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OpenTable Stumbles Into #MeToo

The reservations site will encourage restaurants to declare themselves safe spaces so customers can “vote with their dollars”

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

Sexual harassment is apparently endemic to restaurants: Some 78 percent of employees report having experienced harassment, and every other month, another titan of industry falls — John Besh, Mario Batali, and Charlie Hallowell have all been forced out of their restaurants by allegations of sexual misconduct. Even Union Square Hospitality Group, famous for its work culture, has struggled with properly handling harassment. So what’s a giant corporation built on the back of the restaurant industry to do when #Time’sUp?

Create a digital badge, screen a video at SXSW, offer a webinar and some posters, and launch a TBD list of woman-owned restaurants.

Last week, reservations giant OpenTable — which boasts 45,000 restaurants in its system — announced its Open Kitchen campaign, which encourages restaurants to create better work environments for employees, with zero tolerance for harassment or discrimination. The gist is that participating restaurants will declare “a shared commitment to 86 an exclusionary, abusive culture, front and back of the house.”

OpenTable signed up an impressive roster of chefs from across the country to kickstart the campaign, including Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski (State Bird Provisions, the Progress, SF), Mary-Sue Milliken (Border Grill, LA), Tanya Holland (Brown Sugar Kitchen, Oakland), and Ed Lee (610 Magnolia, Louisville; Succotash, D.C.). As “advocates,” these chefs participated in the PSA video, where they explained that they “run an open kitchen” “where we treat each other and our guests” “with care compassion [and] hospitality” “because everyone deserves a safe seat at the table.”

Participating restaurants promise to “uphold a zero-tolerance policy for harassment of any kind,” “treat one another with the same hospitality as they treat their guests,” and “listen to one another with care, compassion, and respect,” among other vague, sweeping pledges.

It’s commendable that chefs want to lead by example and publicly hold themselves accountable to high standards. Getting big players — figures who have both the credibility to inspire others and something to lose in failing — on board for a cultural shift will surely be a part of how the restaurant industry will adapt, and hopefully thrive, in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

But it’s easy to question OpenTable’s self-assigned role in making the industry better by letting restaurants declare themselves safe spaces with seemingly no oversight to make sure they are. The service doesn’t monitor the user-generated reviews for possible intel regarding bad behavior at the restaurants, the company confirmed. OpenTable is “not the police here,” OpenTable CEO Christa Quarles told Eater in a recent interview.

And elsewhere, OpenTable isn’t actually doing much to “call out inappropriate behavior” or to “hold offending parties accountable,” as the language in Quarles’ Medium announcement said. Take a spin through the site and you’ll still find reservation pages for Mario Batali’s restaurants, like Del Posto and Babbo; John Besh’s Restaurant August; and Ken Friedman’s the Hearth & Hound. These men — credibly accused, and in Batali’s case, admitted, harassers — have “stepped away” from their restaurant groups, but still own and profit from them, and so does OpenTable.

OpenTable declined to answer follow-up questions about whether it would consider blacklisting restaurants run by known harassers. With all that in mind, it’s simply impossible to divorce any OpenTable initiative from OpenTable’s reason for being: getting diners to book more online restaurant reservations. OpenTable makes its profits by charging restaurants $1 for every reservation made on OpenTable, in addition to a monthly fee. OpenTable needs restaurants to appeal to diners. Maybe these badges will help?

Eater downloaded this from the Open Kitchen announcement page and any restaurant can too.
OpenTable [Official]

It’s no wonder that Quarles sees the digital badge as customer service. “This is an awareness, mostly for consumers, to say, ‘Here are restaurants who have pledged to do this,’” she said. “A restaurant talks about local, organic, or other features that they might have. This is something that we thought was a way for consumers to vote with their dollars and feet on something that they might care and be passionate about.”

Quarles said the idea came out of an event OpenTable hosted in San Francisco on January 10 for women in hospitality. There, restaurateur Karen Leibowitz brought up the mandated choking posters in restaurants, and suggested restaurants have another one, about respectful behavior and how to handle harassment if it happens. (Leibowitz has moved ahead with bringing her vision for such a poster to life apart from OpenTable, and is in draft stages now.) OpenTable took the idea and ran in a different direction. “What came out of it was ‘Hey, let’s do something. Let’s take this energy and do more.’ We’re sort of crawling out of the muck and saying, ‘Okay what are the steps?’”

Does it undermine OpenTable’s initiative for the company to hand out badges with one hand, and take money from restaurant groups that reportedly fostered systemic cultures of harassment with the other? “I’ll quote José Andrés on this,” Quarles said. “Think of the entire staff.” Andrés’s position was laid out in a widely discussed tweet following the reporting on Ken Friedman:

“These are complex organizations and we want to support the staff who are making their money in those restaurants and putting food on their table by putting food on your table,” Quarles said.

But when asked what OpenTable would do if it learned an Open Kitchen restaurant had violated some of the core principles of the pledge, Quarles said, “We’d take the badging down.” Then she pivoted: “We are so early in the evolution of all of this, though. It’s important, I think, to take a step back and say, ‘Where was the restaurant industry in August of 2017? Where is it now? Where does it need to go?’”

Offering a badge that anyone can download, and a pledge to which no restaurant will be held accountable, feels an awful lot like virtue signaling. What are the stakes? It’s easy to imagine the restaurant PR flacks of the world urging clients to download this badge ASAP to cash in on customers who genuinely want to vote with their dollars and support businesses with values that match their own — or, perhaps more productively, signal to members of food media who want to be cautious about who they cover that this restaurant is safe to include in their next roundup. After all, plenty of diners remain unfazed by the #MeToo movement: the Spotted Pig is still busy and Babbo has been booked 95 times today, according to its OpenTable page.

Getting more bookings for restaurants is OpenTable’s priority, recast here as benevolent industry thought leadership. “Our job here is really to bring to light some of these issues and to say, ‘Hey, if you wanna be supportive of restaurants full stop, we want restaurants to grow and thrive,’” said Quarles. “Restaurateurs’ staff turnover is one of the biggest negative impacts to their business. Well, this is something that can help turnover of staff. These are things that can help a restaurant’s business. And if [we] can help a restaurant grow and thrive, then that’s what we’re intending to do.”

Richer, busier restaurants mean a richer, busier OpenTable. The service still has a stranglehold on the reservations business, with some 25 million diners booking reservations each month, even as competitors like Reserve and Tock slowly eat into its marketshare. Busy restaurants mean more reservations, which mean more daily dollars for OpenTable; richer restaurants can afford to keep using OpenTable.

[Eater has an affiliate relationship with OpenTable and may receive commissions for reservations made via our content. This relationship does not influence our editorial content.]

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater’s restaurant editor.