Red Hen restaurant
A worker cleans the windows of the Red Hen restaurant in downtown Lexington, Va. on Nov. 13, 2023. Photo by Luke Fountain.

By Luke Fountain

Another centerpiece of Lexington’s downtown dining scene will close at the end of the year.

The Red Hen restaurant will undergo an overhaul and reopen at an undisclosed date. The owners wouldn’t offer many details, but said the restaurant will feature a new name and menu in the same little brick building on the corner of Washington and Randolph Streets.

The restaurant gained international notoriety in June 2018 when one of the owners kicked out White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Some of the restaurant staff didn’t want to serve anyone with ties to then President Donald Trump.

The closure comes a few months after another mainstay restaurant, the Southern Inn, closed its doors because of labor shortages.

The economic impact of the two closures remains to be seen. “I don’t think their reinvention will hurt business,” said City Manager Jim Halasz said.

Mixed opinions

Others have a different take. Some local leaders worry that even a short closure could hurt the downtown economy.

“It is a time of year when we do have a few extra visitors… one less restaurant plus having the Southern Inn closed will have an impact,” said Rebecca Logan, Executive Director of Main Street Lexington. “Visitors come to town and want to know where they can go to eat… we have to try and stay on top of that and it’s a very small list.”

Red Hen co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson did not give specifics about why the restaurant is closing.

“The restaurant has been hitting on all cylinders lately … but when a new vision calls, you’re wise to follow it,” Wilkinson said in an email.

Other restaurant owners say change is important for survival.

“Red Hen is a mainstay, and I would say this change-up in concept is a way to survive in this business,” George Huger, co-owner of the Southern Inn Restaurant, said. “It is a relatively common thing in the restaurant world after you have been around a long time and customers want something fresh.”

“The restaurant has been hitting on all cylinders lately … but when a new vision calls, you’re wise to follow it,” Stephanie Wilkinson said in an email.

Huger also highlighted the potential influence of rising prices on both consumers and businesses as a possible reason for the Red Hen’s decision to make changes.

“Lexington is a small market and to have a successful business you must appeal to a broader spectrum of people,” Huger said. “It’s not a place where there are a lot of people that have big expendable incomes to go out to eat on a regular basis. Access is a big selling point.”

Wilkinson did not comment on how changes would impact prices. The current menu only offers a four-course dinner starting at $60.

National attention

The small farm-to-table restaurant faced backlash following the Sanders incident. Sanders and Trump both took to Twitter following the incident.

The Red Hen and other restaurants were swarmed with threats, nasty reviews online and picketers marching through downtown for the rest of the summer.

“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,” Wilkinson wrote in an article in the Washington Post in 2019.

Wilkinson says that business was not hurt and the 2018 incident was not a factor in the decision to rebrand.

“We’ve been doing great. The change is happening because of a desire to stretch our wings and try something new,” Wilkinson said.

Sanders did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A spokesperson for Trump declined to comment.

For now, Wilkinson and co-owner Matt Adams are keeping their “new vision” for the Red Hen a secret. Wilkinson hopes to reopen in early 2024.

“It’s never a good idea to make definitive statements about dates in these situations,” Wilkinson said. “Ask anyone who has ever done a house project; chances are they couldn’t accurately predict the timeline. There are a lot of moving pieces.”

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