A small Virginia town is spending tens of thousands of dollars on damage control after a local restaurant refused to serve Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary.
Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of The Red Hen, approached Sanders when she visited the restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, and asked her to leave because she worked for President Donald Trump.
Once news of the incident got out, a wave of protesters entered the town and stood outside the restaurant holding signs and chanting.
Sanders posted a Tweet stating what happened:
Last night I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left. Her actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so
— Stephanie Grisham (@PressSec) June 23, 2018
In the aftermath of the event, many posted reviews of the restaurant online, both negative and positive, depending on how they felt about the Trump administration.
Yelp has been actively working to remove the politically motivated reviews.
The tourism board for the region, which includes Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County, was flooded with phone calls and emails about the incident.
“For a town our size, it was a significant impact,” Director of Marketing Patty Williams stated.
Tourism board members met soon after to discuss the potential revenue impact of the publicity, considering that Lexington has attracted the most tourists to the area.
The restaurant closed for two weeks, and Wilkinson stepped down as director of Main Street Lexington, an organization that works to improve the downtown area.
“Considering the events of the past weekend, Stephanie felt it best that for the continued success of Main Street Lexington, she should step aside,” said Elizabeth Branner, president of the Main Street Lexington Board of Directors.
Wilkinson spoke with The Washington Post to iterate her side of the story, explaining that some of her employees are gay, and she was aware that when Trump announced his desire to ban transgender people from the military, Sanders defended the position, a decision she did not agree with.
Some local residents have spoken out in support of Wilkinson, such as the chairwoman of the Rockbridge County Democratic Committee, who said, “(Stephanie) is an amazing person with a big heart.” Others have called the attacks unfair.
Other local business owners stayed quiet on the subject, hoping not to get mixed up in the controversy, especially after Trump himself commented on the situation.
But a sign seen in the window of the restaurant bearing a quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend” — has sparked additional commentary, as did what happened after Sanders and her family left the restaurant:
Sanders and her husband went home, “(b)ut the rest of her family went across the street to a different restaurant,” according to her father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. “The owner of the Red Hen — nobody’s told this — then followed them across the street, called people, and organized a protest yelling and screaming at them from outside the other restaurant and creating this scene.”
Shortly after Sanders’ tweet, the tourism board agreed to increase spending on digital marketing campaigns to help spread positive messages about the area, according to The Roanoke Times. They decided to spend an extra $5,000 per month supplied by the Rockbridge Regional Tourism emergency fund, from July through September.
Board members agreed this was the best move to counter the negative publicity from the incident.
The tourism office is also running a number of surveys targeting nearby areas with frequent travelers, asking questions to learn if a significant number of people remember the incident and if it affects their travel plans to the area in an attempt to see that Lexington tourism recovers quickly.
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