White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders posted a tweet on Saturday admonishing the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, for refusing to serve her because of her role in the Trump administration. It set off a wave of social media wrath that has now engulfed the Red Hen in Lexington and at least two other unaffiliated restaurants that happen to have the same name.
The Red Hen that Sanders was asked to leave now has a one-and-a-half-star rating on Yelp, with outraged reviewers flooding the platform to slam the owners for being “liberal democrats socialists idiots” and likening the refusal of service to Jim Crow customs. Yelp has now posted an “active cleanup alert” on the restaurant’s page informing users that moderators are deleting reviews from people who have not had a “personal consumer experience with the business.”
Conservatives have also overrun the Red Hen’s Facebook page, leaving rancorous replies on the restaurant’s wall posts about its Coq au Vin and Julia-Child-inspired wine dinner. And, as Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel pointed out, there now appear to be conspiracy theories circulating on Twitter that the Red Hen’s owners are guilty of sexual crimes like pedophilia, similar to the Pizzagate conspiracy that a D.C. pizza parlor called Comet Ping Pong was helping Hillary Clinton run a child sex-trafficking ring out of its basement. President Trump’s tweet on Monday calling the establishment “filthy” will likely direct even more supporters toward its social media accounts.
Walter Shaub, a former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, argued on Twitter that Sanders’s tweet violates ethics rules because she sought to “coerce business by using her office to get public to pressure it.” Former White House lawyer Ian Bassin agreed with Shaub and pointed out that Sanders used her official Twitter account to lobby the criticism. She likely would not have run afoul of the rule if she had used her personal account, according to Bassin.
While the Red Hen in Lexington is standing by its decision to turn Sanders away despite the social media furor, the Red Hen in Washington, D.C., has been trying fruitlessly to distance itself from the controversy. The restaurant has been the victim of social media vitriol and was reportedly egged over the weekend. On Saturday, the restaurant sent out a tweet clarifying that it is unaffiliated with the Red Hen in Lexington, and that it is purely coincidence that the two establishments share a name.
However, this explanation does not appear to have assuaged critics. Some people seem to be flummoxed by the idea that two restaurants could share the same name and not be related, asserting that it must be an indication that they are part of a franchise or chain. This has forced the Red Hen to explain the situation in mind-numbingly basic terms. For example, it has posted the definition of the word “unaffiliated” multiple times on its Twitter account and has rhetorically asked a user with the handle “Gigi” to answer for the actions of the model Gigi Hadid. When someone tried to point out similarities between the logos for the two restaurants, it posted, “It’s almost like all of our logos are of the same animal we’re named after or something.”
People who do accept that the two restaurants are separate entities are nevertheless pushing the Red Hen in D.C. to take a side and commit to either serving Sanders or denying her if she were ever to visit. The restaurant replied that D.C. laws prohibit its staff from refusing service due to a customer’s political affiliation.
On Monday, the communications director for the D.C. restaurant begged Trump and Sanders to tag the account for the Lexington Red Hen in their tweets to clear up any confusion:
She also wrote on Twitter that Facebook and Google have been removing unrelated restaurant reviews from their platforms, but that Yelp has been largely unresponsive to her requests for help.
A Red Hen restaurant in Swedesboro, New Jersey has faced similar difficulties. The owner told Fox Business that she has received calls from people threatening to kill her and burn down the restaurant, as well as calls erroneously congratulating her for kicking out Sanders.
The restaurant also tried to dispel any misinformation on social media by writing on its Facebook page, “THE RED HEN IN SWEDESBORO, NEW JERSEY IS IN NO WAY AFFILIATED WITH THE RED HEN IN VIRGINIA. … Kindly check your facts before you erroneously defame an innocent business on Facebook in an attempt to destroy their business where they welcome all, irrespective of their race, religion, views or opinions.”