Small business lessons from Red Hen’s Sanders ouster

Mae Anderson
The Associated Press

NEW YORK – Taking a political stand – like asking a White House press secretary to leave your restaurant – can be polarizing and risky. So experts say an owner who decides to act should do so with forethought and civility.

The Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia, has become internationally famous since ousting Sarah Huckabee Sanders over the weekend. The owner had consulted with employees, who said Sanders made them feel uncomfortable. It was an on-the-spot decision, and led to condemnation by President Donald Trump, an onslaught of negative Yelp reviews and global media coverage.

Under federal law, restaurants and other businesses can not discriminate based on age, race, national origin, religious beliefs, gender, disability, pregnancy or veteran status. But other issues are fair game (thus the sign “No shoes, no shirt, no service”). Whether it’s worth it is another matter.

“Any time a restaurant company or a brand takes a political stand these days, the country is so polarized they run the risk of losing as many customers as they can gain,” said Allen Adamson, co-founder of branding firm Metaforce.

Staff’s concerns: The Red Hen’s co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson told The Washington Post that her staff had called her to report Sanders was in the restaurant. She cited several reasons, including the concerns of several restaurant employees who were gay and knew Sanders had defended Trump’s desire to bar transgender people from the military.

It’s a risk to act out on political beliefs based on what your staff thinks – but it’s a gamble to ignore them, too.

Small businesses must ensure they’re paying attention to their customers and employees and making sure their message stays on brand, said Andrew Park, vice president at customer experience management company InMoment.

“If you’re in touch with customers and understand what your employees think, you have a shared group of values and you’re in a better situation to make the right call when you need to,” he said.

A restaurant in a “blue state bubble” might gain from a move such as Red Hen’s, he said, but many people on both sides of the spectrum also thought the restaurant “shouldn’t punish people for their political views.”

Be prepared: While the Red Hen incident happened in the moment, a small business making a foray into politics works best when there’s a game plan, said Tina Cassidy, executive vice president and chief content officer of public relations firm Inkhouse.

“What we would recommend from a PR perspective is if you’re going to be a business and take a stand on an issue, that you have thought through the next steps attached to it,” she said. The Red Hen owner, she said, could have used the limelight as an opportunity to talk in greater depth about how she wants the nation to behave, or hopes for employees, or how policies the Trump administration put in place affect the workforce.

“You want to tie it to a higher cause, bigger meaning or specific outcome you want to see in the world,” she said. “Without that, it’s just a one-off protest.”

In the end, the best strategy is to be considerate, Cassidy said.

“It’s hard to lose when you lead with kindness in terms of how you’re communicating.”