Wursthall owner Kenji Lopez-Alt stokes the culture war and sparks local debate with controversial stance.

Inside Wursthall in San Mateo. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

Before it was deleted Thursday morning, local restaurant owner and star chef Kenji Lopez-Alt’s tweet declaring a ban on any restaurant customers wearing red Make America Great Again hats drew more than 2,000 likes and more than 200 retweets.

“It hasn’t happened yet, but if you come to my restaurant wearing a MAGA cap, you aren’t getting served, same as if you come in wearing a swastika, white hood, or any other symbol of intolerance and hate,” the owner of Wursthall in San Mateo and well-known cookbook author tweeted on Sunday.

Online reaction was swift and mixed. Some lauded Lopez-Alt for taking a political stand and said they would go out of their way to dine at his restaurant because of it. Others criticized him for being “narrow minded” and discriminatory.

“You are tempting the scales of fate for this one…I agree with you and hope that your restaurant stays safe,” Tovan Tran wrote, to which Lopez-Alt replied: “Well we don’t make change by being quiet.”

Lopez-Alt declined to comment “due to staff safety concerns.” Soon after the San Francisco Chronicle published a story on his tweet Thursday morning, the tweet was removed. A related tweet from the weekend — “MAGA hats are like white hoods except stupider because you can see exactly who is wearing them.” — was also deleted by late Thursday morning.

A view of Wusthall’s bar and communal dining area, as seen from a second-floor mezzanine. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

In a statement posted on Friday, Lopez-Alt apologized to his staff, partners and anyone who may have interpreted his tweet as a “message of hate.”

“Symbols have power and meaning and can mean different things to different people at different times and in different contexts. After having seen the red hat displayed so prominently in so many moments of anger, hate, and violence, to me — and many others — the hat began to symbolize exactly that: anger, hate, and violence. This was the context my tweet was meant to communicate.

“Unfortunately the way I tried to communicate this ended up only amplifying the anger, and I apologize for that,” he wrote.

Wursthall’s Yelp page started to take a hit on Thursday with a flood of one-star critical reviews citing the tweet. “Very confused as to what my hat has to do with Pretzels and Franks,” a Hayward Yelper wrote. “But you lost a customer.” Yelp’s support team was monitoring Wursthall’s page for “content due to media reports” by early afternoon. Fox News picked the story up.

Michael Haobsh, public relations officer for the San Mateo Police Department, said Thursday that police are “aware and monitoring the situation.”

It’s shades of Red Hen, the Virginia restaurant who kicked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders out mid-meal last year, sparking a political firestorm. The restaurant was forced to close for two weeks after protests and online harassment.

Wursthall opened in San Mateo last March to highly favorable reviews. (Image via Yelp)

The tweets were not out of character for Lopez-Alt, a frequent and unapologetically blunt poster who tweets about everything from mac and cheese and potty training his daughter to Bob Mueller’s Russia investigation and the Kavanaugh hearings. Earlier this month, he reposted a tweet about protesting Oakland restaurants owned by Charlie Hallowell, who has been accused of sexual harassment.

In his statement, Lopez-Alt said that “Wursthall will continue, as it always has, to serve all customer regardless of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual preference, gender orientation, disability, or political opinion — so long as they leave hate, anger, and violence outside of the doors of our restaurant.”

His tweet begs the question: Should restaurant owners and chefs make political statements? Should they refuse service based on a customer’s political beliefs?

We asked other local chefs and owners for their thoughts. Here’s what they said, edited for clarity and length.

Jarad Gallagher, Chez TJ, Mountain View:

I think that restaurants should be a protected place and food establishments should be a protected place where politics don’t get involved. I also think in this great and odd country of ours that people don’t have to serve anybody they want.

I think by and large as a whole those things would be really damaging in time to the hospitality industry. I don’t think that’s what our role should be. That’s also not to say that LeBron James shouldn’t talk about politics. He shouldn’t shut up and dribble …It’s just I don’t understand how that adds value to our industry. Restaurants are meant to be places where people are having intellectual conversations and free-thinking ideas, not socialism controls.

Guillaume Bienamie, Zola, Palo Alto:

Sounds like a publicity stunt. He’s not changing anything aside from making it clear that he doesn’t believe in the first amendment of the United States Constitution. I guess it’s his right since it’s a private business but it sets a dangerous precedent. I’m not sure how this is any different from discrimination? I will say it’s rude to wear a hat in a restaurant to begin with. Learn some manners.

