After kicking the White House press secretary out mid-meal on Friday night, a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, has quickly become the target of a right-wing witch hunt. The Red Hen’s owner Stephanie Wilkinson told the Washington Post that after discussing it with her staff, she asked Sanders to step outside with her and politely requested that she leave, igniting a conservative backlash replete with internet harassment and conspiracy theories.
Yelper-in-chief Donald Trump added fuel to the fire by tweeting out his own thoughts on the Red Hen Monday morning, accusing the restaurant of having “filthy canopies, doors and windows” and “badly need[ing] a paint job.” (Of course, a small farm-to-table restaurant such as the Red Hen would not fall under Trump’s typical dining purview, as he prefers fast-food restaurants like KFC or McDonald’s — which he’s previously praised for their cleanliness — or tonier spots like Manhattan’s 21 Club or BLT Prime inside D.C.’s Trump International Hotel.)
The Red Hen incident seems to be ascending to Pizzagate-like levels of sensationalism: One Twitter user claims the Red Hen’s “silent partner” is a registered sex offender, apparently basing his claim on a Facebook comment from someone who says they’re a former employee of the restaurant. (The Red Hen did not immediately respond to an email inquiry for comment, and its phone went unanswered.) Posted Sunday afternoon, the tweet has garnered close to 2,000 retweets and thousands of replies. The user then posted a follow-up tweet with a photo of Wilkinson, accusing her of wearing “a pedo symbol” (a silver necklace in the shape of a spiral). Meanwhile on Facebook, users are doxxing Wilkinson, circulating an image that contains her alleged home phone number and address.
The allegations involving pedophilia are strongly reminiscent of wild conspiracy theories involving D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong pizzeria that circulated on Twitter, YouTube, and far-right message boards leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Proponents of the theory asserted that Comet Ping Pong’s owner and the Clintons were embroiled in a pedophile sex ring that involved keeping children captive in the pizzeria. In December 2016, a man named Edgar Welch was arrested for firing a rifle inside Comet Ping Pong, saying he had come to “self-investigate” the theory. The incident showed how baseless internet rumors can quickly progress from online harassment into very tangible real-world threats.
Critics of the Red Hen’s actions seem to be brainstorming any possible way to damage the establishment. Some have taken to Twitter to encourage Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to pay the Red Hen in Lexington a visit, alleging that the restaurant uses “illegal” workers:
The Red Hen aka @RedHenLex needs @ICEgov to pay a visit & check the immigration status of their entire staff!#RETWEET#SarahSanders— We Support 45 & The Wall! (@WeSupport45) June 23, 2018
Help #BuildThatWall & #DeportThemAll @ https://t.co/cGkVjfkqQR pic.twitter.com/BGjgd2CTpN
Send ICE to the Red Hen Restaurant. They may be employing illegal immigrants.— Steve Laughlin (@Gruncle_Stevie) June 25, 2018
I believe it is time for ICE to drop in for a visit to a Red Hen...understand this place only hires immigrants....wanna bet how many are illegals?— Dr David Bradford (@drdavidbradford) June 25, 2018
There are several other restaurants called the Red Hen located across the country, and they too are getting caught up in the controversy: After enduring a firestorm of fake negative reviews on its Yelp and Facebook pages, the Red Hen in Washington, D.C., took to Twitter on Saturday morning to explain that it was not in fact affiliated with the Lexington restaurant of the same name. But many users weren’t buying it, insisting that the Red Hen was a franchise or “had to” be related due to bearing the same name. It was egged, nevertheless.
Another restaurant called the Red Hen in Swedesboro, New Jersey, is suffering a similar fate: Managing partner Elizabeth Pope told the Associated Press she’s received more than 600 phone calls in the wake of the Huckabee Sanders incident. The restaurant posted a message on its Facebook page on Sunday that reads, “Kindly check your facts before you erroneously defame an innocent business on Facebook in an attempt to destroy their business where they welcome all, irrespective of their race, religion, views or opinions.”
• Trump Tweets Bad Review of Restaurant That Kicked Out Sarah Huckabee Sanders [E]
• People Angry Over Sanders Slam the Wrong Red Hen [AP]
• Red Hen Restaurants Around the World Are Getting Blamed for Kicking Out Sarah Sanders [Verge]