Milk meltdown: Nursing mom gets Burrito boot

If some of the protesters who showed up on the Downtown Mall on Friday, June 4, were feeling "let down," it's understandable. Though protests against the current situation in Iraq have become a near-everyday occurrence in Charlottesville, Friday's event had a different focus: the right of mothers to breastfeed their babies in public.

For folks who just strolled by, the purpose may not have been immediately clear.

"What's Bush done now?" asked one woman as she surveyed the stroller-saturated scene. Glimpsing signs reading "Breast is best" and "Formula is inferior," she asked, "Has he banned breastfeeding?"

In all, dozens of men, women, and children turned out to show support for what nursing mother Suzanna Stone calls a "beautiful, natural, normal, wonderful experience."

It didn't feel so wonderful two days earlier, Stone says, when she took her two children to lunch at new downtown eatery Atomic Burrito. While Stone and her five-year-old daughter, Gypsy, ordered burritos, six-month-old Phoenix had her standard liquid lunch, mom's milk.

But Stone says she hadn't been nursing long when the owner of the establishment approached her with what she calls a "shocking" message. "I just want to let you know that what you're doing is completely inappropriate for a restaurant this size," he told her.

Stone says she expressed her displeasure and asked for her money back.

"I had to pack my children and leave," she says. "I have never confronted this."

In fact, Stone says, she has met with only positive feedback to public nursing, even in some unlikely places.

"I sat on the floor of the Dollar General in Scottsville," she recalls. The employees of the store, she says, "asked only if I needed anything."

When she leaked her Atomic Burrito story on a homeschooling website, the parenting community quickly latched on.

"The fact that somebody is so close minded to think that breastfeeding is dirty is pathetic," raged Suzanne Lochner, mother of a six-year-old and a 15-month-old. Her children, she says, were breastfed "whenever they needed."

Doug Sulouff, father of year-old Cassidy, was on the scene to "show support."

And soon-to-be-dad Janus Raphaelidis said he "found it hard to believe that someone would be so stupid."

With all the backlash, Atomic Burrito owners Josh Yowell and Andrew Vaughan may have been feeling a bit, well, booby-trapped, but their quick response to the uproar pleased the protesters.

By Thursday afternoon, the two had crafted an official policy welcoming breastfeeding mothers to the establishment. "We love kids," says Yowell. "We want families to come here."

The whole incident, he explains, was a "big mistake."

Yowell explains that he had been approached by "an older woman" who told him she would be taking her lunch away since she was too uncomfortable to eat within sight of Stone and her hungry baby.

After thinking about what to do for a few minutes, Yowell says he made the decision he now regrets.

"I feel really bad about it," he says.

Vaughan, who wasn't present the day of the nursing incident, says he "hadn't slept" in the two days prior to the protest because of the stress. He says both he and Yowell want to make sure that all families feel welcome at the burrito joint.

"We want to raise awareness," says Vaughan, "and hopefully this won't happen again."

That's all Stone– and the other protesters– are hoping for.

With the success of the protest spurring them on, Stone says she's hoping Delegate Rob Bell, himself the father of a breastfed one-year-old, will sponsor a bill giving nursing mothers the right to breastfeed in any public place. Current state law allows women to nurse on any property owned by the Commonwealth, but leaves nursing at private businesses up to the owner's discretion.

Bell did not immediately return the Hook's call.

In the meantime, Stone says she holds no grudge against Atomic Burrito, and hopes others will follow her forgiving lead.

"They put up a sign welcoming nursing mothers!" Stone shouted to thunderous applause from protesters.

"I think this turned out perfectly," she says. "I think it's a good thing it happened."

Suzanna Stone was asked to leave a local eatery after breastfeeding her six-month-old daughter, Phoenix.

Julia Weissman