Red Hen restaurant controversy

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White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was at the center of the controversy

The Red Hen restaurant controversy was an American political controversy that began June 22, 2018, when a co-owner of The Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, asked Donald Trump's White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave. The co-owner later cited Sanders' role in what the co-owner called the "inhumane and unethical" Trump administration in which Sanders had "publicly defended the president's cruelest policies."

Precipitating incident[edit]

The Red Hen is a "tiny farm-to-table restaurant" with 26 seats almost 200 miles from Washington, D.C., in Lexington, Virginia (population 7,000).[1] At about 8:00pm on Friday, June 22, 2018, The Red Hen's chef telephoned restaurant co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson to report that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had entered the restaurant to dine with a group of about eight people.[1] Wilkinson told The Washington Post that, after conferring with her employees, she told Sanders that the restaurant upholds standards "such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation" and asked Sanders to leave, which Sanders did.[1] Wilkinson related that the other people at Sanders' table had been served appetizers and were invited to stay, but they also left, Wilkinson saying their appetizers were on the house.[1] In the morning press briefing of Monday June 25, Sanders said that she and her husband went home.[2]

Political and journalistic responses[edit]

Restaurant co-owner[edit]

A June 25 Washington Post article quoted restaurant co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson as saying she was "not a huge fan of confrontation" and wanted her business to thrive, but that this felt like "the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals."[1] Wilkinson explained that she believed Sanders—significantly, a public official—served in an “inhumane and unethical” administration and "publicly defended the president’s cruelest policies."[1]

Trump administration[edit]

After a server made a social media post that caused wider media attention, at 10:53am the next day (Saturday June 23) Sanders tweeted, "Last night I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA, to leave because I work for @POTUS, and I politely left. Her actions say far more about her than about me."[3] In the press briefing of Monday, June 25, Sanders spoke out against "hate and vandalism" against the restaurant and also said that "calls for harassment and push for any Trump supporter to avoid the public is unacceptable."[2] On about August 2, in the context of her accusation that the press verbally assaults the president and members of his administration, Sanders said that as far as she knew she is "the first press secretary in the history of the United States that’s required Secret Service protection."[4]

At 7:41am on Monday, June 25, President Donald Trump tweeted that the restaurant should focus more on cleaning its "filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders," adding that "I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!"[5] (Virginia health department records show the restaurant "easily passed its most recent inspections."[6])

After comments made by Congresswoman Maxine Waters calling for her supporters to confront Trump Cabinet officials in public spaces like restaurants, President Trump responded on Twitter saying "Congresswoman Maxine Waters, an extraordinarily low IQ person, has become, together with Nancy Pelosi, the Face of the Democrat Party. She has just called for harm to supporters, of which there are many, of the Make America Great Again movement. Be careful what you wish for Max!"[7]

Other political and journalistic responses[edit]

Following the incident, Congresswoman Maxine Waters encouraged her supporters to act similarly saying, "Let's make sure we show up wherever we have to show up. And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they're not welcome anymore, anywhere"[8] and “For these members of his Cabinet who remain and try to defend [Trump], they’re not going to be able to go to a restaurant, they’re not going to be able to stop at a gas station, they’re not going to be able to shop [at] a department store. The people are going to turn on them, they’re going to protest, they’re going to absolutely harass them.”[9]

House Minority Leader and fellow Democrat Nancy Pelosi publicly disagreed with Waters' statements regarding harassing Trump administration officials calling this "unacceptable" and calling for civility saying "we must strive to make America beautiful again."[10]

The controversy caused numerous commentators to write on the issue of civility toward political figures.[11] Karl J. Salzmann wrote in The National Review that "in the absence of civility, democracy becomes mob rule" and that "without civility we turn toward chaos, anarchy, and ultimately constitutional perdition."[12] In contrast, Professor Gerald Postema distinguished political implications from moral considerations, writing that "we must resist rushing to the judgment of incivility. Norms of civility can be oppressive, a potent means of muzzling legitimate demands of accountability. Civility should not rule out vigorous articulation of one’s moral views."[13]

Similar incidents[edit]

The incident ignited a political debate about civility and invoked comparisons to similar incidents.[11] Commentators referenced the 2012 Masterpiece Cakeshop incident in which a Colorado baker refused to make a custom wedding cake for a gay couple,[14] the 2012 Crumb and Get It bakery incident in which a Virginia baker declined to host a campaign media event for then-Vice President Joe Biden,[11] and the 2015 refusal by county clerk Kim Davis to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple in Kentucky.[15]

