Twenty two years ago on Christmas Day, Bongo Java became the most famous coffeehouse in the world due to a cinnamon bun that many believe looks remarkably like Mother Teresa. You can read one of the nearly 10,000 entries when you google NunBun.
Using the Andy Warhol measure that everyone is famous for 15 minutes, the NunBun actually got 45 minutes of fame: 15 minutes for the discovery; 15 minutes because Mother Teresa personally wrote us a letter asking us to stop using the image to sell merchandise; and 15 minutes when the NunBun was stolen — again on Christmas day.
The story itself could be a case study for how the internet changed everything. In 1996 the internet was in its infancy. Thus, news of the NunBun became viral in a whole different way. An article in the Saturday Tennessean was picked up on Monday by USA Today which in turn started a wave of morning and afternoon disc jockeys from across the country to call to get word of the NunBun. The article and those often silly interviews eventually led to stories on media outlets like national TV stations, NPR and (so we’ve been told) a Calcutta newspaper.
Eventually 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.
Because the story broke during the holiday season, many of our regular customers found out about the story reading newspapers wherever they were. We had customers in Europe, Asia and all over the USA bring us copies of papers that talked about the NunBun.
One regular customer walked in and said we needed a website. It’s hard to remember but back in 1996 websites weren’t so prevalent. In fact, our company didn’t have a website. The site was created quickly along with a morph that slowly changed from a photo of Mother Teresa into the NunBun. In just 30 days this site had more than one million hits. Again, back then that was a big deal. The Nashville Scene gave us “Best Local Website” for that achievement.
Somewhere during that first crazy week someone called and said they were Mother Teresa’s attorney. We eventually talked, debated on CNNs “Burden of Proof” and negotiated a deal where we wouldn’t sell something like $100,000 of NunBun merchandise in a single year (not sure if we’ve hit $10,000 in 20 years). This is when we also agreed to call this the NunBun rather than the Immaculate Confection – which was Mother Teresa’s preference.
The NunBun wasn’t but very well could have been used to prove Mother Teresa was a saint — at least according to her attorney’s legal argument. He said we couldn’t use the image of the bun because it was her image (which has legal protection). We had to hire our own attorney to explain that if the cinnamon bun indeed had her image on it than it truly was a miracle.
Mother Teresa actually enjoyed the NunBun. As reported by her attorney, she joked about it weeks before she died. The attorney, the eventual Saint and her replacement were discussing issues that needed to be solved before Mother Teresa died. The outline of our NunBun settlement came up. She looked at her replacement and said “Tell those people in Tennessee to find a bun that looks like her!”
The last weird part of the NunBun story happened 11 years after it was discovered. Again on Christmas Eve, the NunBun was stolen. Someone took the hinges off Bongo Java’s front door and stole the bun. Again, this kicked off a firestorm of publicity capping off in a live intereview 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.
The $5,000 No Questions Asked reward for the return of the NunBun still exists.