Food

What Do You Do When Civility and Hospitality Collide?

Anyone in the restaurant world who has been avoiding the fact that food is inherently political got a few wake-up calls in the last week as Homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Trump senior advisor Stephen Miller were booed out of DC-area Mexican restaurants last week by protestors and restaurant guests, while press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave Lexington, Va.’s Red Hen restaurant.

Like many other people, I was incredulous that Nielsen and Miller had the audacity to go to Mexican restaurants. You don’t get to spend the day making sure Latino children are torn from their mothers’ arms and put in cages and then expect other Latinos to cook and serve you their food. I couldn’t tell if they were being oblivious or mocking.

It’s one thing for customers and protestors to respond. But when Red Hen owner Sarah Wilkinson asked Sanders to leave her restaurant, it felt like a watershed moment, one when even people who normally avoid political controversy decided they could no longer stay quiet.

Wilkinson acknowledged as much, telling The Washington Post: "I’m not a huge fan of confrontation. This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.”

She went on to note that she has never had a problem serving customers with different political views and who support the Trump administration and its policies. She drew a line with Sanders, because of her individual actions (and did so politely, asking her to step outside, explaining the position she and her staff supported, and comping the food and drink the table had already consumed). Legally, she had every right to do this; restaurants can ask anyone to leave the premises for anything other than a protected trait, and according to the ACLU, political affiliation is protected only in Washington, D.C., Seattle and the Virgin Islands.

But was it the right thing to do? We’re told that the table brings us together, regardless of political differences, but that clearly is no longer true. The right crows about the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, but says the left should welcome everyone to the table. We can look to the Obamas, our long-lost spirit guides, who would tell us to go high when others go low. But how do you stay civil when you the sights and sounds of children held in cages in tender age shelters are all over the news?

The line restaurant people walk between hospitality and standing up for basic civil rights has never been thinner. Restaurants are, of course, where many of the people maligned by this administration—immigrants, people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ community—work. Restaurants are also part of everyday life, and a place people from chefs and restaurateurs to customers are reluctant to see turn into political battlefields. As Jeremy Lyman and Paul Schlader of New York City’s Birch Coffee point out, are we going to need separate businesses for the left and the right?

I can talk all day about what I would do in a situation like this one, but it’s easy to do so from the protected perch of not running a restaurant myself. It isn’t the same as looking a paying customer in the eye and telling them to leave, then wondering what will happen to your online reviews, social media accounts, and bottom line.

So how do you stand for your ideals, but stay in business? If the country is as divided as it feels, does taking a political stand mean cutting your potential customers in half? We’re at a place where your personal views and your need to run a successful business intersect, if not collide.

I spoke with Lyman and Schlader, plus a few other chefs and restaurateurs, about how they plan to handle these situations, and what they are instructing their employees to do. At Birch Coffee, Lyman and Schlader tell their team that serving everyone, regardless of politics, is part of the job. Lyman says that to do otherwise would completely shut down the potential conversation and opportunity to understand another person’s point of view.

“We consider ourselves to be civil people, but we also want to make sure our crew doesn’t feel stifled,” Schlader adds. “It’s a very difficult situation that needs a good level of precision. We’re a small business doing the best we can. [Kicking people out] throws gasoline on a raging fire. It gives people ammunition.”

Ken Gordon of Kenny & Zukes in Portland, Ore., is pretty outspoken on his personal Facebook page, and I’m sure most of his customers know how he feels about the Trump administration. “We serve a lot of assholes, but this is more,” he notes. “I think the same thing of pedophiles, rapists, people who choose to hurt others. It’s not that I don’t agree with [Sanders’] views, it’s that she’s actively hurting people she spreads lies about. That’s not somebody I want to do business with.”

Gordon and I debated whether wearing a MAGA hat was enough; we were both on the fence about it. But he added, “I’m a big believer in shunning. I think it should come back, big-time. You do not have the right to fight these people for what they say, but you do have the right to argue with them, to expose them, to shun them.”

That said, he doesn’t want his cooks and servers to be in that position, and said they would go to him or his GM for advice on how to proceed.

Preeti Mistry of Navi Kitchen in Oakland, Calif., is equally outspoken, and has no qualms about not welcoming members of the administration to her restaurant.

“No, they can’t eat in peace, because they are creating unrest,” she says, pointing out the difference between refusing service to people taking a political stand and discriminating against people for their race, gender or sexual orientation. “I don’t care about their feelings. If you create and support these policies against immigrants, then immigrants are not going to be your fans. Too bad. [Sanders] chose to take that position. I think they are looking for controversy and drama, to make it about restaurants and not their policies.”

Mistry added that her ideals are more important than the business.

