Inside Scientologists Bizarre Plot To Sell Bogus Meat To The Poor
In the summer of 1973, Conrad Romo, a 19 -year-old boy from L.A. whose Catholic upbringing had been derailed by books like Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha and John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks — anything that” spoke of more than simply this world “– turned on the Tv and watched an advertisement for a new religion called ” Scientology .”
The ad was catchy-a tight one-minute clip with a jingle from’ 70 s radiostar Edward Bear and the vague promise of deeper meaning. When a phone number flashed in the different regions of the screen, Romo took note.
” I’m a sucker for a little ad ,” Romo , now a grey-haired Buddhist with a goatee, told The Daily Beast. When he phoned the line to hear more, the son spoke to a woman who called herself “Spanky.” Afterward, he would recognize her as Spanky Taylor, a spokesperson for Scientology’s publicity arm, Axioms Productions, and John Travolta’s personal “auditor” — jargon for a kind of counselor. But in the moment, he believed she seemed cool.” Spanky had a really sexy voice ,” Romo said, laughing.” I was intrigued .”
Forty-five years later, Conrad Romo would point to that ad as the genesis of a 14 -year devotion to the controversial religion group. In some ways, Romo’s story of Scientology resembles so many of the survivor tales told by ex-members : he got seduced, spent years of his life and thousands of dollars on Scientology, and then” woke up ,” confused and lonely, sometime in the late 1980 s.
But in recent interviews with The Daily Beast, Romo and several other former members explained another aspect of scientologist life–one rarely reported on in the documentaries or chart-busting tell-alls–a niche industry that employed countless hopeful converts around Los Angeles and San Francisco for almost a decade: selling meat.
For four years, in the name of Scientology and its charismatic, sci-fi-writing leader, L. Ron Hubbard, Romo drove a climate-controlled truck around greater Los Angeles, parked it outside food stamp stores, and hawked overpriced steaks to anyone who passed by.
When Romo spoke to Spanky, she told him to come down to a place on L.A.’s 8th Street, near MacArthur Park. It was a Friday night around 10 p.m ., just after a lecturing had ended. Romo was initially to turn, he recalled. The area was kind of seedy, he said, and Spanky hadn’t mentioned anything about a “church,” which sounded stodgy and Catholic. But Romo introduced himself. He signed in. A member mutely resulted him to a private room.
In the room, Romo watched a short video of L. Ron Hubbard laying out the group’s basic tenets, and flipped through a transcript of Hubbard’s best-selling text, Dianetics . The member asked him to buy the book, Romo remembered.” I said no and he left .”
Romo might have just strolled out then and there, cult and meat-free. But as he was leaving, a bunch of members invited him to a party. He piled into a auto with the group of good-looking young person. They were talkative and the party was fun, Romo thought, even though, as a rule, scientologists bide pretty straight-edge.
When the night was over, Romo’s new friends had persuaded him to sign up for the first Scientology course, “Communications.” Hubbard allegedly borrowed many of his practises from other religions and Romo said the first course seemed lifted straight from Zen Buddhism.” It was a form of meditation where you just sit, doing nothing, being still ,” he said.” As I remember, we would sit facing someone else. You just sit three feet apart from each other and you don’t blink. You’re just there .”
The class only cost $30 or $35, Romo said, and after he tried the first conference, it seemed worth every penny:” I felt something various kinds of change in me .” He signed up for the next class immediately after. The cost was slightly higher, although still reasonable-but soon, the prices” just got crazier and crazier .”
Unlike most major religions, Scientology requires significant financial contributions from its members, by way of these courses and an alternative kind of therapy they call “auditing.” After the first course, students are encouraged to enroll immediately in the next level, so that they can begin climbing what members call” the Bridge ,” a rising scale that promises to assist students to ” go clear ,”~ ATAGEND or reach the Scientology equivalent of Nirvana.
As in Romo’s experience, the first conferences for these practices are always the cheapest-some are now offered free online-but with each additional course, the prices soar.
” The whole thing is money ,” said Tory Christman, a former scientologist whose ex-husband ran in the meat-selling circuit.” It’s not a religion. It’s a business. Think of it as a triangle-the higher up you get, the more pressure to spend more. You always have to buy the next thing .”
