Doughnut shop owner’s viral Yelp response is sweet news for local homeless man
Nomad Donuts owner Brad Keiller is raising money for man who makes his home along shop’s west wall
In the five years since Brad Keiller opened Nomad Donuts in North Park with his surfing buddy Cameron Corley, nearly a thousand people have written reviews of the shop on the crowd-sourced ratings website Yelp.com. Most have been positive, but a negative 1-star review posted Nov. 17, and Keiller’s big-hearted response five days later, has caused some sweet repercussions.
The since-removed review dinged Nomad for allowing a homeless man to set up camp along the shop’s west wall for the past year, which “really makes me feel great about spending $5 on a jelly donut.”
Keiller said he pondered for several days how to respond and whether to message the writer privately or post an open response on Yelp. Ultimately, he went public because he wants his employees and his customers to know that homeless customers like Ray Taylor deserve the same respect as everyone else in North Park.
“I understand how you feel, it’s not easy to look at,” wrote Keiller, 49. “I know I probably lose some business, possibly yours, too, because of my choice not to chase him away, but I won’t. He’s not looking for handouts and he tries not to bother anyone. If you stop and talk to him, maybe you’ll come to like him, too.”
In the two weeks since Yelp users began sharing Keiller’s post on social media, the story has gone viral. It has been covered nationally by The New York Daily News and The Chive website and on television and Keiller has been contacted by friends and strangers from Canada, the Philippines, Ireland, the Netherlands and South Africa. Dozens of new customers visited the shop in a show of support and so many asked how they could help that Keiller launched a Gofundme account for Taylor that has raised more than $2,000.
Taylor, 58, said he’s overwhelmed with gratitude by the response, because he has become accustomed over the years to being treated by passers-by as either invisible or with disgust.
“I was shocked by it and a little self-conscious, because I wasn’t sure how people would react. But it’s been great,” he said. “People have been driving up and waving at me and saying hello. I’m not sure what will come of this, but I’m just going to enjoy it while it lasts.”
Taylor has been on the streets since 2011, following a series of career and health setbacks that occurred during the recession. Born and raised just a few miles away in South Park, Taylor said he lived a modest but comfortable life working in electronics assembly and as a deliveryman and handyman.
In 2007, he said he invested his savings in a startup company aimed at making fuel-efficient towing vehicles, but it went belly up a year later. Then, in 2010, his job with a San Diego semiconductor firm was outsourced. Unable to find work, out of money, and with no health insurance to pay for much-needed knee and hip replacement surgeries, he made the unorthodox decision to become homeless. His plan was to qualify for Social Security disability payments and Medicare to cover his surgeries. Having paid disability and Social Security taxes for decades, he felt it was only fair to ask the government for help.
“It was a financial decision to be homeless, not a drug addiction or a moral breakdown,” Taylor said.
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as planned. Because he gets anxious around other people and said he has been let down too many times to count, he has developed an aversion to homeless shelters, the police, church groups and government officials. He never got the surgeries he needed for his osteoarthritis and over the years he has been repeatedly victimized by thefts and beatings. Life on the streets has been hard, but Taylor prides himself on his independence. He doesn’t drink or take drugs and he doesn’t panhandle, which Keiller confirmed.
Taylor has no living family members. His few possessions include a cane, a pushcart with a broken wheel, some blankets and clothing and a few personal items. He has no cellphone. No tent. He gets by on $6.36 in food stamps a day and the occasional gift of free doughnuts, coffee, tacos and pizza slices from local shops like Nomad, URBN Pizza and City Taco.
Keiller, a South African native who grew up in Canada and moved to San Diego in 2000, said his experience of living abroad in countries with nationalized health care showed him how hard it is to be homeless in America.
“Without the safety net of health care and family support, most people here are just one layoff or one uninsured illness away from ending up like Ray,” he said.
Keiller’s background is in technology and software sales. He got into the doughnut business in 2014 when Corley asked for his help writing a business plan for a gourmet doughnut shop. They soon became business partners. Nomad Donuts is known for its ever-revolving variety of globally flavored pastries, like its Philippines-inspired ube taro cake doughnuts, Mexican hot chocolate churro-style crullers and Cuban-themed cream cheese guava doughnuts. The restaurant also makes in-house Montreal-style vegan bagels, which Keiller describes as slightly sweeter, denser and more flavorful than the New York variety.
When it first opened, Nomad Donuts was in a 670-square-foot space on 30th Street. As sales grew, the business relocated in 2016 to its present 3,200-square-foot location at 3102 University Ave. Keiller said the homeless community on University is much larger than at the former location, and occasionally he has had to call police to escort out customers with meth addictions and mental illness who became too disruptive. But those problems have eased in the year or so since Taylor took up a chair outside the shop. Taylor’s presence has also discouraged littering and graffiti along the wall where he sits on Illinois Street.
“He’s been around a while and other homeless people around here respect him a bit. They don’t cause as much trouble now,” Keiller said.
Taylor said his dream is to one day have an apartment of his own and the surgeries that he needs to become more mobile and self-sufficient. In the meantime, he’s hoping to use the Gofundme money for gift cards to pay for food and personal needs. And as long as it lasts, he’s going to enjoy the brief bubble of celebrity that has unexpectedly come his way.
“Sometimes, people see the state I’m in and they say, ‘let’s kick him harder while he’s down because he’s a bum.’ But I’ve tried hard to establish myself in the community and I’m grateful for those people who have treated me with dignity,” he said.
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