When Thomas Lents became executive chef at Sixteen in 2012, he knew that the Chicago restaurant could make the news. After all, the restaurant overlooking the Chicago River was located in Trump International Hotel & Tower.
“When I took the job originally, I knew that there was always going to be some element of notoriety with the property because of the [Donald] Trump name. He definitely was a TV personality and kind of a businessman,” Lents says. “Even back before he ran for president, everyone had an opinion about Donald Trump, but it wasn’t something that was so strong that it was going to affect your choice to come and eat there or not, or not for most people.”
In the years after he arrived, Lents saw business steadily increase at Sixteen, which earned two Michelin stars, a bump from its previous rating of one star, in 2014. But fortunes changed after Trump announced his run for president in June 2015. As the election ramped up, protests took place in front of the building every weekend, continuing in the weeks after the election. “It’s difficult to get reservations to walk through a protest to come for dinner,” says Lents, who worked for Sixteen until early 2017.
For the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, protesters gathered outside Trump Chicago. Just a few months later, Sixteen, with its critical acclaim and two Michelin stars, shuttered on April 28, ostensibly to make way for a more casual restaurant. The Trump name was not necessarily the cause for the closure, but Lents says business fell 30 to 40 percent year over year; former employees said sales dropped as low as 40 percent during weekdays in the months before the close.
The story of Sixteen may not be unique. Trump’s business is private, meaning financial data is hidden. But average room rates have plummeted in every Trump U.S. hotel, according to a November 2017 study, indicating a fall in customer demand. The hardest hit was Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, where the average rate fell by 63 percent from January 2017 to January 2018. (Not one of the public relations representatives for Trump property restaurants provided comment. Eater repeatedly reached out to the restaurants in Chicago, Las Vegas, and New York. ESquared Hospitality, which owns the restaurants in Miami, Washington, D.C., and Honolulu, declined to comment.)
Anecdotally, employees back up the numbers. Lents, who now serves as executive chef at the Apparatus Room in Detroit, says some loyal customers told him that they would never eat at Sixteen again because of the association with Trump. “Anytime you mix politics, no matter what the politics are, you’re going to alienate a certain percentage of the clientele that you have,” he says. “In a business like restaurants, the margins are so small and it is such a difficult industry to be a part of and to be successful in, I think anything that you do to alienate a portion of your possible dining guests just is going to see business affected.”
When Koi, a Japanese/sushi restaurant in the Trump SoHo in New York City, closed in June 2017, it also blamed a decline in business following the election. A representative told Money at the time that the drop in business, along with “a whole host of reasons,” was the cause for the closure; an employee who worked at the restaurant drew a stronger line toward the Trump name, telling Grub Street, “Before Trump won, we were doing great. There were a lot of people we had, our regulars, who’d go to the hotel but are not affiliated with Trump. And they were saying if he wins, we are not coming here anymore.” (The Trump Organization eventually parted ways with the Trump SoHo. It’s now rebranded as the Dominick Hotel.)
“It can be generally quite risky to associate one’s brand too closely with political issues,” says Aaron Allen, a global restaurant consultant. “Generally, what we’re hearing [in news reports] is that most of the properties are down, with the exception of Mar-a-Lago.”
Not every restaurant inside a Trump property is owned by Trump himself, though all are listed on the Trump Hotels website with the all-caps tagline “Subtlety is not our strength, indulgence is.” Trump owns the restaurant in Las Vegas, along with the now-closed Sixteen. All the other restaurants are tenants in Trump properties.
Restaurants usually want to avoid politically charged issues, an impossible course of action for restaurants in Trump buildings, Allen says. Carrying that name forces them to consider what it says about their brand. “For some, they may feel it’s a good thing. For others, they may decide that it’s not,” he says. “But it’s an extra assumption in the calculus, and that will change the result for some brands.”
Politics can affect brands beyond Trump’s. Social media outcry came swiftly for Starbucks after one of its stores in Philadelphia was accused of racial profiling. Chick-fil-A came under fire after the fast-food chain’s president made comments against gay marriage, before rebounding a few years later to become the country’s most successful chain, in terms of average sale numbers per restaurant. “People buy brands that reflect how they see themselves,” Allen says. “You’re kind of voting with your money when you patronize a business.”
