Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Is It OK for Bartenders to Take a Political Stance at Work?

Alex Testere

In June, Chicago’s famed Aviary bar made national headlines when one of its employees allegedly committed an act of violence protesting a member of the Trump family. According to local news, the president’s son, Eric Trump, was confronted and spit on by an unnamed female server who was immediately placed in handcuffs by the secret service. The Alinea Group, which owns The Aviary, released a statement about the incident, stating that “no customer should ever be spit on.” Trump declined to press charges, and the employee is now on leave.

The story sparked a firestorm in the beverage community, making the rounds in group chats and Facebook forums. Comments and responses ranged from “every guest should be treated equally” and “leave politics out of bars” to “he should have never been allowed in the establishment” and “spitting is a bit soft when the regime are currently keeping babies in cages.”

With such a wide range of impassioned opinions, the discussion became a compelling litmus test for how far, and to whom, hospitality should be extended. When I posited the question on social media, “Is it ever OK to spit on Eric Trump?” the responses revealed deep divides in how folks view the role of the service industry.

“Douchebag or not, politician or not—physical altercations with customers are never a good thing,” wrote Las Vegas restaurant manager Nick Palmeri in one industry Facebook page, echoing many others who each invoked the fundamental codes of hospitality.

“Douchebag or not, politician or not—physical altercations with customers are never a good thing.”—Nick Palmeri

Acclaimed Washington, D.C., bartender Trevor Frye took it one step further in denouncing the act, saying the employee was not only unprofessional but selfish: “I will never set the precedent that an employee is allowed to commit assault in front of guests and that assault be excused. ... They put their co-workers’ income at risk.”

Others sympathized with, and even cheered on, the employee’s motives but not her method. “Though any of the Trump cohort deserve it, spitting on them only feeds their persecution claims and demeans the spitter,” said Tuthilltown Spirits co-founder Ralph Erenzo. Francine Cohen, an industry expert and editor-in-chief at Inside F&B, agreed. “Tempting as it may be to spit on Eric Trump, it’s not going to change anyone’s behavior,” she says. “And then because the message gets lost in the method, Trump gets to cry victim.”

Many suggested Trump should have been turned away to begin with. As someone who has worked as a bartender, I’m inclined to agree. Removing him from the situation would have allowed the bar to make a principled stand and rob Eric Trump of the opportunity to plead his case to conservative outlets like Breitbart.

“It should have never reached that point,” says Caitlin Laman, the co-founder of bar conference Chicago Style. She believes that bars and restaurants should have policies in place that protect employees who feel unsafe in the workplace. After all, it’s well-documented that hospitality workers often represent the very groups targeted by the administration’s policies, making it likely that those asked to serve might feel uncomfortable or even unsafe.

“Until everyone can have a safe space, I don’t think anyone is particularly entitled to one.”—Aaron Polsky

While the specifics of the incident and its handling could be debated endlessly, the controversy and polarization it generated poses salient questions about the meaning and purpose of hospitality. Fundamentally, we know universal hospitality means providing service and safety to any patron regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or political affiliation. Yet if we believe hospitality extends beyond the walls of our bars, shouldn’t we also stand up against those who’ve attacked women, minorities and marginalized communities, the same way we would happily throw out a belligerent patron who was harassing other guests?

It’s an argument that has been brought up several times as Trump family members and White House staff are met with resistance in restaurants and bars. Just a couple of days before the Chicago incident, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen in Lexington, Va., after gay staff members asked the restaurant’s owners to politely request she leave. And just before that, then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and White House policy advisor Stephen Miller both encountered hecklers as they dined at two D.C. Mexican restaurants.

“I think what Eric Trump and others have been shown was that they do not have a safe space in certain cities, and maybe now they know the value of a safe space,” says Los Angeles bartender Aaron Polsky. “It’s very rich in irony. Until everyone can have a safe space, I don’t think anyone is particularly entitled to one.”

Yet such acts of protest are often met with calls for civility. Yi Chen, a bartender at The Aviary’s sister location in New York City, says this is naive if not harmful, underscoring the very notion of civility as a tool for maintaining the status quo. “It’s pedantic to refer to the tenets of hospitality when we all know scenarios like this are much more nuanced,” says Chen. “I’m not saying that the employee was correct, but for those vehement that she was wrong, remember that civility is and always has been a tool of white supremacy and those with privilege and power.”

“I believe the lack of open discourse in bars is an underlying reason why we, as a nation, are currently so divided.”—Sother Teague

I agree with Chen that calling for civility after incidents of protest only serves to victimize those whose inhumane policies are being protested. But I still hope for a day when open civil discourse can be our first instinct. And if we’re to break out of our social media echo chambers and tackle the misunderstandings among our fellow citizens that engender fear and hate, maybe it’s time we do away with the “no politics at the bar” policy.

To that end, Sother Teague, the owner of NYC bars Amor y Amargo and Honeybee’s and co-founder of anti-Trump collective Coup, believes we should recenter political discourse at bars, nodding to the well-documented history of pubs and saloons as such open forums.

“Historically, bars were the exact place where people gathered to discuss everything from the weather to crop yields to, yes, even politics,” says Teague. “Somehow, we’ve slowly gravitated to a place where that notion is not only frowned upon but considered taboo. I believe the lack of open discourse in bars is an underlying reason why we, as a nation, are currently so divided.”

But divided we are, at least for now. Maybe in 50 years history will favor those who stood up against Trump and his enablers, even in small ways. And if that’s the case, bartenders and hospitality workers will have to answer a more existential question about what legacy they hope to leave and which side of history they want to stand on.