Subsequent occurrences[edit]

The restaurant's Yelp page was quickly flooded with mostly one- and five-star reviews created by opponents and supporters of Wilkinson's action.[16] As of June 25, Yelp was actively monitoring the listing and deleting postings that were perceived as being motivated "by the news coverage itself [rather] than [by] the reviewer's personal consumer experience with the business."[17]

Fortune magazine reported that, as a result of a tweet by Donald Trump, an unaffiliated District of Columbia restaurant with the same name was targeted by conservatives with negative Yelp reviews and denunciations on Twitter.[18][19] Other unaffiliated restaurants with the same name in Swedesboro, New Jersey and Old Saybrook, Connecticut, as well as against the Olde Red Hen in Ontario and the Little Red Hen in Muntinlupa, the Philippines, were similarly targeted with negative reviews and criticism on Twitter.[20]

Supporters and opponents demonstrated outside the restaurant on June 26, resulting in one arrest and closure of the street in front of the business for two hours.[21] The restaurant remained closed for almost two weeks after the incident, experiencing a protest on its July 9 re-opening[11] but receiving an increase in business in succeeding days.[22]

By June 27, the URL of the restaurant's website had been redirected to a site selling erectile dysfunction medication,[23] a Malwarebytes security specialist indicating that the redirect was likely from scammers seeking to "capitalize on heightened internet traffic to the website because of the headlines" rather than for political purposes.[24]

It was reported on June 26 that Sanders was to receive temporary Secret Service protection at her home,[25] protection that Sanders confirmed on about August 2.[4]

On September 2, The Roanoke Times reported that the Rockbridge Regional Tourism Board had agreed to spend $5,000 per month from July through September to increase positive digital marketing in response to negative national media coverage after the incident.[26] The money was taken from an emergency fund that constitutes about 20% ($160,000) of its $800,000 overall annual budget.[26]

In May 2019, co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson wrote in the Washington Post that the restaurant had been receiving hate mail for nearly a year, but "[f]or every hateful message, there was one of gratitude." She reported that "business is still good," and "to everyone who might be fearful about taking a stand, I say don’t be. Resistance is not futile, for you or your business."[27]

Legal issues[edit]

On Saturday, June 23, Walter Shaub, past director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics under Presidents Obama and Trump (through July 2017), wrote that Sanders' June 23 tweet violated federal law[28] pertaining to Standards of Ethical Conduct / Misuse of Position.[29] Shaub wrote that Sanders used her official government Twitter account, having three million followers, "to condemn a private business for personal reasons. Seeks to coerce business by using her office to get public to pressure it. Violates endorsements ban too, which has an obvious corollary for discouraging patronage."[29] In the press briefing of Monday, June 25, Sanders said that over a dozen reporters had contacted her and that multiple news stories had already been issued, so she considered it to be "news of the day" to which she responded on her official government Twitter account.[2]