The mounting financial pressure on scientologists like Romo and Christman often forced them to find supplementary income, birthing a string of micro-markets that were dominated by members of the cult looking to payroll their way to “total freedom.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a representative from the Church of Scientology denied any official relationship with the quests of their membership .” Scientologists, like individuals from many religions, have taken part in a wide variety of professions ,” a spokesperson wrote.” Scientologists come from all strolls of life and from just about every imaginable occupation .”
Even without official endorsements, however, insular Scientology markets sprouted up as early as the 1970′ s, creating pockets of salesmen with specialties in pretzels, gold, black velvet paints, aluminum etchings, Olympic flag tschochkies, chimney sweeping services, a weight loss drink called Slendernow, several different multi-level marketing commodities( including the billion-dollar nutrition business Herbalife ), insurance, and-in Romo’s case-wholesale pork chops, burger patties and beef byproducts.
Only months into his newfound lifestyle, Romo said, he was already strapped for cash. He was working in a factory and detested it. He quit his job when he saw an ad at some Scientology event for a gig in marketings. His first go at selling began with what struck him as an unlikely product: pretzels.
The company was run by a few scientologists from New York. Pretzel stands were still largely an East Coast enterprise, and the latter are a novelty in Los Angeles. The scientologists would park their carts by department store or outside the Rose Bowl and pass out hot pretzels, earning seven or eight pennies for each piece sold. In a single day, Romo made somewhere around $120.
Soon, he graduated to bigger foods. He heard about a wholesale meat distributor called Mr. Sirloin in San Francisco, which was hiring young scientologists to help with sales. Another company called Tully Premium Meats had started a similar practise in Gardena, a city in southwest L.A. County, and closer to where Romo lived.
In meat marketings, Romo would still stimulate commission. But the products cost more than pretzels, so his daily earnings would spike. When he showed up for educate, Romo fulfilled one of the owners, a tall, charismatic redhead named Brian Tully.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a representative from the Church of Scientology denied any association with Tully. (” Mr. Tully of Tully Meats was expelled from the Church decades ago ,” she wrote, adding,” We have no records of a Mr. Sirloin ,” mistaking the name of a meat vendor for a person ). But in the late 1970 s, Tully was still very much part of the Church, and so were most of his employees, both Romo and Christman claimed.
Tully devoted his trainees a long presentation on their business scheme: salesmen would rent a freezer truck on credit, then buy some dry ice and a week’s furnish of meat. They would patrol neighborhoods, knock on doorways, and hope to make a bargain.
In training, they practiced their pitches:” Hi, my name is Conrad and I’m with Tully Meats ,” Romo remembered.” We’re a restaurant and wholesale delivery services and I got some steaks out in the truck that thick .” They would hold their thumbs up two or three inches, to demonstrate different sizes.” We’d attain them seem far bigger than the steaks that we had. Then we’d say,’ Wait here !’ We were supposed to do it with a lot of enthusiasm ,” Romo told The Daily Beast.
Tully’s training was short–an hour, at most–but Romo studied up on sales strategy in his free time. He hadn’t are going to be college, so he decided to build selling his career.” I determined I had a knack for sales that I didn’t realize I had ,” he said,” and I liked that .”
Senior staff members of Scientology examined sales as part of their recruitment run, and Romo began to learn from them. He read a book called Big League Marketings Shutting Techniques, written in 1971 by a guy named Les Dane. Dane wasn’t a scientologist, but after the book “re coming out”, Hubbard induced it required reading for all “registrars” — the scientology staff member responsible for signing people up.
” It’s funny to hear[ President Donald] Trump employing the term’ Big league ,'” Romo said, referring to an incident in 2016, when Trump, then a presidential candidate, promised to speed up the immigration process “big league,” meaning a lot. ” Back then, that was the Scientology guidebook .”
Scientology salesmen also read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War , the ancient Chinese military treatise written in the fifth century B.C.E ., and Romo said its lessons were widespread throughout the meat-sales business.
” Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak ,” Romo said, quoting one of Tzu’s maxims. When he was pitching a product, he would often play dumb, letting the buyer think they were the ones scamming him.
” Marketings was all about reaching and recede. When you’re talking, you’re reaching. And when you’re listening, you’re withdrawing ,” Romo explained.” We would physically lean forward and move back. We would knock on the door and say,’ Hey, I simply talked to your neighbor and they got a bunch of these, and we thought you might want some of them too. I don’t know .'”
