Sarah Sanders, White House press secretary, walks into a restaurant… Or maybe it’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or Steven Miller, senior advisor to POTUS. All three have been driven from dining establishments this summer because of their politics and their political associations.
In June, for instance, Sarah Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia because the people in charge didn’t like her politics. Such actions by restaurant personnel raise many questions, none of them easy to answer.
So, although “Sarah Sanders walks into a restaurant” might sound like the set-up to a topical joke, it touches on very serious issues.
What would you do if you ran a restaurant and were placed in the position of serving a guest who represented a political point of view you vehemently opposed? Would you refuse service, provide cold service, or simply and dutifully provide the same level of service that you would to any other customer?
I started asking several Chicago chefs about this, and I found that many of them were reluctant to go on the record expressing their opinions on this topic. That reluctance is totally understandable. We live in an angry time, and there’s no telling what kind of response one might receive for expressing opinions, pro or con, about refusing service to someone whose political positions they detest.
To help the chefs open up and speak freely, I guaranteed their anonymity, and to these anonymous chefs I asked, “What would you do if Sarah Sanders or another member of the Trump Administration — or perhaps a member of the American Nazi Party or the KKK — walked into your restaurant?”
Chef #1: “I’m even more concerned about how divided we, as a people, have become.”
I have thought about this a lot since the Red Hen story broke. And I’ve gone back and forth as to what I would do. First, I need to say that nothing would give me greater pleasure than to tell these people to get lost. I believe that these are bad people who are either selfishly or politically motivated, and who have no regard for American values, institutions, or citizens. And that they deserve any bit of mistreatment that anyone can throw at them.
But there are bigger principles at risk here.
As concerned as I am about how their policies undermine our values, I’m even more concerned about how divided we, as a people, have become. I believe that this division and politicization of virtually every aspect of our lives is what got someone like Trump elected and that longer-term this a greater threat to our nation than any administration or set of policies. Protesting, resisting, advocating, and, most importantly, voting are the roles and responsibilities of citizens, not businesses. And while we all know that every business owner, employee, and customer have (and ought to have) their own political views, it would be disastrous for businesses to become political weapons. Imagine a world in which having the correct politics was a prerequisite to having a meal at a restaurant or shopping for groceries or getting health care. If we think we’re divided now, just wait until we live in a country that has liberal restaurants and conservative restaurants. I fear that we are heading that way, and it is tragic. I don’t want to contribute to further polarization at a time when we so desperately need to rediscover those things that unite us and return to more civil discourse. So as much as I despise these people and what they are doing, and as much as I would take pleasure in tossing them out the door, I would serve them.
I opened a restaurant to cook for people. If I wanted to only cook for those I liked, I’d have thrown a dinner party.
Chef #2: “I would allow any staff to refuse service if they felt uncomfortable.”
I am not a fan of Trump or his administration, but I would not deny service. As a person in the business of hospitality, my job is to serve great food and give the best service possible. Michelle Obama‘s words, “When they go low, we go high,” come to mind. Still, I would allow any staff to refuse service if they felt uncomfortable.
Regarding the KKK or Nazis, however, I sincerely hope that neither of these groups would show up at my place! I think it would be a dangerous situation for all involved. Business owners have the right to refuse service and this would be where I would draw the line.
Chef #3: “We’ve chosen a career of taking care of people.”
I haven’t busted my ass in this industry for over a decade to be put in a tough business position of who to serve and not to serve. I fully understand the potential backlash, but my personal opinions should not be more important than the opinions of the guests who walk through the door. It might not make me happy, but I feel the people in my family, who paved this path for me, would find it careless to not be hospitable to anyone and everyone.
I would not serve Nazi/KKK members in uniforms. If they are considered radicals by the government, then that’s enough backing for me to refuse them service.
I’ve discussed this with multiple chefs, owners, staff, etc., and the response is somewhat streamlined across the board. As a business you hate to turn away business, as part of a community you hate to be biased toward different people/organizations.
We’ve chosen a career of taking care of people. Who are we if we don’t put forth a conscious effort to do so?
Chef #4: “I would not deny service to any Trump Administration member.”
I believe that in this life we deal with people all the time that we agree to disagree with. Everyone is human, and everyone has rights.
However, if Nazis or the KKK were to dine in, I would ask them to leave. I don’t believe in the beliefs carried by these groups and I’ve experienced racial discrimination first hand. I would not want other guests to become offended by their actions and/or beliefs.
Chef #5: “I’m grateful that most … polarizing politicians do not do many tasting menus.”
I would like to think I wouldn’t deny service to anybody other than outright racists.
That said, we also have a commitment to our other guests. If a certain person were ruining the experience for the rest of the room, I believe I would be very hard pressed not to ask them to leave. I really do disdain the thought of being put in that position. I’m extremely conflicted.
I believe it is our duty to treat everyone who dines with us with dignity, and we have a policy of leaving our personal politics out of our “open for business” hours.
These are really jaded times. I want to believe I’m still in the business of feeding anyone who wants to and can afford to dine with us. Still, I guess I’m also grateful that most racists and polarizing politicians do not do many tasting menus.
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David Hammond is Dining and Drinking Editor at Newcity and contributes to the Chicago Tribune and other publications. In 2004, he co-founded LTHForum.com, the 15,000 member food chat site; for several years he wrote weekly “Food Detective” columns in the Chicago Sun-Times; he writes weekly food columns for Wednesday Journal. He has written extensively about the culinary traditions of Mexico and Southeast Asia and contributed several chapters to “Street Food Around the World.”
David is a supporter of S.A.C.R.E.D., Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development, an organization founded by Chicagoan Lou Bank and dedicated to increasing awareness of agave distillates and ensuring that the benefits of that awareness flow to the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico. Currently, S.A.C.R.E.D is funding the development of agave farms, a library and water preservation systems for the community of Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca.