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Can Restaurants Stop Harassment Before It Starts?

From hiring decisions to bar layout, how proactive owners are trying to change industry norms

In October 2017, the Times-Picayune gave voice to the women who worked at John Besh’s New Orleans restaurants, where “male co-workers and bosses touched female employees without consent, made suggestive comments about their appearance and — in a few cases — tried to leverage positions of authority for sex.” In December, Eater NY broke the news that Mario Batali regularly groped employees and infused workplace conversation with sexual innuendo. A day later the New York Times detailed the many accusations against Ken Friedman of the Spotted Pig, with the impossible-to-forget recollections of what happened on the third floor of that restaurant in a space some employees referred to as “the rape room.”

In each of these cases, there’s been talk about how those in charge, either through their direct actions or because of what they allowed from their staff, fostered an environment that led to untempered misogyny and varying degrees of sexual misconduct. At this point, the factors that create this type of environment are well documented: a “boy’s club” mentality; a culture where those who work in the kitchen have to maintain a certain level of macho toughness to succeed and those in the front of the house have to acquiesce to the whims of customers, managers, and owners alike.

But what are the elements that build a healthy, respectful environment in the restaurant industry? How do you create the equivalent of Roundup for bad behavior — killing the weeds before they sprout?

There are familiar solutions that target sexual harassment directly, ranging from creating an HR department to emphasizing what will and will not be tolerated early and often. Then there are more holistic — and perhaps more impactful — approaches to stopping sexual harassment and, in fact, harassment of any kind: making sure employees feel like respected professionals rather than food-spewing robots that matter only as long as they keep putting food onto the table, or designing the restaurant in a way that discourages physical contact.

Treating restaurant staff with respect goes a long way.

For Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg, who has long criticized the bro culture of the restaurant industry and recently wrote a memoir that touches on the industry’s problems with harassment and sexism, creating a positive environment starts as soon as a prospective hire walks in the door for an interview. “It’s all about gatekeeping,” she says. “Try to keep garbage people out of your restaurant and you’ll have an easier time keeping a garbage culture from sprouting in the first place.” [Disclosure: Jen Agg has contributed to Eater.]

Agg and her management team talk about the kind of culture they foster with new hires and hammer it in during preservice meetings. “If staff has any issues, they’re comfortable coming forward with them,” she says, “whether it’s a customer saying something inappropriate or a cook showing a server a dick pic — which, unfortunately, really happened.” Agg says she fired that cook immediately; it was the first time she’s yelled at one of her employees.

Even the best bosses might not be able to stop harassment from happening entirely. But they can make it clear to employees that bad behavior will result in swift consequences. Yet if people already consider their job temporary — if they’re overworked, poorly paid, and dispensable — being fired may not mean much. And if employees are treated as disposable, it’s not surprising that they might come to see each other as disposable, and behave accordingly. That’s why some owners are trying to rethink the way restaurant staff is treated in general.

“If someone wants to wash dishes for the rest of their life, let’s create the best environment for them to do that in,” says Ashley Christensen, award-winning chef and owner of six restaurants in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s one thing to have a chain of command in a restaurant; another to make those at the end of it feel like they’re worthless.

Christensen explains that she got tired of seeing line cooks who believed they were only successful if they became the chef or the boss. “If we can’t allow people to feel successful and professional,” she says, “that they’re doing the kind of work their [families] can be proud of, we’re creating a negative environment.” Her goal is that none of her 215 employees has to work more than 50 hours a week. Thanks in part to the HR department Christensen created for her restaurants, she’s now working to create paid-time-off policies for employees.

Anita Jaisinghani, chef and owner of Pondicheri, may not have a HR department for her two locations in Houston and New York, but she still goes out of her way to make sure her employees are treated with respect. “I don’t think you should keep working no matter how badly your hand is cut,” Jaisinghani says. “I truly believe that if the people that work for me are happy, they’ll create more beautiful food.” When she’s had employees who were pregnant, she found a way to give them six to eight weeks of paid leave. “It was important to me to do that,” she says, though as a mother herself, she wishes she could have done even more. Jaisinghani knows that it’s all too common for women to be pushed out of the industry after having children.

Jaisinghani says the respect she extends to her employees is expected from her customers as well, and advocates confronting discrimination of all kinds. She once told two of her Houston regulars who complained about being served by a gay waiter that they were welcome to go somewhere else. When North Carolina turned the so-called “bathroom bill” into law, making it illegal for people to use public bathrooms that didn’t correspond with their gender at birth, Christensen removed the gendered signs from the restrooms in her restaurants and replaced them with ones that read, “P(eople) rooms.”

