A Black Lives Matter mask shut down the Girl & the Fig, showing the high stakes for restaurants that stand on sidelines

Like restaurants everywhere, Sonoma’s celebrated the Girl & the Fig restaurant has struggled due to the coronavirus pandemic over the past year, navigating temporary closures and reopenings as regulations changed. Wine Country wildfires last year added to the uncertainty for the usually thriving business.

But when it decided to shut its doors this week, neither health hazards nor climate change was to blame. Instead, a dispute over a server’s desire to support the Black Lives Matter movement by wearing a BLM face mask has gone viral and led to charges of racism. The former server said she felt pressured to quit over her support of a civil rights issue. The restaurant’s owner said it was about maintaining a uniform look for an upscale vibe. Now, both are receiving death threats, and some have threatened to burn the restaurant down.

It’s the latest blowup in a series of clashes over workplace dress codes, and whether political or social justice messaging should be allowed or encouraged. Some companies, such as Starbucks and Taco Bell, quickly reversed their bans on Black Lives Matter attire, while others, like Whole Foods, stood by their decision to prohibit logos and slogans. Often, the dispute involves a debate over whether Black Lives Matter is a political or human rights movement.

Those companies, though, are national chains. For independent restaurants like the Girl & the Fig, grappling with how to handle the issue can be critical to their survival, experts say. A younger generation of diners prefers to know the values of the businesses they patronize, with many saying that staying apolitical is a statement in itself. And with the downturn in sales due to the pandemic, any negative attention can be enough to sink a restaurant.

“With younger, more inclusive and more diverse groups coming into leadership and vocalizing their opinions and their stances on issues, it’s only going to grow stronger,” said Shaun Fletcher, a public relations professor with San Jose State University. “The younger generation, they’re not bound by the politics and the business parameters that older generations have been bound by.”

The Girl & The Fig is closed for an indefinite period in Sonoma, as the restaurant faces threats over its handling of a former server wearing a Black Lives Matter mask to work.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez / The Chronicle

Almost since it opened in 1997, the Girl & the Fig has been a Wine Country destination, beloved for its French-influenced cuisine using local ingredients. Its owner, Sondra Bernstein, is widely respected in the Bay Area restaurant industry. The restaurant became a hotspot for celebrities like Lady Gaga and New York Times writers who found a charming and, in many ways, old-school restaurant where service is paramount and duck confit is almost always on the menu.

The restaurant’s uniform look for staff — a crisp white shirt and green apron — has long been part of the employee handbook. With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, and the added impact of wildfire smoke, face masks became standard, but the restaurant’s roughly 50 employees were allowed to wear masks they chose.

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