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How Do We Punish Bad Men While Protecting Restaurant Workers?

The industry needs to step up and support workers stuck in the restaurants of disgraced men

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Just over a year after several women came forward to Eater NY to accuse chef and restaurateur Mario Batali of sexual misconduct, the New York Times reported that his business partners at B&B Hospitality Group said he would “no longer profit from the restaurants in any way, shape or form.”

In December, Batali’s business partner of 20 years, Joe Bastianich, told New York magazine that business across their nearly two dozen restaurants had declined as much as 30 percent since the allegations against Batali were made public. But people are still eating in these restaurants: Some are completely unaware of the allegations, and others know but still want to enjoy a good meal at a popular restaurant, maybe one that was hard to get a table at before.

While this is great news for an industry that’s finally had to face its long-standing toxic and misogynistic culture, many other men accused of similar or worse conduct are still making money off the daily sales in their restaurants, despite widespread calls for boycotts. Though the intention of this #grabyourwallet-inspired movement is to show solidarity with the victims of these men, the drop in profits can trickle down to front-of-house employees who rely on tips.

When the news of Batali’s long awaited divestment broke, commenters on Twitter (including one whose profile identified them as a sommelier and managing partner of a restaurant) argued that diners should be boycotting Batali’s restaurants and that the employees of these restaurants could “literally work anywhere else in NYC in the front or back of house. Because nobody should work for a man who assaults and rapes women if they don’t have to. There are boundless restaurant jobs available right now in New York.”

The comment itself highlights a major problem with boycotting these restaurants: the perception that nobody should work there “if they don’t have to.” But many people still “have to,” and making the call about which reasons are justified shouldn’t be left up to internet commenters.

Leaving isn’t as easy it seems. I was assaulted by a coworker at the restaurant where I worked as a waitress and was pushed out of the job after reporting my attacker. Despite the bad experience I had there, I would have preferred to stay at a job I knew my way around. In the restaurant industry, especially for front-of-house workers who depend on tips, seniority and shift scheduling is everything. Longtime employees of men exposed by #MeToo, some of whom may never have experienced or witnessed this bad behavior, may have to give up a good schedule that they built their lives around. They’ll likely have to say goodbye to regulars and to the stability and confidence that comes from working at a job for years.

While employees may end up making less money if they stay at the restaurant being boycotted, they’ll also lose money if they start a new job and get put on the less-profitable lunch shifts. I can certainly understand why someone might choose to stay where they know how to do the job already and wait it out until the bad man (whether the owner or a fellow coworker) is gone for good, because that’s what I wanted to do. Anyone leaving runs the risk of landing a job in a restaurant that might be more physically or mentally draining than the one owned by the accused man.

At the high-profile restaurants where owners were accused of sexual misconduct, like Babbo, the Spotted Pig, and Boot & Shoe Service in Oakland, front-of-house employees are often career servers who have been betrayed by these men even if they weren’t victims of the alleged behavior themselves. They believed in the restaurant enough to invest their time and lives into it, and now the rug has been pulled out from under them. To be clear, the “blame” for damage wrought on staff earnings by boycotts rests firmly with the men who hurt their staff. But when we boycott the business to put a financial strain on these men, we do damage to the pocketbooks of the employees who stay. It’s yet another way these men have harmed and betrayed their employees.

Boycotting also, wrongly, puts the burden of change on customers rather than the men; it reinforces the unfair system in which customers, who through their tips are a main source of income for restaurant workers, are left holding the bag when it comes to providing those workers a living wage (a system, it’s worth noting, that creates unequal power dynamics that result in harassment).

A boycott may show solidarity with victims, but it ultimately treats the symptoms, not the actual sickness that runs rampant in restaurants. Unless the entire industry works to undo the systems that have helped to perpetuate this bad behavior for years, it will continue. Rather than further punishing those who may find themselves stuck working in these restaurants, we need to find a way to support workers so they feel empowered to find stable, lucrative work elsewhere.

Restaurant owners can support front- and back-of-house workers by abandoning the unspoken pact of not poaching employees from other restaurants. Instead, restaurant owners with positions open on staff should loudly signal when they’re hiring — and make it clear that employees from these scandal-plagued restaurant groups are welcome to apply.

Hiring managers must be aware of the potential biases that come with hiring people who worked in restaurants run by bad men. Don’t judge an employee based on their employer’s behavior; let them know that their resume hasn’t been stained because of their employer. Don’t assume that women who worked in these restaurants were victims or could be potential whistleblowers in your restaurant. Don’t assume that men were complicit in the restaurant’s misogynistic or toxic environment. Give every candidate a fair shot.

Now is the time for all restaurant operators and managers to reflect on the culture of their workplace, improve its policies around harassment, and prove to current and prospective employees that a safe and healthy work environment is a top priority. At the bare minimum, all restaurant employees should receive thorough harassment training that goes beyond those comically outdated corporate videos from the ’90s. Yes good training is costly — making it a strain for smaller businesses. But it must be centered as an operational necessity, just like functioning kitchen equipment is.

Show the talented folks stuck working at restaurants where their labor lines the pockets of the men who hurt their coworkers why working for you will be better — and live up to that promise by becoming a leader in the fight to remove toxic behavior from restaurants.

A culture shift in the industry will take time. The workers who have been victims of harassment or who are stuck working at restaurants still owned by men accused of harassment shouldn’t have to wait. It would be helpful for outside organizations like Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), the James Beard Foundation, and local job-placement nonprofits to offer support to employees of these restaurants by helping them find new, comparable employment. Perhaps there could even be a dedicated fund that operates like unemployment insurance, helping tied workers over until they get a new job.

As a diner, I’m still navigating how I can show solidarity and support to both victims of these men and the employees who still work in their restaurants. As someone who worked front of house for over a decade, I sympathize with how difficult a decision it can be to leave a restaurant you’ve worked at for years, and I understand the stress of relying on the dining public’s generosity as your source of income. Systemic change is still far off, but I believe in this industry’s ability to make it happen.

In the meantime, Ken Friedman is still profiting off sales at the Spotted Pig. Who’s hiring?

Ashley Goldsmith is a San Francisco-based writer who covers food, travel, and women’s issues.
Vance Lump is a freelance illustrator in the Pacific Northwest.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan