Ben Ashlock thought he had settled things with a customer complaining about the Ukrainian flag atop the Kentucky steakhouse he manages.
The 41-year-old general manager of a Colton’s Steak House & Grill franchise figured that was it.
It wasn’t. About a half-hour later, hate started coming from all fronts — the restaurant’s phone, Facebook page and reviews on Google. Over the past week, the firestorm has kept raging in Bardstown, a city of about 13,500 in central Kentucky. Ashlock, describing himself as an uncontroversial person, said he had planned to keep the flag up until Russia left Ukraine.
“I would love to take the flag down … because that would mean that 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 being adopted.
When the Russian military attacked on Feb. 24, Ashlock felt helpless. The owner of the steakhouse, who had helped Ashlock raise money for the adoption and paid for all three of the trips he took to Ukraine, sent the country’s blue-and-yellow flag days later. Ashlock decided to fly it outside the restaurant. Once it was up, he took photos and sent them to his friends in Ukraine.
“You just let them know, even in little old Kentucky, we see you, and we’re supporting you,” he said, adding that he didn’t think it would be a problem.
And for more than a month, it wasn’t.
Until April 9 — what Ashlock called “that fateful Saturday.”
That afternoon, Ashlock was working when someone sent the Colton’s Facebook page a direct message: “My family eats at Colton’s steakhouse, but will not eat there again until the Ukrainian flag is replaced with our national Flag.”
Ashlock replied about 30 minutes later, explaining that Ukraine’s flag had not replaced an American one but one of two Texas state flags the steakhouse uses to cultivate the chain’s Wild West, old saloon theme. Ashlock also told the man about adopting his son “whose hometown is now in ruins and under occupation.”
“I am sorry you feel this way, though,” Ashlock wrote. “And I hope you’ll reconsider.”
He thought that, at worst, they ended in an agree-to-disagree stalemate.
His employees soon started noticing Facebook users swarming the restaurant’s page to tar workers as disrespectful and unpatriotic. Some vowed 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 had happened before food orders pulled him into the kitchen. He passed off the phone.
But it kept ringing. At one point, one of the restaurant’s hosts came to him crying. “I felt horrible,” he said.
Meanwhile, the negative comments kept coming. Many were removed, but before they disappeared, Ashlock took screenshots, some of which he shared with The Post.
One said: “Take that trash flag down! May Ukraine be leveled to the ground!”
Another read: “It seems the only thing you accomplished flying this foreign flag is to further divide your fellow americans. One can’t even [sit] down to a meal these days without having politics flown in ones face.”
“I hope that Ukrainian flag is gone,” one user said, adding a face-with-monocle emoji. “I prefer my steak without a side of Nazi.”
Over on Google, someone left a one-star review of Colton’s: “food tasted woke, management is a war monger.”
“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 blowback and misunderstanding that they had replaced an American flag, Ashlock swapped out the other Texas state flag for the Stars and Stripes. He consulted with military friends to make sure he was practicing proper flag etiquette by flying it higher than the Ukrainian one.
Doing that wasn’t a “crisis of conscience” — Ashlock said that’s who he is. Twenty-five years working in the service industry have trained him to be the first to apologize, to defer to customers, and to admit when he or the restaurant has made a mistake.
“I’ve never been in a predicament before where I couldn’t make someone happy and not, like, violate my conscience.”
Until now. While Ashlock said he was happy to fly the American flag, he didn’t think it would be right to cave in to demands to take down Ukraine’s as people there — including his friends — fight for their freedom.
At a steakhouse chain in the middle of Kentucky — more than 5,000 miles away from its mother country — the Ukrainian flag still flies.