That, of course, goes both ways: Protesters converged on some Trump properties’ restaurants after the election. A protest interrupted brunch service on January 15, 2017, in the dining room of Jean-Georges, a restaurant in New York City’s Trump International Hotel and Tower. In March, people at the March for Our Lives gun control rally in Washington left their signs outside Trump International Hotel after they marched.
Allen says for Trump properties’ restaurants, the decline closely matches his popularity. An average of polls shows that about 52 percent of people disapprove of Trump. Of course, that leaves about 41 percent who approve, so Allen says some people could go out of their way to dine at Trump property restaurants. In early 2017, chef David Burke, who opened a steakhouse in a Trump-owned D.C. property in September 2016, said business was going strong. “The business is thriving,” Burke told Eater at the time. “But I know some people aren’t fans because we happen to be serving food inside a building with Donald Trump’s name on the front.”
Lents says Sixteen probably saw a small percentage of Trump-supporting customers, but it wasn’t enough for the luxury restaurant. “I don’t think that the kind of people that were just coming by to see a Trump property just because of the name were really drawn to that style of restaurant necessarily,” he says, “so I don’t think we saw an influx of almost, like, voyeuristic guests coming in at that point.”
Another effect countering this may be that every Trump property — from Honolulu to Miami to New York — is in a Democratic-leaning city that favored presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Cook County in Chicago, the home of Sixteen, had 73.9 percent voting for Clinton. “It definitely eroded our Chicago dining base,” Lents says. “It didn’t really seem to affect international travelers as much or necessarily transient business, especially because of the hotel.”
The Trump name can also, famously, make it hard to attract tenants. Chef José Andrés had planned to open a restaurant in Trump Washington, but he pulled out of the deal in 2015 after Trump made comments maligning Mexicans.
“The perception that Mr. Trump’s statements were anti-Hispanic made it very difficult to recruit appropriate staff for a Hispanic restaurant, to attract the requisite number of Hispanic food patrons for a profitable enterprise, and to raise capital for what was now an extraordinarily risky Spanish restaurant,” Andrés’s restaurant group said in the ensuing lawsuit.
Food Network star Geoffrey Zakarian also pulled out of a deal to open a bistro, and restaurateurs Stephen Starr, Tom Colicchio, and Bryan Voltaggio declined to open a spot in the Trump Washington.
Sushi Nakazawa, which also has a New York location, ended up opening June 1 at the Trump Hotel. (Of course, the site was a source of discussion.)
The Trump name even made Allen hesitate when he searched for a Chicago location for an office. He considered Trump Tower, but he also knew that could have the potential to turn off some of his clients. He ended up opening an office across from the property.
“I think if there’s two buildings that are equal in other measures, being associated with a Trump property has risks that some businesses have decided they don’t want to be linked to,” he says.
Having the Trump name can also be exhausting for restaurants. Lents says Sixteen had potential to grow its following, but the name and resulting scrutiny took its toll. Restaurants end up judged not for their work but for their name.
“The wind was taken out of our sails by it, and it’s a shame because it no longer became an issue of what we did in the restaurant,” he says. “It was no longer about the service levels that we gave or the creative elements of the food. The story-making that we put into the menus and the ideas behind the dishes got lost because of basically a bunch of rhetoric.”
On top of that, the people who suffered weren’t the Trump family. They were the restaurant staff, Lents says.
“They were the ones that were being yelled at by the protesters, and they were the ones that were seeing their incomes drastically reduced, or the success of the restaurant reduced,” he says. “I think that was a real shame because at the end, while the protests have their validity and I think that they have the right to say those things, obviously, to speak their minds, the fact is that it wasn’t really affecting the core of the situation. It was affecting this whole subcategory of people who were corollary to what was going on.”
Real estate agents aren’t taking any chances with attracting more restaurant tenants to Trump Chicago. Promo materials omit the Trump name, only referring to the building as “401 North Wabash Avenue.”
Adina Solomon is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta who writes about a range of topics — everything from business to culture to death to city design and beyond. Andrea D’Aquino is a New York-based illustrator and author.
Editor: Erin DeJesus
Fact-checked by Samantha Schuyler