Why a small-town restaurant owner asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave — and would do it again
Stephanie Wilkinson was at home Friday evening — nearly 200 miles from the White House — when the choice presented itself.
Her phone rang about 8 p.m. It was the chef at the Red Hen, the tiny farm-to-table restaurant that she co-owned just off Main Street in this small city in the western part of the state.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders had just walked in and sat down, the chef informed her.
“He said the staff is a little concerned. What should we do?” Wilkinson told the Washington Post. “I said I’d be down to see if it’s true.”
It seemed unlikely to her that President Trump’s press secretary should be dining at a 26-seat restaurant in rural Virginia. But then, it was unlikely that her entire staff would have misidentified Sanders, who had arrived last to a table of eight booked under her husband’s name.
As she made the short drive to the Red Hen, Wilkinson knew only this:
She knew Lexington, population 7,000, had voted overwhelmingly against Trump in a county that voted overwhelmingly for him. She knew the community was deeply divided over such issues as Confederate flags. She knew, she said, that her restaurant and its half-dozen servers and cooks had managed to stay in business for 10 years by keeping politics off the menu.
And she knew — she believed — that Sanders worked in the service of an “inhumane and unethical” administration, that she publicly defended the president’s cruelest policies, and that that could not stand.
“I’m not a huge fan of confrontation,” Wilkinson said. “I have a business, and I want the business to thrive. This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.”
When she walked into the restaurant, Wilkinson saw that there had been no mistake. The Red Hen is no bigger than some apartments, and the group table was impossible to miss: Sanders in a black dress, her husband, three or four men and women of roughly similar ages, and an older couple.
“They had cheese boards in front of them,” Wilkinson said. Like any other family. The kitchen was already preparing the party’s main course. Wilkinson interrupted to huddle with her workers.
Several Red Hen employees are gay, she said. They knew Sanders had defended Trump’s desire to bar transgender people from the military. This month, they had all watched her evade questions and defend a Trump policy that caused migrant children to be separated from their parents.
“Tell me what you want me to do. I can ask her to leave,” Wilkinson told her staff, she said. “They said ‘yes.’ ”
It was important to Wilkinson, she said, that Sanders had already been served — that her staff had not simply refused her on sight. And it was important to her that Sanders was a public official, not just a customer with whom she disagreed, many of whom were included in her regular clientele.
All the same, she was tense as she walked up to the press secretary’s chair.
“I said, ‘I’m the owner,’ ” she recalled, “ ‘I’d like you to come out to the patio with me for a word.’ ”
They stepped outside, into another small enclosure, but at least out of the crowded restaurant.
“I was babbling a little, but I got my point across in a polite and direct fashion,” Wilkinson said. “I explained that the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation.
“I said, ‘I’d like to ask you to leave.’ ”
Wilkinson didn’t know how Sanders would react, or whether Trump’s chief spokeswoman had been called out in a restaurant before — as the president’s homeland security secretary had been days earlier.
Sanders’ response was immediate, Wilkinson said: “ ‘That’s fine. I’ll go.’ ”
Sanders went back to the table, picked up her things and walked out. The others at her table had been welcome to stay, Wilkinson said. But they didn’t, so the servers cleared away the cheese plates and glasses.
“They offered to pay,” Wilkinson said. “I said, ‘No. It’s on the house.’ ”
At the end of the shift, Wilkinson said, staff members left the usual overnight note in the kitchen for the morning manager: a problem with the credit card machine. Restock vodka and tequila.
If you’ve ever heard the term “to 86 someone,” it comes from the restaurant industry — code to refuse service, or alternatively to take an item off the menu.
“86 - Sara Huckabee Sanders,” read the note, below the reminder to buy more Pellegrino.
One of the servers photographed the whiteboard before going home Friday. He had posted it to his public Facebook wall by the time Wilkinson woke up Saturday. For all the angst that evening, Wilkinson said, everything had taken place with decorum. She had been polite; Sanders had been polite; the press secretary’s family had been polite as they followed her out the door.
Not so much the rest of the world, as it discovered Red Hen waiter Jaike Foley-Schultz’s Facebook post: “I just served Sarah huckabee sanders for a total of 2 minutes before my owner asked her to leave.”
A fountain of alternately celebratory and outraged comments gushed from Foley-Schultz’s Facebook wall into the Red Hen’s social media accounts, then its Yelp review page.
Five stars: “Thank you for refusing to serve a person who lies to the American people for a living.”
One star: “They made some snide remark about a ‘spit souffle’ for the Florida nazi.’ ”
Between the fury and fawning of 2,000 people who almost certainly had not eaten at the restaurant, the Red Hen’s Yelp reviews almost instantly averaged out to 2½ stars. Another Red Hen in the District of Columbia was at pains to make clear that it had no affiliation with Wilkinson’s place.
And that was before Sanders confirmed the story in a Saturday-morning tweet, including the restaurant’s name and location.
“I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so,” the press secretary wrote. “Her actions say far more about her than about me.”
Wilkinson had no regrets about her decision.
“I would have done the same thing again,” she said. “We just felt there are moments in time when people need to live their convictions. This appeared to be one.”
As she headed out the door to a weekend Main Street festival she had helped organize, she sounded hopeful that the Red Hen could open for business as usual Saturday night. Yes, she had seen calls for #MAGA protests on Facebook. “But this is a small enough town, and we’re known,” she said optimistically. “This is not going to be a giant surprise to anyone.”
The day brought surprises of its own.
By Saturday afternoon, reporters and photographers loitered outside the restaurant, as did people who had wandered over to gawk.
“Boo, Red Hen!” and “Yay, Trump!” were shouted, alternately, from the windows of passing cars. A Lexington resident had brought by a bouquet of flowers and a hand-lettered sign that read, “Democracy requires principled gov’t. Thank you Red Hen!!”
Meanwhile, Stephen Russek of Natural Bridge, Va., told a reporter: “I’m not crazy about everything Donald Trump does, but what they did to that woman in this restaurant is disgraceful.”
Chris Roessler, would-be customer, stood outside in confusion. He and his wife had booked an evening reservation, and just received an email canceling it.
“We would like to avoid exposing our patrons to any potential unpleasantness from outside entities,” Red Hen management had written — around the same time that fans of Trump were doing their best to troll the restaurant’s phone line with fake reservations.
Unaware of the Sanders incident, Roessler said, he had walked to the restaurant to ask for answers, but no one would open the door.
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