After remaining uncharacteristically silent over the weekend about a Virginia restaurant owner’s decision to boot his White House press secretary from her establishment, President Trump turned into a food critic Monday with an early-morning tweet.
Let’s break down the president’s tweet and see how much of his commentary is rooted in reality vs. the politics of protecting his chief spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. As most everyone in the country already knows, Sanders was dining at the Red Hen in Lexington, Va. — not to be confused with the Red Hen in Washington, which has been dragged into this losing battle — when owner Stephanie Wilkinson asked the press secretary to leave.
Part 1: “The Ren Hen 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.”
Trump probably was looking at the Red Hen from photos posted online. Once the controversy started to play out on social media and in the press, John Asadoorian, founder of Asadoorian Retail Solutions in Washington, said he went to Google maps and looked at the street where the Red Hen is located. “Take a [look] a block up and down the street from this restaurant, and that building looks like the nicest building within a block,” he said.
“Now if someone went inside and said, ‘I sat down and the table was sticky and the plate was dirty and the glass was dirty or the bathroom didn’t have any hand soap.’ Those kind of things? That says a lot,” Asadoorian said. “But the exterior in a small town like this, where if you look within a block or two there isn’t another restaurant of this caliber, I wouldn’t necessary judge it.”
Wilkinson did not immediately respond to request for comment, so it’s not clear whether she owns or rents the building that houses the Red Hen, although it seems as if she’s a renter. The owner of the property is Philip Clayton who, according to Nexis records, appears to be a heavyweight in real estate in the area. Maybe he’s part owner, too? We don’t know. He did not return requests for comment.
But let’s presume that Wilkinson is the tenant. According to Asadoorian, landlords range from the absentee types who place all maintenance burdens on the tenant to those who are responsible for some building upkeep while keeping a close eye on tenants to make sure they’re performing routine maintenance. Asadoorian would know these kinds of details. He’s been representing both landlords and restaurateurs for more than 30 years in negotiations.
Generally speaking, Asadoorian said, tenants like Wilkinson will be charged with maintaining a clean and attractive facade.
But, he added, you have to understand the economies and reality of a 26-seat restaurant in a rural community. The Red Hen is not an everyday restaurant, like a fast-casual spot or a large chain. It’s also not the Inn at Little Washington, in Washington, Va., where the tasting menu runs $218 per person. The Red Hen is a special occasion restaurant in historic Lexington where the menu tops out at $28 for a pan-seared pork chop with cheese grits. Wilkinson may not be rolling in cash in an industry notoriously tight on profit margins.
“The cost of running a restaurant these days is very expensive,” Asadoorian said. “Finding good labor is very hard. They may not have the money to clean their awnings every week.”
Part 1A: The Red Hen “badly needs a paint job.”
If you inspect a current photo of the Red Hen with one from Google maps from 2012, you’ll notice a few things: First, the awnings look to be in much better shape in the older picture. They’re a vibrant shade of hunter green without a trace of bird poop. You’ll also notice a planter box in the older photo.
The planter box is missing from the current picture, which explains the discoloration under the main window. Aside from that, Asadoorian said, the building’s facade looks great. You’d expect the red paint to have faded, but it hasn’t, he said.
“Look at the eaves under the roof,” Asadoorian said. “They look awfully clean. If it was in really bad shape, it would be black. That paint could be peeling.”
Bottom line: The building does not seem to badly need a paint job.
Part 2: “I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!”
The quickest way to determine whether a restaurant is “dirty on the inside” is not to review its exterior, but to look at its health inspection reports, which, in the Red Hen’s case, are available online. The restaurant has been inspected four times since April 2014. On two of those reviews, including the most recent one in February, inspectors found no issues. The February inspector had only positive remarks for Wilkinson’s restaurant, saying, among other things, that “staff had clean uniforms/aprons and line cook had hair restrained.”
The January 2017 inspection found one “priority” item: The Red Hen, the inspector wrote, had found pickles and jams “in a hermetically sealed container [that] is not from an approved food processing plant.” The restaurant said the “jars were for decorative use only” and would take them home. End of threat.
The Red Hen’s worst inspection report came in April 2014, when the restaurant was dinged with two “critical” violations. One was for storing raw beef above ready-to-eat foods and storing raw thawing meats above cookie bars, both of which can lead to bacterial cross contamination. The other violation was for failing to put a “consume by” date on some prepared grits to make sure the product is either served within seven days to prevent harmful bacterial growth. Both issues were corrected at the time of the inspection.
Compare the Red Hen’s infractions with the most recent report at Trump International Hotel. In April, inspectors found the hotel out of compliance in nine categories, including for unsanitary food contact surfaces, improper food holding temperatures and improper storage to prevent cross contamination. The inspector also noted that Trump’s hotel license does not make any mention of a kitchen, but the property has four separate food preparation areas, including an in-room kitchen, an employee cafeteria, a banquet kitchen and a pastry kitchen. “Please contact DCRA to remedy this issue,” the inspector wrote, referring to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which issues business licenses.
A follow-up inspection in May found the Trump hotel still out of compliance in four areas, including a “display refrigerator [that] is not maintaining adequate food temperatures.” The inspector also found no evidence that Trump hotel had contacted DCRA to update its hotel license. And last year, the president’s resort retreat in Florida, Mar-a-Lago, was dinged for 13 code infractions.
A Washington Post staffer conducted an informal inspection at Trump’s D.C. hotel on Monday morning and found the awnings a little dusty, but the exterior otherwise fine. Inside, it was another matter. In the lobby bar, the breakfast diner found himself sitting on a velvety blue couch strewn not just with crumbs, but also with several hairs that weren’t his and multiple spots of indeterminate vintage. Also, the side of the white marble table had a reddish stain on it. It was sticky.
A similar inattention to basic housekeeping duties extended to the ground-floor men’s room, where one toilet was unflushed.
Tom Sietsema contributed to this report.