Go run for city council if you want to make a difference. He’s not doing anything other than feeding his own ego.

Dylan O’Brien, Prizefighter Bar, Emeryville

Via Twitter: I used to say that it wasn’t my place as a bar owner to get involved in politics in any way professionally. We provide a public space that is safe and where people can discuss whatever they want to as long as its civil and respectful. Different times now. We’re a MAGA-free zone.

Andrew Chau and Bin Chen, Boba Guys

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of a longer statement posted on the Boba Guys’ website. Chau said they were debating whether to post it and decided “it’s too close to home to our core values.”

We always say that “dialogue wins.” It’s the only way to start the healing process that we are desperately in need of, so we will say on record: if someone with a MAGA hat comes in, we would serve them a huge dose of love and acceptance in addition to our boba. Now, if they display behavior like saying coded threats or showing signs of escalation and don’t want dialogue, we will gladly show them the door. Btw, we support audience clapping on the way out as it’ll make our security footage much more entertaining!

Dialogue has to go both ways. If someone simply makes a purchase and doesn’t cause trouble, we believe our ability to bridge cultures will make a bigger impact down the road. The MAGA hat wearer should already know we are Progressives given our ethos, locations, and content, so we don’t need to shove it down their throats. High road, long game.

In the end, we have to learn that it’s all contextual and nuanced — something we, as a society, forgot along the way. We probably don’t have many MAGA-supporting customers, but if they happen to be reading this, know that we will never see eye to eye and our value systems could not be further apart. But if they still come in knowing all that, we will gladly serve them. Our balls taste like magic.

And if we ever come into their turf wearing our Boba Guys Pride or “Progress, Not Perfection” shirts, we expect the same treatment.

Jesse Cool, Flea St. Cafe, Menlo Park

Many times I sit next to people who I know obviously don’t think the way I do and as a business owner I clearly have a position on what is just and respectful but we all have to sit and talk with each other. I wouldn’t want to be treated that way because of my beliefs. … But if someone’s disrespectful to me, my staff or my guests, they are asked to leave.

Honestly if Trump came in the door I could not let him in. That wouldn’t work. But that’s different. That’s one personality.

We have to have our voice. His (Lopez-Alt’s) voice might be different than mine. I’m not going to ridicule anything. We’re a sanctuary restaurant. I got so much hate mail for that …It was ugly. It was shocking to me. … But we stood up for the way we believed in expressing our sentiment, politics and protection of the people who are in our family and who work with us to take care of others. I think thats what he’s saying. I applaud him because he’s stepping up and doing something instead of nothing.

I think that we are human beings in business in our communities. When you look back at other situations where there’s been genocide or great misunderstanding or injustice — we have to stand up when we feel injustice, and this is a time of injustice. I don’t think it’s restaurants or not restaurants.

Thanasis Pashalidis, Taverna, Palo Alto

Anyone that represents a brand or any kind of restaurant, I think it’s not only common sense in your own family …but especially in a business, you leave politics and religion off the table. Those ingredients do not belong on the table.

It’s adding more to the hostility and potential discrimination. The more you add fuel to the fire, it’s going to get worse.

Singling out somebody and discriminating (against them)… whether you’re transgender, gay, lesbian or political … all those thing should be left at the door when you’re dining in a restaurant. … What is hospitality based on? What is a restaurant based on? A person coming to eat.

If someone came in wearing a Klu Klux Klan white hat I’d say, ‘Get the hell out,’ too. If someone had a swastika tattoo on his forehead: ‘Sorry, sir.’ … I would not categorize a political affiliation with a symbol of hate.

I think religion and politics do not belong on the dinner table. Let’s keep it to food.

I don’t think hats belong in a restaurant anyway.

Cassava, San Francisco

Via Twitter: We once had an older gentleman coming in wearing a red joke hat saying “Make America something Again” (can’t remember the joke word) during a busy Sunday brunch and all of us froze and we looked at each other. It was scary.

But then our first instinct was to treat him the same as all other guests. I, an immigrant woman, decided I go to the table, so the staff won’t have to deal with him. When I saw it was the joke hat, I almost cried and I was laughing with the table with tears about it.

While I respect where he’s (Lopez-Alt) coming from as we are not fans of the hat either, I wonder if he thought of his staff who have to enforce his controversial policy. In the current climate it can jeopardize their safety. Or is he there everyday to enforce it himself?

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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