“The mentality that the customer is always right is actually wrong,” she says. “This isn’t a joke. This isn’t business as usual. At some point, I don’t want their business, I don’t want their money. These are the times we’re living in.”

At Chicago's Mi Tocaya Antojeria, chef/owner Diana Davila says she couldn't welcome President Trump and his staff, noting that she feels they live in a bubble, and protests like these are an awakening for them. "We are a minority-owned business," she adds. "Who would I be, to welcome someone like that? Why would I serve someone who is making it their life's work to make things worse for us?"

But she also worries about the retaliation an independent restaurant like hers could face.

"You had better make sure you have your business together, because they can come after you for it. You have to be prepared," she says, noting that her house is on the line for her restaurant. "But it gives us hope, that people are brave enough to do things like that. There are more of us than there are of them. Are some of us going to lose by protesting them? Yes. But we are going to gain in the future. As long as you know what you are standing for, and it's based on human rights and compassion and love, it's worth it." 

As Davila says, it's complicated. I was sent this story from NPR, about a night in 1974 when H.R. Haldeman, President Nixon’s former chief of staff, showed up for dinner at Chez Panisse. Haldeman was a leader in the Watergate cover-up, and public enemy number one to Democrats; all of the restaurant servers refused to wait on him. Jeremiah Tower was the head chef of Chez Panisse at the time, and told the servers that Haldeman was a paying customer, and should be served. Alice Waters supported the waitstaff who refused to serve him, but Chez Panisse partner Jerry Budrick agreed with Tower and served the table. Haldeman went to the kitchen that night to shake Towers' hand and thank him for not throwing him out in front of his daughter, and Towers says he appreciated the humanity of the moment. It’s a good story to remember: both eerily timely and somewhat quaint in revealing how even more divided this country has become.

