Anti-Vaxxers Came For Her Restaurants. Jen Agg Isn’t Backing Down

After years of taking on the food culture bro-triarchy, Toronto restaurant royalty Jen Agg is up against a new enemy. It all started in late July when she tweeted her support for vaccine passports, landing herself in the crosshairs of the anti-vax crowd. Since then, an angry mob has parked outside of her Hoofland restaurants every Saturday harassing her staff and customers with their aggression and noise (never mind the “aerosols floating around from unvaccinated, unmasked people,” says Agg). After going public with the situation — calling out Toronto mayor John Tory and Ontario premier Doug Ford — she is finally getting some back-up from the police.
Here, Agg talks to Refinery29 about what it’s like to be the lone target (helloooooo, Toronto restaurant peeps) and why she’s willing to take at least a little bit of credit for Ontario’s new vaccine passport policy.
Presumably you didn’t just wake up one morning to find yourself public enemy #1 of the anti-vax crowd. How did this happen?
I tweeted some support for vaccine passports and then that tweet became a “story” on BlogTO. That story mentioned my restaurant Bar Vendetta specifically, so that’s where the anti-vaxxers targeted first. Eventually they realized that there are three restaurants in that same area all owned by me and from there they got really comfortable. They’ve been there every Saturday since.
Can you set the scene for a typical Saturday?
It’s usually around 30 to 35 people. Often it’s the same people coming back again and again. There’s “Rod Stewart guy,” “dad guy,” who always brings his kid. They usually get going after five, chanting things like “fuck vaccine passports.” Just to be clear, I am not requiring proof of vaccination at any of my restaurants. We’re not doing indoor dining because I just don’t feel like it’s safe yet, but I honestly don’t think that these people get that or they don’t care. They have identified me as a target and that’s enough. Last week, they started bringing pots and pans to make even more noise, but honestly, it was violent-feeling from the beginning. They have pitched bicycles, they have caused accidents, they slow down traffic, they have caused people to fall over on the sidewalk.

This is about keeping restaurants open and making sure that we don’t go into another lockdown by making sure that we don’t have outbreaks in our restaurants.

