Stephanie Wilkinson is the co-owner of the Red Hen in Lexington, Va.
“Hello Intolerant, intellectually-challenged, psychotic, socialists!
Your so-called business is in jeopardy. Rest assured this is not a threat but simply a warning that predicts your downfall. . . . When your treasonist hypocrite lowlife Obama took our nation into despair (for 8 yrs) we didn’t do or say the things you do. Get over it, before it’s too late! BTW, there are a lot more of us than there are of you.’’
I’ve been getting hate mail for almost a year now, ever since I asked White House press secretary Sarah Sanders to leave my Lexington, Va., restaurant, the Red Hen, last June.
At the time, the country was in turmoil over the Trump administration’s heinous practice of separating children from their parents at our southern border. In our tiny 26-seat restaurant, the horror felt simultaneously immediate and far away.
Faced with the prospect of serving a fine meal to a person whose actions in the service of our country we felt violated basic standards of humanity, we balked. We couldn’t do it.
I took Ms. Sanders aside and politely suggested she leave. She agreed, equally politely. She may or may not have expected this day would come, but she never showed any sign of outrage, or even much surprise. We’d drawn a line; she’d accepted it.
I’m pretty sure both of us thought that was the end of the matter.
When I awoke the next morning, social media was on fire. The incident had gone from a Facebook post to a tagged tweet to nationally trending news with the whoosh of lighter fluid to a flame.
The blowback was swift and aggressive. Within 24 hours, the restaurant’s phone line was hacked, my staff and I were doxxed, and threats to our lives, families and property were pouring in through every available channel. Protesters colonized the streets around the restaurant. Thousands of fake Yelp reviews torpedoed our ratings, and dozens of people attempted to lock up our tables with reservations they had no intention of honoring. Pundits lamented the prospect of “red restaurants” and “blue restaurants.” In less than three days, President Trump had mocked us on Twitter.
In the days following, I tried to balance fears for the safety of my family and staff against the reality of being well-protected in a small, loving community. Overhanging it all was a sense that I’d seen this show before; don’t we all have ringside seats to the outrage circus these days? But there was plenty I couldn’t predict or assess: How likely was it, really, that the guy texting me from a Minneapolis area code was really going to come to town to set fire to our restaurant? It felt impossible to know.
When the mail started pouring in, things got weirder. For the first few days, the rubber-banded bundles fit into my letter carrier’s shoulder bag. But soon he was forced to heft large white plastic totes overflowing with letters and packages up to my door.
Staring at it all made my stomach clench. It’s one thing to set filters on your email, reset your privacy settings on Instagram and block callers on your phone. It’s a whole different feeling to face a mountain of mail dwarfing your living-room sofa, not knowing which contain abuse (or worse) and which appreciation.
The realness of that mail struck me. Paper correspondence carries all the marks of genuine humans, people who feel strongly enough about the whole event that they take on all those little tasks of letter writing — tracking down paper or card, composing their thoughts, handwriting or printing it out, locating our address and getting it into the mail.
In more than 4,000 painstakingly typed letters, hastily scrawled postcards and feces-smeared notebook pages, I was branded a racist, a bigot and a hypocrite. A victim of “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” I was an idiot, or worse, and a lousy manager. Sure, I’d eighty-sixed Sanders, but it was my business that was going down the drain.
Yet, as I kept opening the letters, I saw a pattern. For every hateful message, there was one of gratitude. For every angry accusation that our actions were driven by the inability to accept Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss, there was a note of thanks from someone lamenting Trump’s rollback of protections for marginalized people. What’s more, for every wish that our business die a painful death, there was a dollar bill or a generous check or an order for a gift certificate.
When we opened after a 10-day hiatus, our dining room was full. In the following weeks, people who had never been to the Shenandoah Valley traveled out of their way to eat with us. Hundreds of orders for our Red Hen spice blend poured in. And the love spread far beyond our door, as supporters sent thousands of dollars in donations in our honor to our local food pantry, our domestic violence shelter and first responders.
After nearly a year, I’m happy to say that business is still good. Better than good, actually. And besides the boost to our area charities, our town’s hospitality and sales revenue have gone up, too.
Our haters may have believed that there were more of “them” than of “us,” but it turns out we have more than enough to keep us cooking. And to everyone who might be fearful about taking a stand, I say don’t be. Resistance is not futile, for you or your business.