It seemed like such a nice name for a business.

But now a tiny Virginia restaurant has become the center of an intense political controversy--with President Trump even attacking it by name on Twitter this morning. 

And dozens of completely unrelated restaurants that happen to have chosen the same name (many years earlier in some cases) are suddenly paying a steep price for something they could never have predicted even days ago.

You've likely heard the outlines of the story behind all this. Over the weekend, Trump's press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was asked to leave a restaurant called The Red Hen in Lexington, Va., because its owner and many of the workers vehemently oppose Trump's policies.

Huckabee tweeted about her experience, and The Red Hen is suddenly either famous or notorious, depending on your politics. 

People who have never been anywhere near the restaurant weighed in on Yelp, Google, TripAdvisor, and other review sites--with either vehement praise or disgust.

The result of all the sudden interest? Actually, it basically evens out, with a 2.5-star rating across the board. Conservatives dragged its reputation down, while liberals pumped it up. (Hmmm, even while I was writing this, the average dipped from 2.5 to 2 stars. But the point stands.)

In the end, it will probably be a big win for this particular restaurant, since it turned into a progressive icon overnight. But some other restaurants are getting completely screwed in the process. 

That's because there are dozens of other restaurants in the U.S. that are also called The Red Hen, and indiscriminate reviewers--most of them negative--are attacking them on review sites, too.

Take the completely unrelated Red Hen in New York City, which has 11 reviews and a 4.5 average. Its two latest reviews, both posted since the completely unrelated controversy in Virginia:

  • The owner is awful! The food is discussing and the crew rude!!! Do not recommend this restaurant at all!
  • Courtesy is lacking due to ungodly prejudice.

The most recent previous review from last November?

The BEST Sandwiches!
Red Hen's just amazing; those sandwiches are among the best you'll ever encounter, anywhere.

Fox News reports that another completely unrelated restaurant, in Swedesboro, N.J. that also happened to have the same name, "was also lambasted by supporters of President Trump - receiving about 200 phone calls and seeing their Facebook rating plummet to 1-star. The eatery was also finally forced to go to social media to clear up the issue."

Even within the comments, some Facebook users are attacking the restaurant (or perhaps just trolling it), for not having taken a vehement enough stand against the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia. 

We can hope that all this will die down, at least for the Red Hen restaurants that have nothing to do with the controversy, but that are getting clobbered for now.

Meantime, five lessons for small business owners in all fields:

  1. Stay on top of your social media profiles and feeds. When comments like this take off, the only thing worse than that it happens is if you don't actually know that it's happening.
  2. Choose and build a unique brand. It's a lot harder for people to confuse you with someone else when you have a creative identity that you don't unwittingly share with others.
  3. Own your relationship with your best customers. The Red Hen in New Jersey might be okay here, if they can quickly reach out to regular diners, assure them they're not at all related to the Virginia kerfuffle, and ask them directly for their support.
  4. If you're going to choose sides in something like this, the only choice is to go all-in. Far better to have a few hundred or thousand passionate supporters, even if matched by an even number of detractors, than to have a larger customer base that just thinks you're so-so. 
  5. Finally, remember that this too shall pass--and there will almost certainly be another roller coaster rise or dip right around the corner. Welcome to entrepreneurship and business ownership. It goes with the territory.

Published on: Jun 25, 2018
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