“It’s about creating a place for all people to feel comfortable when they come in and take a chance on eating with us,” says Christensen. This goes for guests, employees, and even outside vendors like deliverymen or guest chefs. When Christensen invites a guest chef or sommelier to her restaurant, she calls them personally to explain the environment she’s created and the behavior that entails. “You bring somebody in who your cooks or servers perceive as a rock star, and their behavior makes a big impression.”

Safer restaurants can be made by design.

At New York’s famed speakeasy PDT, it’s clear from the moment you walk in the door that it is an establishment with rules. Jim Meehan, bartender, journalist, and owner of PDT, says he was inspired by a sign he saw in the bathrooms of Milk & Honey back in the early 2000s. It listed “house rules,” which included an edict prohibiting men from starting a conversation with women they didn’t know. (Women, on the other hand, were welcome to introduce themselves or ask the bartender to make introductions.) When Meehan opened PDT a decade ago, he instituted a similar set of rules. “One of my goals all along was to operate a bar in which the conventions of a dining room are followed,” he says.

Providing a level of decorum for guests creates an environment where everyone is on their best behavior. “In certain fine dining restaurants there’s this notion that anything must be done to please the guest; that pleasing the guest at all costs is more important than the staff,” Meehan says. “Of course, I want a conflict-free bar room, but there are certain things that are said or behaviors that we won’t tolerate at PDT.” If that means kicking someone out of the bar, management has done so and will continue to do so.

But creating an atmosphere where etiquette reigns is about more than just a rule book. In PDT’s case, it’s also a result of paying attention to how guests and employees use the physical space of the bar.

“In most bars, standing is not only allowed but encouraged or maxed out by the operators,” Meehan says. The idea of personal space becomes nonexistent, which makes it easier for other boundaries to be broken. PDT, on the other hand, requires all guests have a seat and stick to it. Similarly, the bar was designed with enough room behind it that bartenders never have to cross each other to work. “There’s no one standing directly behind or on top of them and not a lot of contact between staff,” Meehan explains. Often, bar tops are so wide that bartenders have to lean over to slide a drink to a customer, which not only feels less professional, but also might exhibit a hint of cleavage, adding sexuality to a transaction where none exists. “I would be lying if I said I was thinking about systemic sexual harassment [when I designed PDT],” Meehan says, “but it just happens to work.”

Operators need to take an honest look at how they’ve dealt with harassment in the past — and learn from it.

Despite the changing climate around harassment in the restaurant industry, too few people are willing to speak up and say, “Not only is this not tolerated, but here is how I am going out of my way to stop it.” Many are worried about potential repercussions. Agg says she’s definitely lost out on opportunities as a result of being so outspoken about the industry’s flaws. “However, the opportunities I’ve gained … are more interesting and appealing to me than, say, shilling for a cookware company,” she says. Attracting good staff and good customers might, likewise, be worth losing out on a few poorly behaved patrons. As Agg says, “Staff retention is a huge part of maintaining quality and consistency, and quality and consistency literally translate into dollars.”

Many restaurateurs only want to talk about what they’re doing right, but it’s equally important to admit to faults. “We all have to show some vulnerability,” Christensen says. “We can’t just pretend everything in our restaurants is perfect.” She admits that for years she’d stumble into inappropriate workplace conversations and simply say that she didn’t want to know what they were talking about and walk away. “I felt like I was exuding total professionalism; looking back, I was absolutely sending this accidental message that it was okay.”

Meehan, for his part, laments the lack of locker rooms in PDT, which he wouldn’t be able to add at this point without remodeling from the ground up. He also says that the company only recently started trying to codify its policies around harassment. Like many small restaurant businesses, PDT doesn’t have an HR department, but Meehan wants employees to feel empowered to bring complaints forward.

Unfortunately, while it’s easy to create a negative work environment, being conscientious enough to develop a good one is a full-time occupation. It requires more than following the letter of the law. “We will never be done,” Christensen says of creating a supportive, safe environment in her restaurants. “The way this works and shakes out is that we always have to be up for addressing [harassment] in new ways.”

Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist and former New Yorker who now lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @TKDano.
Shannon Wright is an illustrator and cartoonist based out of Richmond, VA.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan