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Red Hen in Swedesboro: We absolutely did not kick out Sarah Huckabee Sanders

Swedesboro's Red Hen restaurant has no affiliation with similarly named dining spot in Lexington, Va. But the latter's decision to refuse service Friday to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made for a rough weekend for the Gloucester County restaurant.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders photographed earlier this month in the White House Briefing Room.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders photographed earlier this month in the White House Briefing Room.Read moreJACQUELYN MARTIN / AP

Swedesboro's Red Hen restaurant would like to make one thing perfectly clear: If Sarah Huckabee Sanders ever wants to drop in at this New Jersey eatery, she would be welcomed just like anyone else.

So said host Tommy Smith on Sunday – a day after a flood of angry callers, upset Facebook posters, and vengeful Yelp reviewers began inundating the Gloucester County dining spot.

Animating the rage? A tweet from the presidential spokesperson herself saying she had been asked to leave a similarly named restaurant, in Virginia because of her prominent role in the Trump administration.

It took only minutes for the online mob to lash out – and aim their pitchforks at the wrong target.

"I was answering the phone every five minutes to swearing, cursing, vile things – people wishing our business would go under," Smith said in an interview Sunday. "Their anger was really overpowering. It really stinks."

The restaurant's managing partner, Elizabeth Pope, said she had never seen anything like it in the six years since the restaurant has been open.

"The onslaught has been relentless," Pope said. "Some people called to congratulate us, but mostly they were threatening us, saying they were going to burn us down or hurt our staff. But they all have the wrong place. We've probably taken about 600 phone calls related to that."

Pope's restaurant – a family-style American joint that, according to a 2014 South Jersey Magazine poll, serves up some of the best burgers in the region – has no affiliation with the Red Hen in Lexington, Va., the one that turned away Sanders on Friday.

Still, the calls, bad reviews and one-star ratings on social media kept coming,  prompting the restaurant to take to Facebook on Sunday to declare its lack of affiliation.

"Kindly check your facts before you erroneously defame an innocent business on Facebook in an attempt to destroy their business," the restaurant's management wrote.

That message only seemed to stoke anger from the all sides of the political spectrum.

"So you are OK with liars and traitors?" one woman responded.

Another shot back: "It isn't enough to voice this, you should go much further and apologize [to Sanders]. Your statement is hateful rhetoric and shows your true feelings. You are just trying to save your 'bacon.'"

Smith's eatery was hardly alone in feeling the social media heat. Other similarly named restaurants – including an Italian-inspired Red Hen restaurant in Washington, D.C., and a Red Hen Bistro in Old Saybrook, Conn. – also pleaded Sunday for tolerance, or at least a basic recognition of the facts.

Pope speculated that perhaps people were targeting hers and other similarly named restaurants because they could not find the social media pages of the restaurant that turned Sanders away.

The owner of that establishment – Stephanie Wilkinson –  didn't back down in an interview Saturday with the Washington Post. Sanders, she said, worked for an "inhumane and unethical" administration.

Wilkinson said she was concerned that several of her employees, who are gay, might be offended by the spokesperson's presence, given the Trump administration's attempts to ban transgender people from the military.

"I explained that the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation," Wilkinson told the Post. "I said, 'I'd like to ask you to leave.'"

Back at Swedesboro's Red Hen, Pope, the managing partner, said that, despite the torrent of negativity that Wilkinson's decision unleashed on her restaurant over the last two days, most diners have been supportive – though one couple, she said, did try to quiz her on whom she voted for in the 2016 election.

Though Smith jokingly told customers Sunday he'd comp a meal for Sanders if she were ever to drop by, both he and Pope insisted that offer should not be read as an indication of their political leanings, but, rather, as a offer of inclusiveness toward any customer that walks through their doors.

"That's private," Pope said of her own thoughts on the Trump administration. "I run a business, not a political party."

Some regulars, such as Tana Sammons, 67, of Swedesboro, came out Sunday specifically to support the restaurant amid the storm of negativity.

"I thought, 'You know what, I don't have anything else to do today, so I'm going to walk over,'" she said. "I walked right up to the bar and said, 'I'm here for the Sarah Sanders special.'"