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‘There is no restaurant that is ready for this’: D.C. restaurateurs grapple with political protests

Fabio and Maria Trabocchi have spent a “substantial” amount of money to make sure staff members and customers are safe, should protesters strike the restaurant again. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

The confrontation between protesters and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his wife lasted only a minute or so. The fallout for Fiola, the downtown restaurant where the incident took place, has continued for days, chef and co-owner Fabio Trabocchi said.

A week ago, only days before Cruz and the rest of the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh and a California professor who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, the Republican senator and his spouse, Heidi, tried to have a quiet dinner at Fiola, the three-star Italian fine-dining restaurant where tasting menus start at $115 per person. But protesters interrupted the couple before they even sat down, chanting “We believe survivors,” a reference to Christine Blasey Ford, one of several Kavanaugh accusers, and survivors of sexual assault.

Ted Cruz and wife are shouted out of D.C. restaurant over his support for Kavanaugh

The disruption seemed to work: The Cruzes were escorted from the restaurant via a side door, apparently never to return.

The outrage machine immediately engaged. Fiola’s social media accounts were attacked. Its Yelp page was bombarded with so many one-star smears that San Francisco-based Yelp had to initiate an “active cleanup alert.” Fiola’s phone and reservation lines were tied up with calls — sometimes 50 calls a day from the same number. Owners Fabio and Maria Trabocchi and their staff members were threatened, either for not doing enough to protect Cruz and his wife or for allegedly tipping off the protesters to the senator’s presence.

“We have received several life-threatening messages, and so has the staff,” Fabio Trabocchi said during a trans-Atlantic call from Venice. “The police have been informed, both to be vigilant for the restaurant and . . . to be vigilant to my house, mostly because my kids live there. Me and Maria, doing the jobs that we’re doing, we’re not always at home.”

Members of protest group Smash Racism DC heckled Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his wife until he left a restaurant in Northwest D.C., on Sept. 24. (Video: Smash Racism DC)

The chef said it was “too soon to tell” whether these disruptions to his operations have affected sales at Fiola.

The Trabocchis, the chef said, are in a tricky situation. They don’t want to add fuel to a still-smoldering situation, but they also want to explain themselves and to clarify some points that have taken on a life of their own on social media. The couple issued an email statement over the weekend to friends and regular patrons of Fiola. For starters, Trabocchi said, the staff did everything within their limited powers to protect Cruz and his spouse. Staffers shielded the Cruzes from protesters as they escorted the couple out of the restaurant. Employees then concealed the Cruzes in the kitchen for about 10 minutes until police cleared the protesters.

Once the restaurant was clear, the Cruzes returned to their table and had dinner as scheduled, Trabocchi said, counter to some reports that the couple had left for good that evening.

The staff was “dealing with a situation they don’t deserve, and they are not honestly prepared to deal with and they shouldn’t be,” Trabocchi said. “People expect us [to] throw these people out. We can’t do that. We can’t use force. We need the police to come in and to do what they need to do.”

“There is no restaurant that I know that trains its staff to deal with a situation of this kind,” the chef continued. “Perhaps it’s the result of the time we’re living in. Perhaps it’s the fact that we’re in Washington, D.C . . . I just want to make sure that they have training that they can follow, even though those situations, as you can imagine, they happen very quickly.”

Among Cruz supporters, it appears to be a widely held belief that someone at Fiola tipped off protesters to the senator’s presence. Trabocchi doesn’t know who provided the intel to protesters, but he’s hired an investigator to seek some answers. Here’s what he knows: An assistant for Cruz apparently made the reservation for the couple. Following the standard protocol for Fiola, managers let the front-of-the-house staff know about the VIP diners that evening, including the Cruzes. About an hour before the senator and his wife arrived, six protesters took seats at the bar, “acting just like customers,” Trabocchi said.

“The moment that the senator walked in, their intention was clear,” he continued. “Six more of them entered the restaurant quickly from the front and they went up to the face of the senator, which we didn’t allow.”

Aside from an investigator, the Trabocchis have also hired a security guard for Fiola. What’s more, they’re investing more in staff training to try to de-escalate these kind of situations in the future. Trabocchi declined to say how much money he’s spent in the aftermath of Cruz’s visit but calls it “substantial.” He said it’s necessary to be ready for the next group of protesters.

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It seems a wise investment. Dining disruptions have clearly become a tool for progressives looking to express their frustration at the Trump administration and its supporters, including Cruz: In June, protesters confronted Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary, as she tried to dine at MXDC Cocina Mexicana. That month, a diner at Espita Mezcaleria called Stephen Miller a “real-life fascist” while the White House senior adviser tried to eat at the trendy Mexican restaurant in Shaw.

One of the left-wing groups apparently responsible for the Fiola disruption issued a statement on Facebook, saying, in effect, get ready for more of the same: “This is a message to Ted Cruz, Brett M. Kavanaugh, Donald Trump and the rest of the racist, sexist, transphobic, and homophobic right-wing scum: You are not safe. We will find you. We will expose you. We will take from you the peace you have taken from so many others,” the statement read.

Trabocchi said such a charged political atmosphere places more responsibilities on restaurateurs. One of the keys for staff, the chef said, is to remain calm in the face of angry protesters. Don’t react and escalate the situation.

“I don’t think it’s a requirement of any of the servers . . . to have a confrontation and act like a SWAT team,” Trabocchi said. “There is no restaurant that is ready for this. It’s a completely new situation, and it’s unfair to expect that a staff working at a restaurant will expose themselves to a physical danger or risk.”

A representative for Cruz did not respond to a request for comment, but Trabocchi said the senator “was happy about the way we handled the situation, and he thanked the team when he left.”

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