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maga pussy hat From left: Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images North America; Adam Berry/Getty Images News/Getty Images Europe

Politics v. hospitality: Where do you draw the line?

Menu trends analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn talk about the recent spate of restaurant inhospitality.

Nancy Kruse:

Put on your asbestos gloves, Bret, because I’m about to toss you a very, very hot potato. I’d like to get your opinion on what appears to be a trend on the part of some restaurateurs to qualify the hospitality they provide. The basis of that qualification? The politics of the guest.

You know what I’m talking about. On June 22, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders went to the Red Hen, an independent operation in Lexington, Va., expecting to get dinner; instead, she got the heave-ho. Sanders was asked to leave the establishment because some of its employees object to President Donald J. Trump’s stand on issues like immigration and gay marriage.

The fallout was immediate and pretty much what we’ve come to expect in this era of civic incivility. The restaurant was closed for two weeks after death threats were hurled at its personnel; unfortunate owners of unaffiliated businesses that also bear the name Red Hen, like a book publisher in California, were subjected to similar threats even as they pleaded mistaken identity; and, predictably, the internet went into overdrive. From the White House, our president condemned the restaurant’s action and further opined that the operation should spiff up its paint job and clean its “filthy” canopies!”

From across the great political divide, Senator Bernie Sanders harrumphed that everyone should be allowed to eat their pasta in peace, marking possibly the first time the two have agreed on anything and kindling the faint hope that bi-partisanship isn’t stone cold dead after all.

In the wake of the kerfuffle, which was only one of a number of similar incidents that have been occurring around the country, Stephen Miller, administration senior adviser, was followed out of a restaurant by a bartender, who flipped him the bird. Twice. Meanwhile, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has been accosted in or near restaurants so frequently that I wonder why he doesn’t just stay home and order pizza.

For the most part, however, leaders in our industry have remained silent. Danny Meyer, CEO of New York City-based Union Square Hospitality Group who has built a restaurant empire on his philosophy of “enlightened hospitality,” called the Red-Hen incident “a slippery slope.” One of his parents was a Democrat, he said, and the other a Republican, and they used the family dinner table as a means of talking things out. "The minute you see me checking people's political registration at the door, that's a bad future, I think, for our business."

I was pleased that he waded in, but disappointed that he only got his ankles wet. He might have gone on to suggest that if political affiliation is a qualifier today, tomorrow it could be race, religion, gender preference or the fact that I’m over 30. Well, okay, 40.  This slope isn’t slippery, it is scarily treacherous.

The fact is, Bret, that if I wanted noisy confrontations and people yelling over each other, I’d run for Congress, not to my nearest restaurant. I choose to believe that our industry is better than that, and that true hospitality, where the host’s prime objective is the satisfaction of the guest, trumps partisanship (pun intended). But maybe I’m out of touch in a digital age where people are judged by the size of their Twitter feeds.

So I’m throwing this sizzling spud over to you with some closing questions. Is the concept of hospitality timeless and universal? If not, when can exclusions be made? Do you think we face a future in which restaurants become politicized battle grounds in which we have to choose sides before we’re served?  I hope not, because while I may not agree with Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ politics, I absolutely defend her right to hassle-free hospitality.

Bret Thorn responds:                                                  

Nancy, this issue came up again in late September, when senator Ted Cruz and his wife Heidi Cruz faced protestors who entered the restaurant and loudly objected to the senator’s support of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who is facing accusations of sexual assault.

According to a Facebook post by Fiola chef and owner Fabio Trabbochi, the police were called, the protestors removed, and the Cruzes were allowed to finish their meal.

“The [Fabio Trabbochi] group welcomes all patrons and is proud of its reputation not just of culinary excellence but also of creating a welcoming space for all, irrespective of creed, ideology or opinion. Chef Fabio believes politics — like elbows — are best left off the dining table and we welcome everyone.” 

That’s all well and good, but, restaurants have long reserved the right to refuse service to customers for various reasons. Wearing improper attire, disrupting the meals of others and being abusive of staff have all resulted in people being escorted to the exit unfed.

What if, as a business owner, you feel that one of your customers has undermined the values of our civilization? That, it could be argued, is a more dire circumstance than wearing shorts.

It’s not like Ms. Sanders was asked to leave because of a disagreement over the ideal corporate tax rate, or even a Supreme Court nominee’s confirmation. She had spent the day justifying separating children from their parents who were seeking asylum. Given the fact that 29 percent of restaurants and hotels in the United States are owned by immigrants, and that more than 23 percent of restaurant workers are foreign born, according to United States census data, I could see why operators, whether foreign born or not, would take this personally.

Mr. Miller has reportedly been a driving force behind those immigration policies. That could help explain why a bartender who probably works with many Hispanics, even if he isn’t one himself, felt justified in rudely suggesting other ways that Miller might spend his evening.

“This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals,” Stephanie Wilkinson, co-owner of The Red Hen, told The Washington Post, explaining her reason for asking Sanders and her party to leave.

Now, that doesn’t mean I’d agree with refusing service to anyone wearing a MAGA hat — or a pussy hat, for that matter. Political purity tests for restaurant patrons would be ludicrous. It could, indeed, be a slippery slope toward other idiotic acts.

Besides, foodservice establishments — bars in particular, really, but also restaurants — are places where people can gather, meet new people and have spirited discussions with them about topics on which they might not agree. That’s a good thing.

And operators, as business owners and quite often leaders in their communities, have every reason to be engaged in those conversations.

Jim Meehan, cocktail creator, author, consultant and founder of the awesome New York City bar Please Don’t Tell, issued a call to action on Twitter in June:

“Dear American Cocktail Industry, If your bar was on fire, would you keep pontificating behind the bar, or usher your guests to safety? Just a little heads up: your country is on fire, so act like it. Communicate about it... speak up. Be a leader: silence about this is damning.

So, by all means, restaurants should welcome pretty much everyone. It’s good and just for restaurants to serve as places to meet, talk, argue or eat a meal in peace.

But, if a particular individual is an actual architect of policies that you see as antithetical to civilized society, or a spokesperson justifying that behavior, I understand why you’d see it as not just acceptable, but good, to let them know that they’re not welcome.

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News.

E-mail her at [email protected]

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary


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