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.