By Hannah Denham and Andrew Brennan
LEXINGTON, Va. -When the owner of the Red Hen asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her restaurant one June Friday evening, the city of Lexington made national headlines for days.
Last night I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left. Her actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) June 23, 2018
The Red Hen and other restaurants received threats, nasty reviews on social media and picketers marched to protest the treatment of Trump’s White House press secretary. But three months later, it’s back to business as usual.
The city’s meal tax revenue showed an almost 0.1 percent increase for June and a 2.7 percent increase in July, compared to the year-earlier revenues for those two months.
“There was no significant impact to the city during that period,” said Noah Simon, the Lexington City Manager.
While local restaurant revenue didn’t take much of a hit, the Red Hen incident split the town. Restaurants like Pure Eats and the Southern Inn released public statements that welcomed all customers (including Sanders), regardless of political beliefs. Both restaurants did not respond to requests for comment. Stephanie Wilkinson, the owner of the Red Hen, declined to comment.
Other restaurants, such as the Blue Phoenix, made a public statement of solidarity with the Red Hen.
Amenie Hopkins, the chef of Blue Phoenix, said the vegetarian restaurant located downtown was harassed constantly, especially online.
“Everything from obscenity-laden phone calls, we had people stake out our house, lots and lots of threats, and our online platforms were sabotaged and we had to take down our social media platforms,” she said. “It was not a good time.”
One of the fake social media posts even used the Blue Phoenix logo and falsely claimed that the restaurant staff was going to burn all “Make America Great Again” hats. “There were three or four of us staying up until 4 a.m. to report harassment reviews on that page,” Hopkins said. “It took a whole community to get that corrected.”
“People from all over the country [were] just hitting their Facebook pages and Yelp pages and Google reviews in an unfounded manner,” said Jamie Goodin, who took over as interim director of Main Street Lexington, a volunteer nonprofit that promotes local business. He succeeded Wilkinson, who resigned from her position as director of the group.
Most of the response came from people who have never been to Lexington.
Just ask Diane Smith, owner of the Olde Red Hen Restaurant –in Ontario, Canada.
“I don’t get many notifications,” Smith said. “But Friday night, I was just getting bombarded with these notifications and they’re saying, ‘Don’t eat there.’ …I wondered, ‘Did my husband come out of the kitchen? Did he get into politics?’”
Smith received a call from a New Yorker who asked if her restaurant was still in business. She said yes.
“Well, I’m going to have to do something about that,” he replied.
“Are you calling from Canada or the states?” Smith asked. “Because I’m in Canada.”
“Oh,” the man said, before hanging up.
While frustrating and overwhelming at times for local business owners, the episode didn’t have much of a financial impact –in Lexington or Canada.
Simon said the sales tax numbers do lag behind, but overall the numbers slightly increased, despite many of the restaurants being closed for summer vacation. The Rockbridge Regional Tourism Board did not respond to a request for comment on tourist traffic.
“I think you’ll find that our community was rather resilient and that businesses overall have received a lot of positive responses,” Simon said.
At the Blue Phoenix, Hopkins noted a recent expansion boosted their business this summer. Sales grew by at least 15 percent in July and early August, as compared to the same period last year.
Main Street Lexington still receives the occasional nasty email, but Goodin said the group’s board is focused on finding a new executive director.
“One of my personal takeaways from the summer is how much passion everybody in town seems to have with their home,” Goodin said. “It feels good to be surrounded by so many people who care so much. That is a special thing about a town and I would encourage folks to take a moment from time to time and appreciate that.”