Eatery made famous by Sanders reopens
Outside the Red Hen, political divide flourishes
LEXINGTON, Va. – For a tiny restaurant in the heart of this historic city, opening for business Thursday evening was a new chapter in a national political saga.
After the Red Hen asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave on June 22, a national debate over social decency in an era of sharp political divides ensued. Protesters flocked to the restaurant, and it stayed closed for nearly two weeks.
Ahead of the scheduled reopening at 5 p.m., protesters and hopeful customers gathered outside the Red Hen, just across from the Stonewall Jackson House.
“If they want to serve up politics rather than Southern fried chicken, then they are setting up their own demise as a restaurant,” said Jeff Hulbert, founder of Patriot Picket, a group of demonstrators who focus on the Second Amendment.
Members of his group carried signs that drew comparisons between the present moment and the civil rights era, bearing slogans such as “Red Hen 2018 = 1960 Woolworth Lunch Counter,” referencing a restaurant where four African-American students were refused service during an anti-segregation protest.
As would-be customers and passersby walked through the group of protesters, arguments erupted.
“This’ll be closed within a year!” one man shouted. “We’ll keep it open!” a woman replied.
Almost immediately after the restaurant’s opening, potential customers began to arrive. Anyone without a reservation was turned away. According to a sign on the door, the restaurant was booked for the night.
“I thought it was very brave what the owner did,” said Don Mandelkorn, who had hoped to eat at the Red Hen on his way back home to Vermont. “We wanted to support the actions she took.”
Restaurant supporters frequently cited the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding the right of a Colorado baker to refuse service to a gay couple on religious grounds.
“I probably would have thought that they shouldn’t have kicked her out,” said Arlene White, a Lexington native who had hoped to eat at the Red Hen. “But if you won’t make a cake for a gay couple, for their wedding, and the Supreme Court upholds that right, then things have just gone far enough that I think they’re right to kick her out.”
The one thing protesters and customers seemed to share was a fervent want to express their beliefs – as well as a frustration with the political moment that sparked the Red Hen incident in the first place.
“What happened to that lady – and I mean lady – should never happen to any human being,” said Butch Barley of Concord, Virginia, who was protesting the restaurant. “You can only take so much, and I’ve gotten to that point. You back up, you back up, you back up, eventually you’re against a wall.”
And although the atmosphere was tense at times, several back-and-forths ended with mutual agreement on at least one subject: People should talk to each other.
“Everybody be nice to everybody,” Mandelkorn said jokingly. “All right?”
A protester demonstrates outside the Red Hen on Thursday in Lexington, Va.