Florida pizza shop owner Scott Van Duzer may just be the most famous hugger in the country right now. Over the weekend, the brawny, muscular 46-year-old—who says he’s six foot three and can bench press 350 pounds—swapped dumbbells for, well, the president. And in so doing has become a viral star and a lightning rod in the country’s partisan divide.
Van Duzer was photographed gleefully giving President Obama a bear hug on Sunday, lifting the 6-foot-2 commander-in-chief clear off the ground. “Everybody look at these guns,” Obama said, while visiting Van Duzer’s Big Apple Pizza & Pasta Italian Restaurant in Palm Beach. “If I eat your pizza, will I look like that?” Caught up in the moment, Van Duzer swept the president into an embrace that’s spread across the Internet and cable news like rich tomato sauce on fresh dough.
But once word got out that Van Duzer is a registered Republican who voted for Obama in 2008 and is planning to do so again in November, angry conservatives flooded his restaurant’s Yelp page with negative reviews and began staging a boycott. (Sample gem: "I cringe at the thought even of eating at this Big Crapple Pizza. Knowing O'Hussain was there totally creeps it out for me.")
Fresh off an airplane after landing in New York for more media interviews Tuesday—Anderson Live and Inside Edition are on the docket—Van Duzer spoke with The Daily Beast about his newfound fame, conservative critics, and what it felt like to hold the president of the United States in his arms.
Welcome to New York. Now that you’ve given the world’s most famous hug, you’ve had a whirlwind of a few days. What’s it been like for you?
Today’s been hectic, man. We did like four TV shows, 40 radio shows, and it’s amazing. It’s amazing that you can see the good and bad in people. A lot of people are happy for me and a lot of people are pretty upset. I guess it comes with taking a stance and offering a hug. And that’s that, right?
Are you surprised by the attention you’re receiving?
Well, it started out as something very genuine. He walked in. It was a great moment, and it’s just creating a life of its own right now—good and bad. It’s a mix of emotions.
So the president was visiting you and the shop to congratulate you on your work with this foundation. What kind of work does it do?
I’ve been at my pizza shop for over 25 years, and about four years ago we started helping local families. One family a month. Over the last four years, we’ve helped over 40 families and raised over $600,000. With that, over 80 percent of the families that we have helped have donated blood. It has created, in our small town, one of the largest blood drives in the country. Last year 1,300 people came out and donated blood. The president came in, looked me in the eye, shook my hand and was extremely proud of the work that we do. That was very touching. Besides the hug, he took the time out of his obviously busy schedule and it was a very special moment.
Were you expecting the president to walk into your shop today?
We had no idea. I had an 18-minute notice that he was there. [Secret Service] came in and made sure the place was safe. Once they secured the building, they called me and I had 18 minutes to get there.
Were you planning to give him such a big welcome when he got there?
Not at all. That’s the funniest thing, too. Everyone thinks it was scripted. Everyone thinks I asked the Secret Service. I didn’t ask the Secret Service anything. I didn’t know what I was going to do. You know what I mean? He just came in, and the way he came in was so genuine and warm. He came over to me like he had known me for 25 years. He said, “Where’s Scott?” He opened the door and I was standing right there. He gave me a big high five, and started talking about my biceps and muscles. He said, “If I eat your pizza, can I get some muscles like that?” We were just fooling around. He gave me this pat on the shoulder, and that’s when the big hug happened.
So you were just caught up in the moment?
Yeah. Very much so. I never understood what that means. You think, Caught up in the moment, what does that really mean? But last week, I was watching the Democratic Convention, and now here the president of the United States walks into my pizza shop in Fort Pierce, Fla. It was pretty amazing.
How did you react when the leader of the free world complimented your biceps?
(Laughs) I was a little embarrassed. But then I went in for the hug. It was pretty cool.
Was he heavy?
Not at all. He’s pretty fit. He said he weighed 170. But he was pretty fit.
Did he have a distinct smell?
Nah. I can only tell you, it was a warm moment. None of it was planned out. Imagine, like, you’re home and someone you haven’t seen since your high-school days, like 20 years ago. That’s how he made me feel. That’s how he made everybody in the store feel. He walked in, and it seemed like he really wanted to be there. You know what I mean? Not that we were burdening him.
(Takes a break to order pizza from a restaurant in New York.)
Since this all happened, have people been asking you for hugs? Is this your new thing now?
(Laughs) Yeah. I’ve given out about 60 today. I might start my only little page about hugging. Even grown men are coming up to me. It’s the most bizarre thing you’ve ever seen, man.
Do you mind?
Nah, I don’t care. It’s all fun. It’s pretty amazing. It was a great moment that was captured. I’m thankful that it was captured. Like I said, there are people there who know the truth, who know that it wasn’t staged. I mean, you can see the expression on his face, on my face—it was a great moment.
So what is the workout routine like for someone whose biceps are complimented by the president?
I just try to stay fit, man. I actually, a few months ago, I took four kids with me and we rode bikes for 1,100 miles from West Palm Beach to Washington, D.C. So that kept me in shape for a few months.
What’s your reaction to the angry people who are flooding your restaurant’s Yelp page with bad reviews because you hugged the president?
You see the good and bad in people. That’s what’s wrong with our country. I tell people, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, he’s both of our president. He should be treated with respect, and that’s what’s wrong with our country right now. I don’t think it has to be that way. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and you don’t have to be ugly with yours. You know what I’m trying to say? You have the right to do what you want to do. I’m all for free speech—don’t get me wrong there. But if you don’t have nothing good to say, then don’t say nothing. You know what I’m trying to say? You’re entitled to your opinion. Exercise your vote. That’s the bottom line.
And you’re a registered Republican?
I am registered Republican, believe it or not. That’s why I think there’s all the uproar.
Who are you voting for in this election?
I’m going to vote for Obama. The reason why I voted for him last time is I liked his enthusiasm. I like that he tried to get young people to vote, and involved in community service and politics. I just thought he was the right man at the right time. When he came in today with that same enthusiasm when he came in initially. I still think he’s the right guy at the right time.
So you’re not one of the people who feel like he’s let the country down in his first term?
The bottom line is this: I own a small business. I take accountability for my business. I’m not looking to blame the government. And if people had the same mentality of taking care of their own businesses instead of looking to blame somebody when things are a little bad—just tightening things up and doing the best they can—I think we’d be better off that way, too. The whole world is not in a good place right now, and I’m not looking to blame someone. I think that’s the problem. We’re looking more so to blame him for our misfortunes.
When this dust settles from this photo, do you hope to stay in the public eye?
With that foundation, we had Tim Tebow at the store. We had various people at the store. But you know, I’m not looking for the spotlight. I’m happy to be back in my pizza shop tomorrow or the next day, whenever it may be.
Finally, as the owner of a pizza shop, what’s your favorite slice?
Pepperoni’s my favorite. Simple and classic.