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What the owner of the Red Hen could have learned from my Dad

After hearing the news of Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave a Virginia restaurant, I couldn’t help but think back to my days working in my father’s delicatessen when I was growing up. I started when I was thirteen, making sandwiches, slicing cold cuts, stocking the shelves, and acquiring business smarts you couldn’t get out of a book. We had nice customers; it was a waterfront Connecticut bedroom community of New York City. We fed the cops for half price; it was something most business did back in the day.

I was probably around sixteen when one day a regular customer came in and asked to speak to my father. He chatted with Dad for a while, told him he was running for political office and asked permission to put a campaign sign in the window. My father politely declined. The man nodded, shook his hand and moved on down the street to the next store.

After he left I had to ask my father why he had done that. “He’s a really good guy and a regular customer. How come you wouldn’t let him put his sign in the window? Now he’s not gonna come back.”

My father wrapped one arm around my shoulders. “When you’re in business, you can’t be political. Let’s figure half the people in this town will vote for him. The other half who don’t like him would see the sign and maybe not eat here anymore. So when you take a political side, you can lose half your customers. And don’t worry, he’ll be back.”

Of course back in those days the country wasn’t polarized. Conversations with customers were often about sports, the weather, and boating since it was a seaport town. Many regulars would often ask me how I was doing in school.

In the eight years I worked there, I can only remember my father asking two customers to leave. One was a sloppy drunk he tossed on New Year’s Eve, and the other was a parent who allowed her child to climb into the dairy case because he was “expressing  himself.” (Future snowflake.) Dad told her he could “express himself outside” and to take her business elsewhere.

As for the customer running for office, he still had lunch at our deli several times a week. He wasn’t upset about the sign, and totally understood my father’s position.

If only the owner of the Red Hen had worked for my Dad, she would have realized that getting political when you’re in business can chase away half your customers.

There’s an old saying about business: Do you want to make your sale, or make your point? The owner of the Red Hen made her point, but cost herself a lot of sales.

And maybe her entire business.

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