Jason Meinhardt’s restaurant The Red Hen, a small cafe in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, closed almost a decade ago. But over the past few days, Meinhardt has been fielding a stream of irate complaints about his defunct establishment, courtesy of an internet mob that’s pulled restaurants across the world into a round of White House political drama.
Last Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was refused service at the Red Hen, a farm-to-table restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. A predictable firestorm started as soon as the news broke online. Donald Trump tweeted a complaint about the restaurant’s “filthy” exterior, while other people deluged the Red Hen’s Facebook and Yelp pages with bad reviews. But in their fervor to condemn the restaurant, some critics have simply gone after any business with “Red Hen” in its name. And unfortunately, a lot of unrelated places fit that bill.
“People! PLEASE. Do not react before you know which FB page to which you are posting.”
So far, The Verge has found at least 10 different restaurants that were mistaken for the one that ejected Sanders — or assumed to be part of some giant franchise of tiny locavore joints. A Red Hen in Swedesboro, New Jersey, (motto: “deliciously simple food”) posted an exasperated note after receiving hundreds of phone calls about the incident. An unrelated restaurant in Connecticut pleaded with angry Facebook users: “People! PLEASE. Do not react before you know which FB page to which you are posting.” Across the border in Ontario, Canada, the Olde Red Hen’s owners were condemned as “liberal trash.” No restaurant was remote enough to escape the ire — not even the Little Red Hen in Muntinlupa City, Philippines, which was called out for 86-ing “one of the finest woman in this country.”
As Meinhardt discovered, the restaurant didn’t have to be operating, either. The page for his Red Hen hasn’t been updated since 2010, and it’s clearly listed with a Georgia address. But you can still find a 700-word missive from a “tourist to Lexington” who swears to never eat there again, due to its owner’s “programmed knee-jerk reaction” to Sanders. “I’ve been called a few choice names,” Meinhardt tells The Verge.
This phenomenon isn’t unusual or unique to restaurants. People with the same names as mass murder suspects have regularly been hounded by reporters and internet sleuths. After the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a Brooklyn chef named Emma Gonzalez found herself stalked by conspiracy theorists who believed she was also posing as 18-year-old Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez.
Some reviewers are simply confused, while others believe there’s a giant chain of locavore restaurants
Some Red Hen harassment has turned overtly menacing. A restaurant in Washington, DC got so many threats that a police officer was dispatched to guard it, and the building was egged late at night. Its owners eventually put a block-lettered sign reading “#NOTTHATREDHEN” in the window. And even when there are no threats, it can be a major headache. “We had to shut down our website, we had to shut down our Facebook, and we’re getting calls all day long for the last couple days,” says Sara Carpenter, assistant manager for the Red Hen Bar and Grill in Napa, California. Several “Red Hen” Yelp pages have been flagged for protection by the site’s support staff.
Conversely, commenters have also shown up to support the restaurants. A few are still confused about which Red Hen Sanders went to, but they’re happy she got kicked out of one of them, somewhere. Others have tried to clear up the whole mess, responding to bad reviews and leaving five-star scores to compensate for the negative feedback.
And through it all, people have been poking fun at the comically misaimed backlash — including the DC Red Hen’s Twitter account operator, who’s spent the past few days ribbing critics online. Meinhardt has actually played along with the complaints he’s gotten. “Please rest assured that we have released most of our ‘left thinking’ employees and restocked our staff with people who strictly meet the standards of the REAL America,” he told the angry Lexington tourist, who realized her mistake, apologized, and suggested she’d check out his (again, nonexistent) restaurant. His friends soon started leaving joking reviews, speculating that the Red Hen was a “communist front” and complaining that its food tasted several years old.
Many Red Hen haters clearly just stumbled onto the wrong listing and have acknowledged their mistakes or deleted their reviews. But others simply can’t accept that two unrelated restaurants might share a name. “You made the choice to have a franchised locations [sic] & now you have to live with it,” sneered one Twitter user, after being told that the DC and Virginia restaurants were not affiliated. “It does seem that most refuse to believe that our Hens have nothing to do with each other,” says Meinhardt.
On the internet, there’s no such thing as a coincidence
To a certain subset of internet users, there’s no such thing as a coincidence, and that same mindset has led a few people down a different, darkly conspiratorial path. The Lexington Red Hen restaurant has already been wrapped into the sweeping QAnon and Pizzagate theories, complete with speculation that it’s a front for child abuse or organized crime. That’s made the whole controversy feel a lot more dangerous, evoking an incident where a gunman invaded Pizzagate target restaurant Comet Ping Pong.
And Red Hen restaurants aren’t the only companies that have been roped into this controversy. Critics have gone after food suppliers that work with the Lexington Red Hen, drawing from a list of businesses that the restaurant listed on its website. One supplier, Deirdre Armstrong of Harvest Thyme Farms, says she was shocked to discover the negative attention her company had received. “It wasn’t the personal emails that got me, it was the thousands of retweets that did,” she says. After being alerted by a reporter, she publicly requested that Red Hen take the information down, which it did on Monday afternoon.
But for the many unrelated establishments that have caught blowback, the only real option is to post a disclaimer and wait for the controversy to cool — and, perhaps, reflect on just what makes “Red Hen” such a good name for a restaurant in the first place. Is it the earthy invocation of a delicious farm animal? The opportunity for a bold, colorful logo? Meinhardt says he and his co-founder weren’t analyzing the benefits quite that deeply. “I think someone we knew had mentioned a Rhode Island Red that they had as a pet once,” he says. “We honestly did not think (and at that time, maybe there wasn’t) that there were that many Red Hen restaurants out there.”