South Jersey Red Hen Caught Up in Sarah Sanders’ Restaurant Exit Flap
SWEDESBORO — There may be more than 300 miles between the Red Hen restaurants in this small South Jersey town and a restaurant of the same name in Lexington, Virginia, but that didn't stop people from attacking both after press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave Virginia location this weekend.
Sanders tweeted about the incident, which she said happened on Friday night at the Red Hen in Virginia. Within a day, the Red Hen in Swedesboro reported getting angry phone calls and negative reviews on social media from people who had never been to the restaurant.
The only problem, is that the two restaurants have nothing more in common than their names, according to a post on the local version's Facebook page.
"THE RED HEN IN SWEDESBORO, NEW JERSEY IS IN NO WAY AFFILIATED WITH THE RED HEN IN VIRGINIA," the Facebook post said. "We are an independent, family owned business who happens to share the same name. Kindly check your facts before you erroneously defame an innocent business on Facebook in an attempt to destroy the business where they welcome all, irrespective of their race, religion, views or opinions."
But even that statement did not register with many people who left comments right under it expressing disgust as if this were the restaurant that kicked out Sanders.
Elizabeth Pope, the managing partner of the New Jersey location, said they knew something was off on Saturday morning when their phones were ringing off the hook while they were hosting a baptism event. Pope said the phone calls were mostly threatening or people cursing and swearing, often hanging up before staff could explain they had the wrong restaurant. Pope estimated they got more than 500 phone calls, to say nothing of the deluge of attacks they received on social media.
"I saw my phone and our Facebook was just blowing up," Pope said. "At first I thought we got hacked. Clearly there was something wrong."
Pope said the restaurants may have the same name, but there is absolutely no connection between the two. She described her location as a "family-run restaurant, a mom and pop shop in Swedesboro New Jersey that happens to share the same name."
While at least one person suggested in a comment that the Swedesboro location sue the Virginia establishment, many of the comments ignored the given explanation and used the post as a forum for their political views.
"It's wrong that anyone should be denied service simply because of their political affiliations! I'm sure that there are plenty of higher quality restaurants that would love to serve Sarah Sanders and her family," a comment from Robby Vocque said.
"Too bad it isn't, I don't support people who lie to your face with no recourse," said James Ray.
In addition to people who have been angry with the decision by the Virginia restaurant, Pope said there has also been the "odd person congratulating us" for turning Sanders away. There have also been threats that Pope said she has taken seriously. The phone calls have included warning employees to "watch your backs," and "we'll wait for you," and even threats of burning down the New Jersey restaurant.
"Even though we tried to explain and clarify they just were not interested at all," Pope said. "It has been a tough two days."
Despite drawing negative feedback on a global scale on social media, Pope said they have been "extremely fortunate and grateful for our community that we live in, and have this restaurant in." She said the local community has "really stepped up."
As a business that Pope enjoys a lot of traffic from people driving to or from the Jersey Shore, Pope said the negative ratings they have received on various internet platforms could prove severely damaging. Not knowing whether all this publicity will help or hurt them, Pope said all they can do is wait. They have also seen a large number of people leaving positive reviews in an effort to counteract people attacking them for something they were not involved with. As of Sunday afternoon they had 555 5-star reviews compared to 113 1-star reviews.
"We don't discriminate. We welcome anybody," Pope said. "We don't care what your race, creed, religion, sexual orientation, or political views are. Be a good person, be a good neighbor, be a good parent, brother, sister and come enjoy our great food."
Stephanie Wilkinson, the co-owner of the Virginia location, told the Washington Post that her staff had called her that Sanders and her party were at the restaurant. She said she had several reasons for asking them to leave, including concerns of gay employees who objected to the Trump administration's approach to transgender people in the military.
"Tell me what you want me to do. I can ask her to leave," Wilkinson told her staff, she said. "They said yes."
The New Jersey Red Hen was not the only one to be affected by the Sanders controversy. A restaurant with the same name in Washington, D.C., also had to respond on social media to confirm that they were not connected in any way to the Virginia location.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.