Some commentators perceived a parallel between the Red Hen incident and the facts underlying the Supreme Court's June 4, 2018, Masterpiece Cakeshop decision, ruling in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a custom wedding cake for a gay couple based on the baker's religious opposition to their marriage.[14] However, in contrast to the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 which bars discrimination based on race, religion, national origin and color, Virginia state law does not provide that political affiliation is a protected trait against discrimination.[14]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Selk, Avi; Murray, Sarah (June 25, 2018). "The owner of the Red Hen explains why she asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on July 4, 2018.
  2. ^ a b c Reiss, Jaclyn (June 25, 2018). "Here's how Sarah Sanders addressed being kicked out of a restaurant during her press briefing today". The Boston Globe. Archived from the original on June 26, 2018.
  3. ^ Watson, Kathryn (June 23, 2018). "Sarah Sanders says she was asked to leave restaurant because she works for Trump". CBS News. Retrieved June 24, 2018.
  4. ^ a b Guardian staff and agencies (August 2, 2018). "'Enemy of the people': Sanders refuses to disavow Trump's claim about media". The Guardian. Archived from the original on August 3, 2018. Includes video of press briefing.
  5. ^ Higgins, Tucker (June 25, 2018). "Trump slams Red Hen for being 'filthy.' Inspectors found no violations but Mar-a-Lago was cited 78 times in three years". CNBC. Archived from the original on July 2, 2018.
  6. ^ Prignano, Christina (June 25, 2018). "Contrary to Trump's tweet, the Red Hen breezed through its last health inspection". The Boston Globe. Archived from the original on June 25, 2018.
  7. ^ Manchester, Julia (June 18, 2018). "Maxine Waters calls on supporters to confront Trump officials in public spaces". The Hill.
  8. ^ Calfas, Jennifer (June 25, 2018). "They're Not Welcome Anymore, Anywhere.' Maxine Waters Tells Supporters to Confront Trump Officials". Time. Retrieved July 4, 2018.
  9. ^ Blake, Aaron (June 25, 2018). "Maxine Waters shows why the Sarah Huckabee Sanders-Red Hen story is extremely important". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 4, 2018.
  11. ^ a b c d Touchberry, Ramsey (July 6, 2018). "Sarah Huckabee Sanders service refusal compared to racial segregation as protests greet Red Hen opening". Newsweek. Archived from the original on July 7, 2018.
  12. ^ Salzmann, Karl J. (July 10, 2018). "The Civility Wars". The National Review. Archived from the original on August 11, 2018.
  13. ^ Postema, Gerald J. (July 16, 2018). "Is being incivil a morally justifiable choice?". The Charlotte Observer. Archived from the original on July 17, 2018.
  14. ^ a b c Rao, Sonia (June 25, 2018). "Did the Red Hen violate Sarah Huckabee Sanders's rights when it kicked her out?". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on June 29, 2018.
  15. ^ Dvorak, Petula (The Washington Post) (June 26, 2018). "It's OK to hate Trump staffers, but let them eat their cake (and cheese plate)". The Hamilton Spectator. Archived from the original on July 7, 2018.
  16. ^ "Restaurant gets Yelp-bombed for asking Sarah Sanders to leave". CNET. Retrieved June 24, 2018.
  17. ^ "Red Hen Yelp listing hit by protests". BBC News. June 25, 2018. Retrieved June 25, 2018.
  18. ^ Price, Emily (June 25, 2018). "Trump Supporters Are Attacking the Wrong Red Hen Restaurant". Fortune. Retrieved June 26, 2018.
  19. ^ Morris, Chris (June 25, 2018). "Conservative Activists Call for Yelp Attack on Restaurant That Turned Away Sarah Huckabee Sanders". Fortune. Retrieved June 26, 2018.
  20. ^ Gibson, Kate (June 26, 2018). "Red Hen restaurants everywhere feel ramifications of Sanders incident". CBS News. Retrieved June 26, 2018.
  21. ^ Amy, Friedenberger (June 26, 2018). "Protesters gather outside Red Hen restaurant as owner steps down as director of Main Street Lexington". Roanoke Times. Retrieved July 1, 2018.
  22. ^ Rao, Sonia (July 10, 2018). "Red Hen finds kicking out Sarah Sanders draws customers". The Star. Toronto. Archived from the original on July 10, 2018.
  23. ^ Jason, Murdock (June 27, 2018). "Has the Red Hen website been hacked?". Newsweek. Retrieved July 1, 2018.
  24. ^ Fazzini, Kate (June 28, 2018). "The Red Hen restaurant that refused to serve Sarah Sanders was hit by a cyberattack". CNBC. Retrieved July 1, 2018.
  25. ^ Zhao, Christina (June 27, 2018). "Does Sarah Huckabee Sanders Need Secret Service Protection?". Newsweek. Archived from the original on June 27, 2018. Wednesday Newsweek article said NBC reported it on Tuesday.
  26. ^ a b Graham, Alison (September 2, 2018). "Lexington-area tourism group beefs up marketing in wake of Red Hen controversy". The Roanoke Times. Archived from the original on September 4, 2018.
  27. ^ Wilkinson, Stephanie (May 14, 2019). "I own the Red Hen restaurant that asked Sarah Sanders to leave. Resistance isn't futile". The Washington Post.
  28. ^ "Electronic Code of Federal Regulations / PART 2635—Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch / Subpart G—Misuse of Position / §2635.702 Use of public office for private gain". Government Publishing Office. June 21, 2018. Archived from the original on June 25, 2018.
  29. ^ a b Oppenheim, Maya (June 24, 2018). "Sarah Sanders tweet about being kicked out of restaurant violates law, former White House ethics chief says". The Independent. Archived from the original on June 25, 2018.

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