A BYSTANDER OF CIVILITY: RED HEN ON RED HEN
There are a lot of angry people in America these days. While many have transformed frustration into productivity, taking to the streets to protest or volunteering to make a change, some are pivoting into a different, more polarizing direction: yelling indiscriminately at someone else. The most vivid demonstration we have of this last unholy propensity was set off by an incident that took place at a single table in a tiny farm-to-table spot with a catchy name.
Red Hen is a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders patronized on Friday, June 22, 2018, only to be turned away as the staff refused service due to myriad political disagreements. The event transpired quite intimately (restaurant owner Stephanie Wilkinson spoke with Sanders privately on the restaurant patio) but still inspired Sanders to send a Tweet destined to bang on America’s uneven mental table. As a result, the establishment has been both praised and demonized for their actions in the coarsest ways possible.
Almost immediately, any other entity that shared the name “Red Hen” found itself on the receiving end of a silent but deafening digital scream. These misunderstandings were a particular nuisance for other Red Hen restaurants — an Italian eatery in DC received attacks and praise for days; a quiet New Jersey–based family favorite faced a barrage of angry phone calls; a Connecticut restaurant was beset by a stream of “threatening” notes — despite assertions that theirs was not that Red Hen restaurant.
But this comedy of errors extended beyond the world of dining. Red Hen Press, a small publishing house based in Pasadena, California, that has never been based in Lexington, Virginia, has never been a restaurant, and has never catered to Press Secretary Sanders, was also a target of right-wing ire. Despite repeatedly stressing and stressing that they were completely removed from the situation, many Americans have revealed that they are not unrelated to oversized farm fowl themselves by repeatedly lobbing attacks at this innocent literary operation.
That was when we each checked our voicemails to find a collective eight messages damning us for having refused service to Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Most were polite, and only a few were alarming.
While it may have been easy to stir the proverbial political pot, Red Hen Press has taken the situation in stride, illustrating how to turn angry American lemons into literate lemonade. To understand this situation from start to hopefully-finishing-soon, PubLab spoke with Red Hen Press’ deputy director Tobi Harper in June, just after the event we refer to as “the fiasco” transpired in Lexington, Virginia.
* * *
How did you first hear about this fiasco?
We heard about the fiasco on the news over the weekend and chuckled over the “red hen” name, but didn’t realize we had been connected to it until Monday morning. That was when we each checked our voicemails to find a collective eight messages damning us for having refused service to Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Most were polite, and only a few were alarming. Calls continued throughout the week and were increasingly aggressive to the point that I had to contact a repeat caller who directly harassed a staff member. While our Facebook page received a few messages and one false bad review, Twitter had exploded in all directions.
When did you realize, “Oh shit: we’re now in this conversation?”
Twitter was on fire with mentions both positive and negative, followed quickly by a community that rose up in our defense to let others know that we were an unrelated book publishing company (and definitely not a restaurant). Other non-affiliated Red Hen–named companies were jumping in to defend us, while somehow @RedHenPress (us), @RedHenDC (a non-affiliated restaurant) and @RedHenLex (the actual restaurant in question) were all lumped together as an assumed chain of restaurants who were all equally responsible for refusing service to the White House Press Secretary.
What was the response as this situation mostly played out over a weekend?
I would have assumed it would finish on Sunday, but it seemed to have still been in full swing through Monday and a little on Tuesday. We first responded playfully and then followed that with an official announcement that we were an independent book publishing company with no affiliation to the restaurant in [Virginia]. We politely and playfully responded to those who mentioned us in tweets, and received many kind apologies as well as humorous comments.
Have you spoken to the other Red Hens — either restaurants or other affiliates — about this? What have the communal thoughts been?
Besides some playful banter and support over twitter with other “Red Hens,” we sent a copy of Bad Stories by Steve Almond and essentially a “get well” card to the unrelated Red Hen restaurant as well as the actual Red Hen restaurant in Virginia. The Red Hen in Virginia hasn’t posted on Twitter since 2014, so I assume that the wrong Red Hen in DC received most of the Twitter harassment, and I know for sure that they were egged and staff were personally threatened. Considering how much flack we were getting as a book publishing company in Los Angeles, I can’t imagine how frightening it must have been for the DC restaurant and especially for the the real one in Virginia. One Tweet had asked for our physical addresses to be posted online, which gratefully nobody responded to, but it made me realize the level of harassment being levied at our fellow, unaffiliated, Red Hens.
What do you think this fiasco says about America in 2018?
Considering how we received the vast majority of comments and feedback about this whole fiasco on Twitter, it seemed to be more of a 140 character / auto-tagging issue rather than specifically an American one. I personally found this all to be equally ridiculously funny and deeply sad. Many of the responses and comments were jovial and we responded to those in kind, but the intense anger and threats from some were saddening. The voicemails we received were especially sad, as they were left by people who went to our obviously labeled website to locate a phone number, and who then listened through the menu options for editorial, accounting, and production before choosing to be routed to the media and publicity department. It’s one thing to quickly comment or retweet, but calling by phone entails a lot of follow-through while still not realizing they’re harassing an unrelated company.
"Red Hen" is not a restaurant franchise, it is a name incidentally shared by many independent and unaffiliated companies. As for us at "Red Hen Press" (a book publishing company, not a well-named panini shop), we're rereading Bad Stories by @stevealmondjoy #notarestaurant
— Red Hen Press (@RedHenPress) June 25, 2018
* * *
The death of civility that marked the summer of 2018 may be a blip in history, but it is something that a select few Americans will never forget, particularly those who long ago christened their businesses with a nod to a farm animal previously known for its benign and generous contribution to humanity.
KYLE RAYMOND FITZPATRICK
Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick is a writer based in Los Angeles whose work has been published by Playboy, Los Angeles Magazine, Eater, Popsugar, and more. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing from Otis College of Art & Design. He loves dogs, champagne, and short shorts.