LEXINGTON — One year ago yesterday, the owner of The Red Hen in Lexington asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders to leave her restaurant. News of the incident spread across the country within minutes after Sanders tweeted about what happened.
Protesters gathered outside the restaurant with signs, chants and, in one case, chicken poop. The Red Hen’s phone line was hacked, fake Yelp reviews caused its ratings to dip and dozens of people made fake reservations. It closed for 10 days as national media converged on the 7,000-person city. President Donald Trump joined in on Twitter to call the restaurant dirty.
The city’s director of marketing, Patty Williams, said the tourism office received thousands of letters and phone calls after the incident, many from people who said they would never visit the area again. But according to a survey conducted by the region’s tourism office and the city’s tax records, the incident seems to have had little effect on Lexington.
Sanders visited The Red Hen, a 26-seat, farm-to-table restaurant on Washington Street, on June 22. The chef called the owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, to ask what to do because some of the employees felt uncomfortable serving Sanders. Wilkinson told The Washington Post, the only media outlet she has spoken to about the incident, that she drove to the restaurant, huddled with her employees and asked what they wanted her to do. In the end, she asked Sanders to leave.
The national response shocked the region. The local tourism board, which includes representatives from Lexington, Rockbridge County and Buena Vista, pulled together emergency funds to increase digital marketing and to spread positive messages of the area, especially Lexington, which brings in the largest number of tourists.
The tourism office agreed to spend an additional $5,000 per month from the office’s emergency fund from July through September. The office receives 0.8% of the lodging and meals tax collected from each locality. About 20% of its annual budget, which is around $800,000, is put into a reserve for emergencies.
The board also requested a survey be done on the perceptions of Lexington and the surrounding area after the incident.
Performed by Gray Research Solutions of Nashville, Tenn., the study involved interviews with people from Roanoke, Richmond, Norfolk and Washington, D.C., about whether they remembered the incident, where it took place and what effect it would have on their decision to visit Lexington.
On average, about 77% of people were aware of the incident at The Red Hen with Sanders, and 66% of those people knew it happened in Lexington. About 75% of respondents said the incident had no impact on their interest in traveling to Lexington. Only 12% said it did, and the rest responded maybe. The survey concluded, overall, only 13% of the 400 surveyed said they were less interested in visiting Lexington because of The Red Hen incident.
The city’s meals and lodging taxes were steady in the immediate aftermath of the incident and have been throughout the past year.