Richmond restaurant refuses service to Family Foundation
Cites political stances as reason for canceled reservation
A German-inspired restaurant in Richmond canceled a reservation for a conservative political organization’s private event last week, saying in a statement posted online Thursday night that the decision was made to protect their staff, many of whom are women and/or part of the LGBTQ community. The Family Foundation, the organization that had made the reservation, opposes same-sex marriage and abortion, among other positions.
Metzger Bar and Butchery, in Richmond’s Union Hill neighborhood, posted a statement Thursday night on Instagram about the decision to cancel the Family Foundation’s reservation Wednesday. “Metzger Bar and Butchery has always prided itself on being an inclusive environment for people to dine in,” the restaurant said in the statement. “In eight years of service, we have very rarely refused service to anyone who wished to dine with us. Recently we refused service to a group that had booked an event with us after the owners of Metzger found out it was a group of donors to a political organization that seeks to deprive women and LGBTQ+ persons of their basic human rights in Virginia.”
Family Foundation President Victoria Cobb wrote in a blog post Thursday that the foundation’s vice president of operations got a call from Metzger about an hour and a half before the 7 p.m. Wednesday reservation notifying her of the cancellation.
“One of the restaurant’s owners called our team to cancel the event,” Cobb wrote in the post, which linked to Metzger’s Yelp page. “As our VP of operations explained that guests were arriving at their restaurant shortly, she asked for an explanation. Sure enough, an employee looked up our organization, and their waitstaff refused to serve us.”
In an interview Friday with Virginia Business, Cobb said her colleague, Erica Hanko, had reserved the private room at least a week or two earlier for a dessert event for about 15 to 20 people. On Wednesday at about 5:30 p.m., Cobb said, Hanko was on her way to the restaurant to check the room’s seating when she received a call from a Metzger representative who said they had to cancel, without explaining why. “She was honestly thinking, ‘Is this a COVID thing?'” because of the abrupt cancellation, Cobb said.
After Hanko asked the restaurant for the reason of the cancellation, Cobb said that she was told that a member of the waitstaff found out that the reservation was for the Family Foundation “and they had a lot of gay waitstaff,” who were presumably opposed to some of the organization’s political stances, which have included opposition to same-sex marriage and support for gay conversion therapy.
“We have always refused service to anyone for making our staff uncomfortable or unsafe, and this was the driving force behind our decision,” Metzger said in its statement. “Many of our staff are women and/or members of the LGBTQ+ community. All of our staff are people with rights who deserve dignity and a safe work environment. We respect our staff’s established rights as humans and strive to create a work environment where they can do their jobs with dignity, comfort and safety.”
As of Friday, Yelp had disabled the ability for people to post comments on Metzger Bar and Butchery’s page after it received numerous negative reviews related to the incident, quickly followed by several positive reviewers attempting to counteract the one-star reviews.
“This business recently received increased public attention, which often means people come to this page to post their views on the news,” Yelp’s notice read. “While we don’t take a stand one way or the other when it comes to this incident, we’ve temporarily disabled the posting of content to this page as we work to investigate whether the content you see here reflects actual consumer experiences rather than the recent events.”
When asked about the negative Yelp reviews of the business, which included one poster’s vow to “never set foot in a restaurant that bows to progressive employees who refuse to serve Christians” and another who wrote, “I have learned that only certain types of people are welcome at Metzger’s,” Cobb said, “I hope that their tone and approach is honorable. Even food service has now been polarized. It’s just disappointing that we can’t have a meal together.”
Cobb added that a website design company declined to design her foundation’s website for political reasons, and the former provider of its customer relationship management software, EveryAction, which became part of new parent company Bonterra in March, canceled the foundation’s contract, forcing the foundation to move its databases to a different system. “While many who hold the same beliefs may not experience this directly yet, we recognize we are on the tip of the spear,” Cobb wrote in her blog post.
Metzger co-owner and former “Top Chef” competitor Brittanny Anderson did not respond to messages Friday seeking further comment, but the restaurant’s Instagram account posted a photo Friday of a drink named “Cracks in the Foundation,” along with the announcement that it would donate all proceeds of the cocktail’s sales Friday to LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Virginia. “We are so grateful to our many guests and neighbors for their support the past few days!” the post read.
Cobb said Friday that Hanko was able to find another restaurant to seat her guests, all of whom were from the Richmond area. She declined to name that restaurant to shelter it from criticism, but said that it “happily accommodated us. We live in a free market, [so] we took our business elsewhere.”
Civil rights pioneer weighs in
In her blog post, Cobb mentioned an earlier instance in which a group was refused service — the 1960 Thalhimers department store lunch counter sit-in by 34 Black Virginia Union University students protesting racial segregation in Jim Crow-era Richmond. Cobb argued in her blog post that “people who likely consider themselves ‘progressives’” — meaning Metzger’s owners — are attempting to “recreate an environment from the 1950s and early ’60s, when people were denied food service due to their race. … Welcome to the double standard of the left.”
