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 the small city of Lexington, in the western part of Virginia.
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 Sarah Huckabee 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.’ ”
Sanders’s 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 thousands who almost certainly had not eaten at the restaurant, the Red Hen’s Yelp reviews almost instantly averaged out to two-and-a-half stars. Another Red Hen in the District 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.”
On Monday, her boss weighed in:
Wilkinson had no regrets about her decision.
“I would have done the same thing again,” she said Saturday. “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 President 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.
Over the next two days, a backlash against the Red Hen grew in intensity, eventually reaching the White House.
On Monday, Sanders opened her statement in the White House briefing room by speaking about the incident and the numerous aftershocks that came in its wake, including harassment directed toward the restaurant and others with the same name, and remarks made by Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters who urged people to confront Trump administration officials in public.
“We are allowed to disagree but we should be able to do so freely and without fear of harm,” Sanders said. “Healthy debate on ideas and political philosophy is important. But the calls for harassment and the push for any Trump supporter to avoid the public is unacceptable.”
Sanders, who was criticized over the weekend by some former federal officials who said they believed the use of her official Twitter account to chastise the restaurant violated federal ethics rules, said she had tweeted about it after being contacted by more than a dozen reporters.
“It was considered news of the day, so I responded in the way I would for any other news of the day story,” she said.
The public debate has also continued about the appropriateness of the restaurant’s actions. The Washington Post’s editorial board wrote that while Trump’s behavior in office might be terrible, officials who work for him “should be allowed to eat dinner in peace.”
“Those who are insisting that we are in a special moment justifying incivility should think for a moment how many Americans might find their own special moment,” the board wrote.
Far-right personalities passed around Wilkinson’s home address and phone number on social media.
“Go after her children […] and husband […] just like the leftist do to Trump employees,” a commenter wrote beneath a law professor’s article criticizing the restaurateur.
Sanders’s father, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, described the episode as “bigotry,” while Ben Cline, a Republican Virginia lawmaker, called Wilkinson a “liberal New York transplant.” (She is originally from New York, but has owned a house in Lexington since at least 1996.)
And a conspiracy theorist (who also believes Bill Clinton rose to power with the help of Haitian black magic priests) speculated in a viral Twitter thread that Wilkinson could be responsible for every unsolved child abduction in Virginia.
An unaffiliated Red Hen restaurant hundreds of miles away was egged overnight, according to Fox 5 DC. Sanders’s supporters have reportedly even raged against the Olde Ren Hen in Ontario, Canada, in a misdirected attempt to punish the Lexington restaurant — whose phone lines have been down since the weekend.
And if the furor showed any sign of dying down after three days, President Trump reignited it on Monday when he tweeted, based on photographs of the building’s exterior, that the Red Hen was likely unsanitary.
“They will be conveniently and coincidently audited a few times by the IRS and I wouldn’t be surprised if they meet some stiff fines or jail time for tax fraud,” a commenter on the far-right /pol/ message board wrote after seeing Trump’s tweet.
“Not to mention if the county health inspector is a conservative,” added another.
By Monday afternoon, Wilkinson’s personal voice mail was full, her business line was not accepting calls, and someone had redirected the Red Hen’s website to what appeared to be a Japanese-language automotive blog.
Murray reported from Lexington, Va.; Eli Rosenberg also contributed to this report, which has been updated several times with new information since it first published on Saturday.