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.

What a one sided bull#@$% point of view. Hospitality is just serving people equally regardless of their beliefs or yours. I am out of here!!
hos·pi·tal·i·ty ˌhäspəˈtalədē/ noun noun: hospitality 1. the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers regardless of
hos·pi·tal·i·ty ˌhäspəˈtalədē/ noun noun: hospitality 1. the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers regardless of
hos·pi·tal·i·ty ˌhäspəˈtalədē/ noun noun: hospitality 1. the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers regardless of
hos·pi·tal·i·ty ˌhäspəˈtalədē/ noun noun: hospitality 1. the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers regardless of
hos·pi·tal·i·ty ˌhäspəˈtalədē/ noun noun: hospitality 1. the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers regardless of
hos·pi·tal·i·ty ˌhäspəˈtalədē/ noun noun: hospitality 1. the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers regardless of
hos·pi·tal·i·ty ˌhäspəˈtalədē/ noun noun: hospitality 1. the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers regardless of
hos·pi·tal·i·ty ˌhäspəˈtalədē/ noun noun: hospitality 1. the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers regardless of
hos·pi·tal·i·ty ˌhäspəˈtalədē/ noun noun: hospitality 1. the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers regardless of
hos·pi·tal·i·ty ˌhäspəˈtalədē/ noun noun: hospitality 1. the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers regardless of
hos·pi·tal·i·ty ˌhäspəˈtalədē/ noun noun: hospitality 1. the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers regardless of
hos·pi·tal·i·ty ˌhäspəˈtalədē/ noun noun: hospitality 1. the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers regardless of
hos·pi·tal·i·ty ˌhäspəˈtalədē/ noun noun: hospitality 1. the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers regardless of
hos·pi·tal·i·ty ˌhäspəˈtalədē/ noun noun: hospitality 1. the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers regardless of
I for one am delighted by the actions of the restaurateurs who throw customers out of their establishments based upon political categories or employment status. Note that it is only done by creatures of the left...I have yet to hear about any conservatives giving the boot to leftist vermin deigning to sip their coffee or munch on their shared plates. I look forward to and pray that there will be more of these incidents: it virtually guarantees that the current President of the US will be reelected in a couple of years. When my bakery was open, we served one and all. I now regret not asking for voter registration cards before serving my customers so that I could shove out the door the ones who did not share my party affiliation. Keep it up!
Shame to see this turn political. All instances referenced do not reflect 'hospitality' or civility by the owners.
The author is wrong, as are most commentators about current policies. Aside from being a chef, have been immigration attorney. So called policy is from court order and not new! It's been going since 1997, through Clinton, Bush and Obama's terms. Secondly, has nothing to do with Mexican restaurants. Mexico is contiguous with US and it is not Mexican's claiming asylum, primarily they are from El Salvador and Guatamala. Shows author's ignorance of the law, and facts, and simply trying to extend what is the antithesis of hospitality and civility into this profession. (One reason left law for hospitality). Please stick with culinary related matters and leave out your political opinions, and show some hospitality towards your readers - welcome everyone regardless of their point of view.
Funny that those that champion "tolerance" are the most intolerant.
The freedoms we enjoy in our Country are even more valued when they are not available as exposed in other countries. Sometimes it seems as if those freedoms are "rattled" and maybe even cause humor or success from those other countries that watch & challenge us. The best & most powerful country in the world and we argue amongst ourselves over the interpretation and application of these freedoms. When will we 'grow up' and act as the best & most powerful? Do as you please, but do we want to lower ourselves to act as others do?
Some of the narrow-minded comments of the operators in the article, obviously carefully culled and selected to reflect the author's self centered sentiments show how prejudiced all folks can be. Pity they won't own up to it. Why not put a declaration on your front door,"Beware if you don't think like my waitstaff & me!" I'm heartened to see a plurality of folks disagreeing; like Wendy says," don't leave, the community needs you."
Its a Shame that this article is one sided, you can't argue that otherwise. I have been a Chef close to 29 years now and have seen many changes in the food industry, from products, techniques, and trends to rules, regulations and policies. There is one thing I know for sure that hasn't change in the kitchen nor was ever allowed for mine is that discrimination is discrimination period regardless of one's views. The first amendment does give us that right of free speech and thought. What has happened to society is we want the right to free speech but if anyone challenges us or disagrees it becomes an "outrage". Sad thing is Diversity is not really diversity at all if you think everyone has to be like, think like, and act like you. I would go as far as to say that we would be foolish to think that this current administration is the cause of this, " spoiler alert" it has been here a very long time and it will continue well past this presidency. The media outlets chose to focus on an agenda rather than report the news, government officials focused on attacks and created sedition (from both sides of the Isle) rather than the people and how to fix it, organizations and businesses took sides rather than adhere to their own policies of diversity within their companies. Many people do these things for publicity or notoriety, but is it worth loosing your business over it, your mind etc? If you claim to be this loving, excepting person, one who empathizes, one who speaks for the cause, why then do you violate your own principles? We are professionals, we except and employ people for who they are, for their skills, from all walks of life. We teach them to respect one another in the kitchen, have passion for the food, take pride in our creations, aspire to never stop learning! yet Chefs have chosen to violate their own principles and treat people the very opposite of what we preach in our kitchens. Listen you want change it starts with us, you want to be heard, then listen as well, you want to be seen, then let others be seen first. Bottom line is, if everyone is shouting, and if everyone is talking all at once, I want to know who is actually listening. We feed people and their families that's what matters, the food industry has come a long way to be given the notoriety, and platform it has so hard to work for. If you want to be a politician then put down your knives, take off your chef coats and hang up your apron and please don't drag the rest of us down and destroy the industry we so passionately love, what so many of us have worked for.

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