Ben Ashlock, 41, is the general manager of the establishment called Colton’s Steak House & Grill, which is located in Bardstown, Kentucky. Having worked at the steakhouse for nearly a decade, he’s become accustomed to fielding customer complaints and sorting out their issues quickly.
Last month, when a customer messaged the restaurant’s Facebook page and accused him of raising a Ukrainian flag in place of an American one, Ashlock wrote out a careful response on April 10. There was never an American flag on top of the steakhouse, he explained, and the flag of Ukraine had, in fact, replaced one of two flags that had been there and represented Texas. More, Ashlock noted that he’d put the flag of the sovereign nation currently under siege to support his adopted son, who comes from Ukraine.
Nearly three years ago, Ashlock and his wife adopted David, a 13-year-old boy from the now-war-torn country. Knowing that David had a number of medical conditions, including hydrocephalus, spina bifida and poor short-term memory, the couple decided to bring him into their family, which includes 12 other children, some of whom came from special needs adoption programs.
Seeing his son’s country in turmoil, Ashlock decided to show him a sign of support. For Ashlock, it was important for David and those either in Ukraine or displaced in other parts of the globe to know they were seen by others thousands of miles away, in his hometown. When the customer who sent the original email complaint didn’t reply, Ashlock assumed he’d understood his reasoning and that everything was resolved.
Then the restaurant’s phone began to ring.
One after one, calls flooded the steakhouse’s lines, clogging the receivers with complaints and lobbing accusations of anti-patriotism at Colton’s and its staff, as first reported by the Washington Post. Soon after, the Facebook messages came, as well as the social media posts from local and private groups.
“They were saying horrific things about the restaurant, how we weren’t patriots, and how (we’re) un-American,” Ashlock told TODAY Food. “It was so crazy how it just spiraled from one person who started spreading it everywhere. Then people started reacting to (that), and I’m not sure what the intent was, whether it was to flood us with phone calls to make us take the flag down immediately or if it was just to keep our phones tied up.”
Whatever the intention was, for Colton’s staff, the effects were damaging. Some of Ashlock’s team started to come to him in tears. With some people threatening to never return to the restaurant again over the flag, the anxiety of financial loss loomed overhead.
Still, Ashlock decided he would not take the flag down. Speaking with TODAY, he explained that doing so would have felt like a betrayal to his conscience.
“I didn’t feel like I was doing anything wrong," he said. "I knew I had to keep my support for Ukraine going."
Having worked in customer service for so many years, Ashlock knew he’d have to remedy the situation somehow. He asked another manager to quickly run out and pick up an American flag so that they could post it right beside the flag of Ukraine. He wanted to strike a balance and show those watching that his restaurant is still very much "pro-American" in its pro-Ukrainian expression.
"I have no problem with flying the American flag, too, because I love America. My son (David) loves America, as a matter of fact," Ashlock explained. "My son’s country is under attack, and specifically his hometown is under occupation right now … I have deep connections in that area."
One of those connections includes a friend who Ashlock says died soon after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Ashlock’s friend was a U.S. citizen and an adoption coordinator who was killed in sniper fire.
Fortunately, the response to Colton’s expression of supporting Ukraine hasn’t been all backlash, heartbreak and disparagement. In a Facebook post on April 18, Ashlock wrote, "The outpouring of support for David and his nation under duress has been incredibly encouraging and beautiful. Every state has been represented, and many countries have as well in their efforts to express solidarity."
In ways, it seems the support he’s received might have even outshined the bad. According to Ashlock, in recent weeks, Colton’s has received calls from every state across the country and served customers who have driven as far as Massachusetts to sit down and give the steakhouse their business.
“We’re seeing a lot of encouragement and a lot of love being spread out,” Ashlock told TODAY, noting that people have even come by to purchase gift cards to the restaurant to tend to homeless shelters, nurses and others in need of support. For him, this sort of support has the most impactful message of all, “just saying, ‘Hey, we’re here for you, we see Ukraine.’”