Then, the salesmen would go quiet, Romo said, leaving the customers to fill in the stillnes.” We would put on this face like we were so dumb, and say nothing. Always, they would say,’ What are they ?’ but we would act like we hadn’t heard them. We would say,’ scuse me ‘? And they would say,’ What are they? The second hour, they would almost always have a smile on their face, like they were talking to the stupidest person in the world .”
The business was something of a swindle, in part because meat was a risky, high-pressure product.” It’s a perishable item, so you really had to hustle. Otherwise you winded up having to either toss it or eat it ,” Romo said.
To make sure they stimulated back their investment, the salesmen would target poor person.” You weren’t going to sell meat in Beverly Hills ,” Romo explained. They would tour low-income neighborhoods and housing projects, or stake out food stamp stores.
One of Romo’s co-workers, a human named Larry Wollersheim( who would later sue Scientology for $86 million in a case that stretched out for 22 years, then one of the longest examples in California history ), even rented a store front right across from a food stamp office, and hired stringers to pass out flyers.
The supervisors at Tully Premium Meats seemed to think that people on food stamps would more readily expend their” free money” than other potential patrons would expend non-food-stamp money, although little research bears this out. It was true, however, that parking outside a food stamp office provided the scientologists with a steady stream of people ready to buy ingredients.
At the time, Romo didn’t think the meat-racket was a rip-off. He often feed the burgers himself or sold the extras to his family. But he did note that the products were significantly marked up from similar meat at major grocery stores.” If you did the math , no, it wasn’t a great deal ,” he said.” But we needed to eat too .”
Eventually, the meat turned out to be more of a swindle than Romo knew. Nearly ten years later, according to a 1988 Los Angeles Times article, several Tully executives pleaded guilty to charges that they had lied about their ingredients, adding chicken gizzards to their hamburgers, and passing them off as pure beef. One of the defendants faced up to a year in jail, and another opposed a fine of up to $100,000.
Most of the meat marketers were scientologists, but the distributors also hired locals. Sam Quinones, an L.A. Times journalist who wrote about a woman named Leona Logan, the mastermind behind a similar racket in Clearwater, Florida( where each year she sold over$ 1 million worth of black velvet paintings to cover train expenses ), said he worked for one of the meat suppliers in the late’ 70 s.
” They had this chief office with refrigeration and all that right across the mall from the food stamp office. My undertaking was to give these people flyers to get them to buy pork chops and stuff like that ,” he told The Daily Beast.” But it was weird. I remember[ the scientologists] having a long conversation amongst themselves, and thinking,’ I want to go work. I don’t want to sit around talking about whatever weird stuff they were talking about .’ It was complete gibberish. Right there, I was like, maybe I should go .”
He quit the next day. But Romo stuck with the job for years, until his partner Larry Wollersheim convinced him to join him in a reporting enterprise: itinerant art merchant.
” They were these sh* tty, postcard size, four-by-six kind of things. They were foil, and when you moved them a little bit, they kind of caught the illuminate and had the effect of motion ,” he said.” We would have these things framed and matted. I went on the road for almost a year to Denver, Houston, Dallas, Chicago. We would knock on doors. We would recruit people and develop people. We would leave an office operating and we would go to the next city .”
Then, in 1986, L. Ron Hubbard died of a stroke, and Romo’s faith in Scientology started to waver. In a wild power grab to takeover Hubbard’s seat, the Church’s current leader David Miscavige declared another top scientologist, David Mayo, a” suppressive person “– the Scientology version of ex-communication.
” It was actually mind-blowing. It was like, wait a minute, how could he be proclaimed a suppressive ?” Romo said.” Scientology claims that 2 percent of people on the planet are these antisocial forms that would be called a’ suppressive .’ But here was Hubbard’s right-hand man. How could Hubbard not have seen that ?”
Within six months, he had stopped going to classes and left his faith system, his friends, and his extensive sales career behind. Now, decades later, when the semi-retired Zen Buddhist is to be able to speak about his old religion without” shaking and sweating ,” he says the sales lessons he learned were similar to the very recruitment techniques that brought him to Scientology.
” Oh yeah ,” he said.” It’s directing attention to where you want it to be. It’s not taking no for an answer. It’s sheer manipulation .”
Read more: www.thedailybeast.com