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How should restaurants react to political protests? Here's what one D.C. establishment plans to do


WASHINGTON (Circa) -- In today's political environment, high-profile politicians get noticed while doing something as simple as eating at a restaurant, and the results of that have put the hospitality industry in a predicament.

Sen. Ted Cruz recently experienced this trend while dining with his wife at a Washington, D.C. Italian restaurant on September 24. He was confronted by protesters critical of his support for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, causing him and his wife to leave.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had a similar experience when a group of protesters from the Democratic Socialists of America heckled her while she was dining at D.C. Mexican restaurant. The protesters took issue with her role in the Trump administration's policy separating immigrant children from parents caught crossing the border illegally. She also eventually left the establishment.

Later that same month, the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders to leave while she was dining with her family.

"I was asked to leave because I worked for President Trump," said Sanders during a White House press conference on June 25.

The trend has raised a national debate: how should restaurants respond to these situations? And should they be taking a political stance?

To get a sense of what it is like for a restaurant to serve high-profile politicians, we visited the Occidental Grill restaurant. Located just steps from the White House, the Occidental has catered to politicians of all types for more than a century. It has attracted so many of D.C.'s political elite that it's motto is "where statesmen dine."

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"We aren't really political," said the Occidental's manager Travis Gray in an interview. "We do cater to everybody. Everybody eats, whether you are from a red state or a blue state."

While the Occidental doesn't take stances, it still has to prepare to handle high-profile clientele. In addition to it's own security, the restaurant's staff has often worked with the Secret Service.

"We can secure whatever space they want, and they pretty much take care of the rest," said Gray. "It's kind of a D.C. thing. They're used to going to restaurants, scoping places out, figuring out entrances, exits. That type of thing. They're usually pretty easy to work with."

Gray hasn't had a major problem with political figures in his five years managing the Occidental, but Secret Service agents are trained to handle a potentially raucous situation.

"A lot of times you have to have this fine balance of access control," said former Secret Service agent Melanie Lentz. "When does somebody need their access revoked? Have they crossed the line, or are they exercising free speech? That sort of thing."

The confrontations haven't caused major safety problems yet, but it's something restaurants may have to plan for in today's political climate.

Circa's Natalie Fertig contributed to this report.

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