In case you were asleep or had your eyes glued on World Cup matches all weekend, yet another political controversy has been boiling over since Friday evening. The White House’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, decided to escape Washington, DC, for a meal in Lexington, Virginia, which is almost 200 miles away, or a three-hour drive, from the nation’s capital (could you blame her?).
As the story goes, Sanders and her party were asked to leave shortly after they started dining at The Red Hen, which is described on TripAvisor as an “American, vegetarian-friendly” restaurant in the center of this town home to 7,000 people. The owner of the restaurant told the Washington Post that she asked the group to leave on moral grounds, noting her staff’s feelings about Sanders’ stance on gay rights and the current White House’s role in the child separation crisis along the U.S. southern border.
Sanders tweeted her displeasure about the episode on Twitter Saturday morning, and as they say, the rest is history, or hysteria:
To sum up the feelings of the Trump White House’s supporters, this sordid tale is the latest example of liberals and the radical left hating anything, and anyone, tied to the president. It is a fair argument to suggest these people take the advice Michelle Obama gave a couple years ago, when she told the Democratic National Convention that “when they go low, we go high!” In the pro-Sanders camp, the feeling is that taking the high road is the constantly missed exit for anyone opposing Donald Trump.
Supporters of The Red Hen point out that Sanders is working for a presidential administration that supports the decision of a business to deny service to gay Americans – exemplified by the recent Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court decision. To anyone denied service because of the race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, Sanders’ ratting out of the restaurant on Twitter comes across as hypocritical.
Here’s the question: who wins the argument, Sanders or The Red Hen?
The result is obvious: the winner is everyone who did not weigh in on this controversy by writing a review about The Red Hen on review sites such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, or the restaurant’s Facebook post about Coq au Vin made with heritage breed chickens or a summer salad.
In addition, there is a clear lesson about civility that rabid supporters of both Team Sanders and Team Red Hen must take to heart: fighting a proxy war by giving one star or five stars on Yelp is about as illuminating and effective as scoring all of one’s news from solely Fox News or MSNBC.
The Sanders-Red Hen spit-spat is disturbingly formulaic: those who opposed how Red Hen treated Sanders grabbed their digital slingshots and flung one-star reviews on Yelp and other sites. “Reviewers” who supported the actions of Stephanie Wilkinson, the restaurant’s owner, responded in kind with five-star reviews. The madness went on, even though many reviewers never sampled The Red Hen’s cheese platters or short ribs due to the fact they live hundreds or thousands of miles away from Lexington.
Forget about the scores, which as of now are about 1.5 on Yelp and 4.5 on TripAdvisor. Yes, the average is 3.0, which would make this a tie, but let’s dismiss any statistical analysis. The only winners in this debate are any adrenaline junkies on these web site’s technical support teams who are now tasked with cleaning up these web pages as fast as possible while removing any fake reviews.
The only losers could be any customer who was served the perfect pan-seared scallops or a chewy North Carolina grouper and want to add their two cents about The Red Hen’s culinary chops – because as of press time, reviews on both sites have been suspended until further notice.
Furthermore, any cries of over “who started it” are also yelps not worth shouting – whether it was a peeved Sanders tweeting Saturday morning, or a little-too-gleeful Red Hen employee who posted that the press secretary’s party was “kicked out” of the restaurant – only to backtrack on that claim while removing his Facebook post.
Here is another reality: Stephanie Wilkinson will also live with the consequences, positive and negative, as this story is yet another chapter of how more businesses – large and small – wade into this era of brands taking stands. Whether the disputes are over gun control, bathroom bills or immigration, more businesses will find they have to make a decision, as attempting to stay neutral is hardly an option, either (as Delta Airlines has learned).
Policy debates are painful. Articulating one’s stance without ad hominem barbs is a challenge in this hyper-polarized era. But clicking one- or five-stars on a restaurant or travel web site over a policy dispute is the political discourse equivalent of a hit-and-run.
Be sure to follow this and other stories in our Brands Taking Stands newsletter.
Image credit: The Red Hen/Facebook
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.