Red Hen backlash strikes Old Saybrook restaurant

Old Saybrook — Shelley Deproto, the owner of the Red Hen restaurant on Main Street, received a Google text late Saturday morning that simply said “Boycott.”

It seemed strange to Deproto, especially when it was followed up by others that became "even more hateful and threatening."

That’s when someone mentioned to her that on Friday night, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant named the Red Hen in Lexington, Va., something that angered many people after she tweeted about the incident. The Virginia restaurant has no connection with the Old Saybrook eatery other than they share the same name.

At first, Deproto though it was just a few angry people who were confused, since the Virginia Red Hen is 520 miles to the south.

That changed when she got to the restaurant just past noon and saw there were 50 phone messages waiting for her.

“They were threatening, absolutely hateful, some really angry people,” she said Sunday night. “It was nasty. They said we’re going to get you.”

She said the calls from across the country kept coming Saturday at a rate of about one a minute. They continued throughout the night and into Sunday.

Even after she said she tried to explain to some callers she had no connection with the Lexington restaurant, she said they continued their rants, saying she probably would have treated Sanders the same. Others placed fake take-out orders.

The most damage came online as people made fake reservations on Seat Me, a Yelp-affiliated system also used by the Red Hen in Virginia. She said they clogged up the system and made it impossible for real patrons to make a reservation.

Her Yelp rating, which had been 4.5 out of 5 before Friday night, plummeted to a 2, something she said can do real damage to her 45-seat restaurant that serves dinner and employs a dozen people.

“This is our livelihood. People here depend on this restaurant,” she said.

A Yelp user named Karen S. from Warsaw, Ind., posted this on Saturday: “I'm so disgusted with Red Hen. I will never, ever patronize any of these restaurants.”

Wayne F. from North Carolina wrote: “I don't care if this place has great food, they suck! Don't ever go eat at this place, they are non-american, a bunch of losers!!!!!

Posters from Peoria, Ariz., and Las Vegas accused the restaurant of selling old meat, poor food handling and warned patrons to check the lettuce.

And Anita T. from Boylston, Mass., wrote: “so sad you had to discriminate against someone whose views you disagreed with. Shameful.”

Supporters of the restaurant, though, took to Facebook to back Deproto.

"Sorry this is happening to you. Your food is fantastic. We had the best server the other night," wrote one.

"Lexington, Virginia, according to my old geography class, is NOT Old Saybrook, CT.," wrote another.   

Deproto said she has tried to contact websites such as Yelp, Facebook, and Trip Advisor to undo the damage being posted by the angry people. She said Yelp has agreed to take way the posts that began Saturday and lowered her rating. She has yet to be able to reach Trip Advisor or Facebook.

“This has gone beyond freedom of speech. This is causing real damage,” she said.

Deproto said she respects the Lexington Red Hen’s right to make its own decision, but at her restaurant “we don’t talk politics.”

“We like to spread love. We’re here to serve. We want people to relax and enjoy a meal,” she said.

While Deproto knows the calls will tail off, she said the online damage is what she’s worried about as people often use Yelp and Trip Advisor ratings to decide what restaurants to visit. Other Red Hens in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., have reported similar problems.

“You can’t make this up,” she said.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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