times
interview, he talked about his experience with the NunBuntm.
Legal Proof vs. Saintly Proof
Mother Teresa's attorney made the legal claim that we couldn't use
the image of the NunBuntm because it was her image. We maintained that
if it really was her image it would be a miracle. Those who want Mother
Teresa to be named a saint need to prove three miracles. So far none of
them have called us to investigate whether the NunBuntm really is a
miracle. We rest our case.
The NunBuntm was stolen on Christmas Day 2005. Thieves took Bongo Java's front door off the hook, walked in and stole only the NunBuntm. The police didn't seem to take the case seriously and no evidence to the culprit ever mounted.
The Tennessean did receive three letters and photos of the NunBuntm in various locations. No one ever could prove whether these photos were really form the thieves or were simply very good works of digital photo manipulation.
Bongo Java continues to offer $5,000 leading the return of the NunBuntm and the successful prosecution of the NunBuntm culprits.
Bongo Java continues to sell NunBuntm t-shirts.