Very divisive issue. After two years of the continual divisiveness coming out of our so-called political "leaders", the American population is beginning to draw lines in the sand. I applaud these people! This divisiveness is the fault of the current administrations, Federally and in many States, that has brought us to this point. It will worsen before the pendulum swings the other way again. This is one of the many faults of a two-party, wealth-oriented, and business-interest oriented political system. Keep the people divided - they will then feel and become powerless. True Democracy strives to account for many, if not all points of view; true democracy is of the people, by the people, for the people. It is hard work and time consuming. Bravo to those who hold to human decency!
In all the restaurants and chefs in the world, you couldn't find one person that says this behavior is wrong? Where were they years ago when this was going on in the last presidents watch (or the one before that or before that)? where was the outcry then? Suggesting shaming and shunning a person who has separate views then you instead of having a conversation? Instead of doing so or listening to each other and working together we are going to call each other racists, liars and so forth?
(Cont) we would serve sanders with the same respect as we would serve maxine or nancy- and instead of letting people come to publicly shame them, we would escort those people out.
Bravo! I couldn't agree more.
Thank you for sharing some great points of view from the restaurateur side.
As a restaurant owner, I can tell you restaurant customers will not come to a restaurant more often because they support a restaurant owner's political beliefs - but they will avoid a restaurant if a they disagree with a restaurant owner's publicly stated beliefs.
So true.
We are not in the business of political activism. If you want to jeopardize your business by taking a stand that is fine. Just don't do it with my business.
Our industry has been established on creating every customer with the same respect and hospitality and anyone else in the building. If a customer wants to heckle another customer, I ask them to leave then call the police. 5% on the extremes of the discussion are making all the noise. Do not lose the 90% in the middle over an opinion.
In reality in can only do two things to change the world around me. Vote and spend money. Although I can also cancel subscriptions to the people who appear to be to closed minded to listen to others. Good by Plate!
It's great to hear your level headed comments. Hope you don't leave the community as we need voices of reason like yours.
Being in the Hospitality Business for over 30 years I was shocked at these two incidence. Remember we are in the Service business. We don't discriminate! Not who we hire, not who we serve. We also owe our patron a environment of comfort. Yes the table should be a place that brings us together in a civilized manor. I would not allow anyone to be treated badly or disrespected not a patron nor a employee. There is definitely a time and a place and the selective outrage of the far left or right for that matter is eroding the fabric of our great country. If I treated or allowed either of these groups to be treated in this manor in my place of business I would be instantly fired. And I should be as they people should be. This Article only reflects one far left viewpoint. This behavior was seriously wrong! I'm with Kelly.C Goodbye plates...
You are correct in that the article is obviously very one sided. Hope you'll stay in the community as we need balanced voices to counteract expressions of extremism.
This article is trying hard to be edgy, but is instead juvenile, regardless of one’s politics. First of all, “when civility and hospitality collide?” - who doesn’t know that these two words mean virtually the same thing? Thus if they collided, we would be blessed with wonderful times, wouldn’t we? But instead the author wants to lecture us about one group being too evil to justify civility. So what accounts for all the vitriol right from the start? Virtually no chef who creates their own food and menus sets out to make them political. Food is not inherently political, regardless of what this author says. It is cultural. It is a shared experience. It encompasses elements of history and art and many things we hold dear, but politics? Give me a break! The dining experience described in this article was in no way political. It only became a political event when the restaurant owner decided to make it one, and it was then amplified when with a bigger audience, Sarah Huckabee Sanders replies to the insult in a public forum. It was not the meal itself, but the owner response to the diner. And this owner admits that it was her own personal political decision. Don’t blame this on the food or the restaurant experience. And to say that it’s Mexican food and that it’s Mexican people being detained by this administration is like saying that you shouldn’t own anything made in China or Russia because politically we have serious political differences with them. It’s insane and it furthers the ignorance and division, especially when the opportunity is right there to say a kind word; thank the patron; and maybe even briefly tell them how and why you disagree with their (or their administration’s) position. That’s how you make the opportunity to affect a real difference and bring people a little closer together. Throwing in the dynamite makes great headlines, but only cripples those close to the issue. Food is apolitical and always should be a respite from the troubles and hardships of the day. It should be a time where people get together and affirm their common bonds and enjoy one another’s company - if you can’t do this, you’re not trying hard enough, and that’s on you! Try harder! Peace and fellowship are not always easy, which is how and why, when short-tempered, short-sighted people lead others, war can eventually result. Hate and animosity are not much better than war, and that’s exactly the end result of this restaurant owner’s behavior. The behavior can motivate some people, you may argue, but it’s motivating them in the wrong direction: away from others, not towards them. Anyone looking to make such a statement should consider whether they would prefer to help spread peace or convince some group of people they are right. The response to poor behavior shouldn’t be more poor behavior. Progress, by definition, requires a better response than that which came before it. Please tell me that we are better than the juvenile behavior of yelling at those with whom we disagree. The clever person seeks change by escalating an argument - if you want peace and it’s definition, there it is for you.
I agree. Excellent points and argued intelligently. It seems as though the agenda is to divide this nation. One feature that makes The United States original and impressive is the ability to thread the strengths and uniqueness of each culture into one fabric. It is imperative that we discuss and allow all parties to express their views to gain a better understanding of where to move forward. The impulsiveness and thirst for blood that is created by one sided reporting (either left or right) has conditioned much of the public into knee jerking fiends without the ability to think critically and truly have an open discussion. History shows that this has been taking place for years but has not come to light because media coverage has conveniently chosen this time to resurface this emotionally charged topic to stimulate anger, action over discussion for obvious political disruption. Frankly it is exhausting because the narrative never changes. While the emotions on all sides of the arguments are real, no resolution will occur without conversation that allows for all sides to speak their peace. Having the respect to do so is the challenging part for many because of the conditioning that has taken place by the media outlets. Food-service establishments and hospitality professionals should be the experts in bringing people together; it is what we specialize in. Hospitality business owners and professionals can support one cause or another with their time, service, product and resources but turning your dining room into a battle ground, where others have come to perhaps escape the constant drumming of news, fake news, adverts and scandal to enjoy your craft, service and even company is unfair and inhospitable.
