Ukrainian and American flags fly atop a Colton’s Steak House & Grill in Bardstown, Ky. (Photo courtesy of Ben Ashlock)
Ben Ashlock thought he had settled things with a customer complaining about the Ukrainian flag atop the Kentucky steakhouse he manages.
Ashlock had told the man about his personal connection to the war-torn country: he and his wife had adopted a teenage son from Ukraine three years earlier and had forged friendships in the process. When Russia invaded, he wanted to show his support.
The 41-year-old general manager of a Colton’s Steak House & Grill franchise thought that was it.
This was not the case. About half an hour later, the hate started coming from all fronts – the restaurant’s phone, the Facebook page, and the reviews on Google. Over the past week, the firestorm has continued to rage in Bardstown, a town of about 13,500 in central Kentucky. Ashlock, describing himself as a non-controversial person, said he planned to keep the flag until Russia leaves Ukraine.
“I would love to take down the flag…because it would mean they’re not at war anymore,” he said.
Ashlock and his wife of 19 years, Darrci, forged lifelong friendships in Ukraine while there to adopt their son. The 16-year-old is one of the couple’s 13 children – eight biological and five adopted or in the process of adoption.
When the Russian army attacked on February 24, Ashlock felt helpless. The steakhouse owner, who had helped Ashlock raise money for the adoption and paid for his three trips to Ukraine, flew the country’s blue and yellow flag a few days later. Ashlock decided to fly it outside the restaurant. Once he was in place, he took pictures and sent them to his friends in Ukraine.
“You just let them know that even in little old Kentucky we see you and support you,” he said, adding that he didn’t think that would be a problem.
And for over a month, that was not the case.
Until April 9 – what Ashlock called “that fateful Saturday”.
That afternoon, Ashlock was working when someone sent a direct message to Colton’s Facebook page: “My family is eating at Colton’s steakhouse, but won’t be eating there again until the Ukrainian flag is replaced with our national flag.”
Ashlock responded about 30 minutes later, explaining that the Ukrainian flag had not replaced an American flag, but one of two Texas state flags that the steakhouse uses to cultivate the theme of the Old West, old saloon of chain. Ashlock also spoke to the man about adopting his son “whose hometown is now in ruins and under occupation”.
“I’m sorry you feel this, though,” Ashlock wrote. “And I hope you reconsider.”
He thought that at worst they ended in an agree-to-disagree stalemate.
About half an hour later, its employees began noticing Facebook users flooding the restaurant’s page to accuse the workers of being disrespectful and unpatriotic. Some have sworn never to eat there again.
Then the phone started ringing. Ashlock took the first call, a man asking why he “took the flag down”. Again, Ashlock explained what happened before the food orders dragged him into the kitchen. He hung up the phone.
But it kept ringing. At one point, one of the restaurant hosts came up to him crying. “I felt awful,” he said.
During this time, the negative comments have been chained. Many have been deleted, but before they disappeared, Ashlock took screenshots, some of which he shared with The Post.
One of them said, “Take down that trash flag! Let Ukraine be razed!”
Another read: “It seems like the only thing you’ve accomplished by flying that foreign flag is to further divide your fellow Americans. We can’t even [sit] down to a meal these days without politics jumping out at you.”
“I hope the Ukrainian flag is gone,” said one user, adding a monocle face emoji. “I prefer my steak without the Nazi side.”
On Google, someone left a one star review on Colton’s: “Food tasted woke up, management are warmongers”
“I hate to say it, because I try to be thick-skinned,” Ashlock told the Post, “but it was hurtful.”
Ashlock said he tried a compromise. After the backfire and misunderstanding that they had replaced an American flag, Ashlock replaced the other Texas state flag with the Stars and Stripes. He consulted with military friends to ensure he practiced proper flag etiquette by flying it higher than that of Ukraine.
Doing this wasn’t a “crisis of conscience” – Ashlock said that was who he was. Twenty-five years of working in the service industry have trained him to be the first to apologize, defer to customers, and admit when he or the restaurant has made a mistake.
“I’ve never been in a difficult situation before where I couldn’t make someone happy and not violate my conscience.”
So far. While Ashlock said he was happy to fly the American flag, he didn’t think it would be fair to give in to demands to bring down Ukraine as people there – including his friends – fight for their freedom.
So he didn’t.
In a chain of steakhouses in the middle of Kentucky – more than 5,000 miles from its motherland – the Ukrainian flag is still flying.
Ben Ashlock, left, and the son he and his wife adopted from Ukraine, Zhenya David Ashlock, who is now 16. (Photo courtesy of Ben Ashlock)