On Friday night, the owner of the Red Hen in Lexington, Va., asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her restaurant.
The news broke Saturday morning, quickly confirmed by Sanders herself:
Although Sanders specified the town where this occurred, the online firestorm quickly engulfed a different Red Hen about 200 miles away: the unaffiliated restaurant of the same name in the District neighborhood of Bloomingdale. “It was very, very quick in terms of the negative comments that came through every social media outlet,” says Mike Friedman, chef and owner of the District's Red Hen. By the end of the weekend, the backlash included one-star reviews on Yelp and even death threats. The restaurant was also egged.
Alysa Turner, communications director for Red Hen and its sister restaurants, Boundary Stone and All-Purpose, received a Facebook message about the Sanders controversy on Saturday morning. “I asked the guys, 'Has Sarah been in?' and they said no,” she says. Turner put up messages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram:
That didn't stop commenters who, without reading Sanders's original tweet, assumed she had been to the Red Hen in Washington, and castigated the restaurant for asking her to leave. When Turner tried to reply and set them straight, they assumed that the D.C. Red Hen was part of a franchise, not an independent location with no relationship to the one farther southwest. Turner pointed out they weren't — eventually posting the dictionary definition of “unaffiliated” in responses on the restaurant's Twitter feed — but that didn't stop the deluge of angry comments and bad reviews.
The local Red Hen wasn't the only one with this problem: The Red Hen in Swedesboro, N.J., received “about 600 phone calls,” managing partner Elizabeth Pope told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Some people called to congratulate us, but mostly they were threatening us, saying they were going to burn us down or hurt our staff.”
As the comments on the D.C. Red Hen's Facebook and Twitter feeds grew into the hundreds and thousands, Turner kept trying to explain to commenters that they were attacking the wrong restaurant. "Some people realized their mistake and said, 'Oh, sorry,' " she says. "Other people wrote 'Liar!' or 'Well, I don't care.'"
A number of Twitter users asked the Bloomingdale restaurant to announce that Sanders would be welcome if she visited there. Turner tried to explain that, because of the D.C. Human Rights Act, it would be illegal for a restaurant to deny service to anyone based on their political affiliation. (“Everyone who walks through these doors is treated with the same dignity and respect,” Friedman says.) It still didn't help.
In addition to negative tweets and Facebook posts, Turner says the Red Hen received “hundreds, if not thousands” of new reviews on platforms such as Yelp, which are sent to her inbox as they're posted. “I'd say it's 70-30, one-star versus five-star.” Yelp told Turner “it takes a couple of days” to remove fake reviews. She said Facebook has been “very helpful” in quickly removing the false reviews.
The Red Hen's problems weren't limited to the online world, though: Friedman says the restaurant was egged over the weekend, and he called police after it received phone calls and emails making references to “the soon-to-be Dead Hen” and other vague threats. Turner says police came by on Saturday and Sunday nights, although there were no incidents.
By Sunday night, “it definitely slowed down,” Friedman says. “I thought it was over.”
Then the president tweeted this Monday morning.
“That was throwing oil on the fire,” Friedman says. The tweets and comments started again, “and the recent ones became a little more extreme.”
“It's fascinating, the truth decay that's going on,” he says. “I have to remember after the last 72 hours that we didn't do anything wrong.
“But we're dealing with this on a very positive level. We've been getting such a positive and supportive response from the community. It's just a strange case of mistaken identity.”