I was heartened to see the thoughtful and truly civilized comments from Kris G, Kelly C, Randy K and Ted F below, as well as the real world wisdom of Steven S. Many of your readership won't agree with the divisive and vitriolic sentiments expressed in the above article. I only hope that Kelly C and Randy K read this and decide not to leave the Plate community. We need voices like yours to counteract the words of the article's author.
Agreed! On all counts.
I've been so grateful to be a subscriber since 2008, I've enjoyed, even looked forward to each issue. But Seriously? Plate is now another outlet for the extreme left wing point of view? You obviously haven't lost your spirit guides Chandra, you are a perfect conduit for the Obama dribble. I'm going to leave before you're openly endorsing mob violence and Maxine Waters. Oh wait, I believe that's what you just did.
OMG really? How is food "inherently political" Food is Food, it is nourishment people have to eat. You just made it political with this article. The action of the restaurant was rude period. It reminds me of the days restaurants didn't offer service to Mexicans or Blacks. The action of this restaurant and the people and those who applaud it is Racist and this my dear is inherently political. I respected Plate Magazine, but now I cannot. I withdraw my membership. I respect people, I respect Food. You didn't.
I would hope the responses to Ms. Ram’s article might give her pause, and perhaps even cause her to reevaluate her position. I agree that since she doesn’t own a restaurant, it’s easy for her to recommend what amounts to financial suicide for the average operator. To invite the kind of social media retaliation that is such an easy task currently, is not something most establishments can easily weather. Whether it’s Trip Advisor or Yelp, or other platform, the potential damage is great. Political activism is better left in the political arena, and not in the hospitality industry operating on minimal margins. I will continue to enjoy Plate, although with a somewhat jaundiced view toward Ms. Ram’s articles.
Where was your outrage when past administrations did the exact same thing? How would you feel if you were sitting there on their side of the table? Having a different opinion is fine, but taking it to a hostile almost violent level is unacceptable in any situation. We are in the HOSPITALITY business. You got this all wrong way wrong.
Restaurant, the word, the place, was born from the French word, "restaurer", in English it means to "restore", and historically represents the environment a weary traveler could restore their spirit, mood and well being through the food and hospitality offered by the local restaurateur.
......am not sure how the current behavior in restaurants upholds the spirit of the restaurant genesis, and equally not sure that a restaurant is the place to practice anything but warm, caring, attentive attention to paying customers' needs. Want to make a political statement, go to a political rally, want to make a religious statement, go do missionary work. Leave restaurants the task of restoring people to their best level, be they guests, employees and especially the owners!
I'd be curious to know what chefs in more conservative places, such as the South, would say.
I'm not from the South but I'll tell you what I say. I'll start with the false premise of many of the points of the article. Regarding the current issue at the border, this admin is only enforcing a law that has been on the books for many years. As far as a particular property choosing to take a side and grandstand? That's quite well within their right to do so but only a fool would step on that timebomb. The simple fact that the owner of the Red Hen chose to huddle with her staff to make a "communal decision" as to how they were going to deal with Sarah Sanders attempting to patronize her restaurant as a private citizen shows me that she saw an opportunity to grand stand and chose to play an immigration activist rather than a host. I feel zero pity if this forces her out of business nor will I feel a bit of sympathy for any of her staff that felt compelled to back her. Having said that, it was her choice (and her staff) and they can reap the rewards and/or the consequences.
Further, I operated a catering company in N. Minnesota for almost 2 decades and catered for just about every demographic one would encounter in our state. Other than intentionally overcharge some very idealistic vegans who were going to force 200 guests to eat as they do (and then think it was funny), there was no occasion that I would have refused service or treated anyone differently. If they could pay the bill, I did business. For the first few years I also made wedding cakes because I was foolish and wanted to generate as much business as possible so my family didn't starve. Reality kicked my ass and I soon realized I was in a sector I had no business being in. Not for the lack of skills or difficulty, but having the time to do it. I bring this up when I think of how political it was for a Christian baker who didn't want to make a custom wedding cake for the gay couple based on his principles. I support the position of the baker for the same reason that I would support the position of any other artist being forced to use his/her skills and passion against their will on a project they didn't believe in. If they had ordered retail bakery products or wanted to purchase works of art that had been completed and were refused, that's a completely different story. As far as retail or butts in the seats, we're a people business.
Damn this format! Hitting the return key completes the post. My final point that I want to make is the article is completely biased as others have said. That is the right for Plate to do so but I'm sure as hell not going to continue to read or follow it. I think the writer of this article is making some wild assumption that she is speaking truth to the masses hear. Maybe I'm one of the few like minded here but my tolerance for this behavior is waning rapidly. I may stick around to see what others might respond with but for Plate itself, I think I'll default it to my junk file very soon. Intentionally hitting the return key 3,2,1..
I completely agree with Chandra Ram in expressing her outrage at how administration staffers like Sarah Sanders, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Steve Miller have the unmitigated nerve to enter and dine at Mexican restaurants. The rest of Ms.Ram's article was completely balanced in reporting how operators - particularly those at ethnic and minority owned-and-or staffed restaurants - have to make a difficult choice to do what they consider right in protesting against immorality and incivility. Ms. Ram's story closes with a positive narrative about a peaceful interaction with a customer, despite political differences.
I completely agree with Chandra Ram in expressing her outrage at how administration staffers like Sarah Sanders, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Steve Miller have the unmitigated nerve to enter and dine at Mexican restaurants. The rest of Ms.Ram's article was completely balanced in reporting how operators - particularly those at ethnic and minority owned-and-or staffed restaurants - have to make a difficult choice to do what they consider right in protesting against immorality and incivility. Ms. Ram's story closes with a positive narrative about a peaceful interaction with a customer, despite political differences.
It is insane to refuse service to customers because of their political beliefs. Hospitality means civility. The best way to handle people with whom you disagree is politeness and conversation. Throwing people out of your establishment because of their political beliefs is bad for business and is uncivil. And it contributes to the increasingly coarse culture in which we live.

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