Jen agg
How are diners reacting? You make an exceptional cocktail, but I’m not sure it’s worth getting COVID because a protester spit in their face. I am being literal. I saw a video on Twitter where a protester threatens to spit in one of your customer’s faces. 
Yeah, it’s a lot. But a lot of them will sort of dig in and stay. We have definitely had people going out of their way to show their support, which is wonderful and very appreciated.
Still you must be tempted to stay home on Saturdays or at least hang back in the kitchen?
It definitely upsets them more when I’m there — they chant my name, they scream at me — but I sit out in the chairs outside Vendetta all night long because I’m not going to leave my staff to deal with that without me. Not only is it verbally and aurally assaulting, it’s also aerosols floating around from unvaccinated, unmasked people screaming in the face of our staff, our diners, and me personally. I don’t see how that’s a peaceful protest.
Where are the police in all of this? 
Finally, this past Saturday they actually did something other than just stand there. They ensured that the “protesters” — note the air quotes — weren’t interfering with our business and they threatened to arrest anyone who yelled or made noise. I think because I went public with what has been happening last week I was finally able to get some support, but it shouldn’t be this hard to get the bare minimum.
Our customers and neighbours shouldn’t have to call 911. We called them ourselves one time because one of the protesters was kicking a customer’s bike and it felt very violent. The first responders were brutal. One was like “m'am, stop yelling.” I was like, "I’m not yelling, I’m wearing a mask in a loud restaurant and I’m frustrated." The other one asked what I had done to deserve this. [Editor’s note: When reached for comment, a Toronto Police spokesperson did not address this specific incident, but told Refinery29 that “everyone has the lawful right to peacefully protest and, in general, officers will monitor protests to ensure the safety of everyone and keep the peace... If crimes are committed, officers can make arrests at the time, where warranted."]
Like, she must have been wearing a short skirt...
Yeah, exactly. I was so glad to have witnesses. Sometimes when stuff like that happens, to me especially, people maybe think the way I was speaking to the cops was inappropriate. 
Do you think a male restaurateur would have gotten the same treatment? 
I didn’t even think of that, but yeah, there is that whole stop being so hysterical thing. I should say that the community officers who came back later were helpful or at least trying to be helpful.
The premier just announced Ontario’s new vaccine passport policy. Do you feel like you deserve some credit?
Maybe a little. I do think that by calling out politicians I played a part in bringing this issue to a head. Mostly I'm just happy that we might be able to do indoor dining again. I think the next step is to mandate employees get vaccinated for this to make sense, but I'm pretty happy this happened at all.
Presumably you aren’t the only person in your industry who supports the idea of vaccine passports—
Oh yeah? Because I haven’t seen anyone else talking about it publicly, so I wouldn’t know anything about that. That’s not fair — I’ve seen maybe two or three other people talking about it publicly.
You tweeted about how disappointed you are in the lack of support you have gotten from within your industry.
I’m not someone who is universally loved by my colleagues in the restaurant industry for reasons that we both understand.
Because you’re a real bitch, right? (For people who don’t know, I’m making a joke about the title of your book.)
Partly because of that and partly because they don’t want to make themselves targets, they won’t say anything. Again I want to be very clear that there are some exceptions and I’m not going to name them because I don’t want to bring this on them.
By “this” you mean angry protesters intent on ruining their business. Can you at least sympathize with business owners trying to fly under the radar? So maybe they would say to you look Jen, I’m so f-ed financially after the last year, I can’t afford to stick my neck out.
What I would say is that this is about keeping restaurants open and making sure that we don’t go into another lockdown by making sure that we don’t have outbreaks in our restaurants. Yes, I understand that vaccinated people can carry and transmit the virus, but not nearly as much as unvaccinated people can and do and that is made very clear by the statistics coming out of our hospitals. It’s simply data.
I’m assuming you don’t see any merit in the premier’s “split society” argument
83-17? That’s not a split society. That is a vocal minority holding the rest of society hostage.
I am often in awe of the amount of time you spend on Twitter. Do you find it cathartic? Addictive? Part of the job?
It doesn’t really feel like that much time to me because I bang things out really quickly. There are times when I spend more time on Twitter than usual, like when there’s a big shitstorm happening. I suppose it’s a bit cathartic, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. It’s definitely part of the job in some ways, or part of the job of being me, which is a slightly different thing.
Right. Do you ever envy restaurateurs who get to sit back and maybe tweet about their burrata?
Not really. I haven’t really thought about that.
When is the last time you took a real break?
I manage my life really well. I have had a few slightly stress-y days lately, but I normally don’t. My partner Roland and I have been to a friend's cottage a few times. She has been so amazing and it is just a wonderful thing to get into the nearby woods and be a bit quiet. I find that helps to recharge me in ways that I am often not able to achieve in the city.

The hate isn’t stressing me out. As if I care what these losers think of me. I have been through a lot of things like that in my career. I’m built for this.

So how do you relax when you’re at home? 
I recently put a piece of wood over my bathtub so I can watch Law & Order in the tub, which has been pretty awesome. I have also found that pretty consistent working out has helped manage my stress particularly when Roland was in rehab last year after his stroke and we couldn’t see each other. I do a mix of rowing, yoga, pilates, and weights. Oh and hula hooping. That helps manage my stress more than anything else. I drink wine, I have laughs with friends, I love my husband and mostly I’m really happy.
Even when you’re getting IRL trolled once a week and every day on Twitter?
It’s hard to say without sounding like an egomaniac, but I’m really good at letting this stuff roll off of me. I have gotten so many beautiful texts and DMs from people. We get nurses at SickKids emailing the restaurant and saying, "thank you so much" and "you’re doing the right thing." That kind of thing has a lot of impact. I tweeted recently that I thought I would have to be dead for people to say such nice things and truly I mean that. To have this love and support from strangers is really nice and really unexpected and it balances out the hate tenfold. The hate isn’t stressing me out. As if I care what these losers think of me. I have been through a lot of things like that in my career. I’m built for this.
And if you could say anything to them? 
I’m good actually. I think what you’re asking is what would you say to a person in a reasonable way to try to get them onside. I feel similarly about people who are anti-abortion. I don’t think there is much to say. I think there is a fundamental difference in perception of the world and existing in it and I don’t want to spend my energy trying to convince someone who is so dogmatic that they are wrong.
I’ve seen a few tweets suggesting you run for office. Any chance you’d consider?
Fuck no! Why would I do that? Like I said, I like my life.

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