The 1960 Thalhimers lunch counter sit-in protesters, known as the Richmond 34, were arrested for trespassing and were recognized last year by the Virginia General Assembly for their enduring impact as part of the 20th-century Southern civil rights movement.
Elizabeth Johnson Rice, now an 82-year-old retired teacher living in Chesterfield County, was a member of the Richmond 34. She said the situation surrounding the Family Foundation and Metzger is somewhat different than the sit-in, one of numerous nonviolent protests conducted in the 1950s and ’60s to oppose racial discrimination against Black people. Those protests often led to arrests, violence against protesters and sometimes deaths.
On Feb. 22, 1960, Rice and her fellow protesters were arrested and charged with trespassing, taken to jail and then released on bail. In March 1960, they were all convicted of trespassing and fined $20 each, but the students all appealed the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the store owners’ right to forgo service. Ultimately, in 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a repeal of the 34 students’ convictions in a victory for the civil rights movement.
“We were going for equal justice for all,” Rice said Friday. “We were trespassing because we didn’t get service. [As Black people], if we wanted to eat anything [from Thalhimers’ lunch counter], we had to go into the alley and knock on the little door. That was really Jim Crow.”
Rice said that she still believes in equal rights for everyone today, including the right to marry someone of the same sex, but at the same time, she feels the Family Foundation party was “not being treated fairly” by Metzger Bar and Butchery. “Their reservation should be honored in 2022.”
Dining and culture wars
Restaurants have provided an occasional backdrop to the culture wars playing out in recent years, as some Trump-era White House officials were refused service or targeted by protesters while dining out. In the aftermath of such incidents, social media can amplify the political polarization and lead to prolonged problems for business owners and staff members.
In 2018, the owner of The Red Hen restaurant in Lexington asked then-White House Press Secretary and future Arkansas Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave her restaurant after her staff expressed their discomfort about serving Sanders’ party. The group left quietly and was not asked to pay for their drinks and appetizers that they had already been served.
But that incident — which eventually was recounted by President Donald Trump’s Twitter account and numerous national news outlets — led to months of hate mail and doxxing of the Red Hen’s owner, Stephanie Wilkinson. The restaurant’s Yelp reviews reflected the political divide.
In a phone interview Friday, Wilkinson said that although she wasn’t familiar with the particulars of the Metzger situation, “my feeling about the role of privately owned businesses following their moral conscience has not changed,” and she did not regret her decision to refuse service to Sanders, who was elected Arkansas’ first woman governor in November.
She said that her decision was based not specifically on Sanders’ political views; “it was about actions we found reprehensible.” (At the time, Wilkinson had cited Sanders’ support for Trump positions such as separating migrant children from their parents, as well as opposition to transgender people serving in the military.) Similarly, if Metzger’s owners and staff found the Family Foundation’s actions “morally repugnant,” Wilkinson said, “I think I agree with them” in their refusal to serve the organization at the restaurant.
But Wilkinson also posited a hypothetical scenario: If a different business’s owners objected to a political group or individual’s stance supporting abortion access and refused them service on that basis, she couldn’t object on moral grounds, even though Wilkinson personally supports the right to abortion.
In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court partially agreed with a bakery owner’s assertion that he could refuse a client service based on his religious convictions.
In 2012, the owner of a Colorado bakery refused to make a cake for the marriage of a gay couple based on his Christian beliefs. The couple filed a complaint to the state’s civil rights commission, which led to a lawsuit that reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019. The high court ruled 7-2 that the commission did not employ religious neutrality, violating baker Jack Phillips’ right to free exercise, although the court did not rule on broader issues like anti-discrimination laws, free exercise of religion and freedom of speech. Phillips is back in court now, having refused to bake a cake for a transgender woman’s transition celebration.
However, a case heard Monday by the Supreme Court — in which a Colorado graphic artist objects to designing websites for gay couples’ weddings on religious grounds — could have an impact. Critics say a ruling in the artist’s favor could lead to businesses discriminating against people based on race, religion or other factors.
“The hospitality industry is very tricky,” added Wilkinson, who opened The Red Hen in 2008 and has lived in Lexington for nearly 30 years. For customers, she said, a restaurant “feels like it ought to be part of a refuge. When these things happen, people have a visceral feeling of rejection. It feels like being booted out of your relative’s house.” And for employees, “it’s not just their job. There’s often this sense that [it’s] a family.”
The Red Hen continues to feel an impact from the Sanders incident, she said, with staff still fielding occasional “nasty messages” and the restaurant requiring a specialized reservation system that helps prevent nuisance reservations meant to keep real diners away. But also, Wilkinson says, “we continue to have people travel insane distances” to dine at the restaurant, and no longer does she “live and die by yesterday’s Yelp reviews and Google reviews. I’m liberated from having to look at that.”