clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Who’s Still Going to Restaurants Owned by Bad Men?

Deals fell through and foot traffic declined, but there are still people eating at the restaurants of accused men

If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

Monica Burton is the deputy editor of Eater.com.

It was just after 7 p.m. on a recent Thursday, and the Spotted Pig was empty. Well, not entirely. On the ground floor of the restaurant, which occupies a New York City townhouse, there were a couple of men at the bar and a few pairs seated at tables along the edge of the dining room. I’m told that upstairs, the bar was a bit more crowded, and perhaps less quiet. But for the Spotted Pig, once known as much for its hours-long waits as for its indulgent burger, it was surprisingly easy to get a seat. Or, given the events of the past 16 months, not so surprising.

On December 12, 2017, the New York Times reported that multiple women accused the Spotted Pig’s owner Ken Friedman of sexual misconduct, including sending lewd text messages and making unwanted sexual advances. Since then, Friedman split with April Bloomfield, the Spotted Pig’s chef and his partner in this and other restaurants. As of now, Friedman still owns the Spotted Pig and continues to profit from it.

The same is true of Mario Batali, who was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, including employees of Batali restaurants, employees of the Spotted Pig, and fans. Although he announced plans to divest from restaurant group B&B Hospitality in April of last year, a deal has not been reached and Batali retains his ownership stake in Babbo, Otto, Lupa, and other restaurants. Similarly, John Besh, the New Orleans chef accused of committing and permitting sexual misconduct in his restaurant group in a watershed report from the Times-Picayune, has stepped away from restaurants physically, if not financially.

As the #MeToo movement reached widespread public consciousness, it became clear that bad behavior matters to consumers. Millennials in particular are characterized as a generation that “votes with their wallets.” The #GrabYourWallet movement, started in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape that recorded Donald Trump’s own admitted sexual misconduct, encourages consumers to boycott companies that do business with the Trump family. It would make sense then that restaurants linked to men accused of abuse would suffer in reputation, and by extension, in business.

However, even as some diners and restaurant industry players have made their objections to abusive behavior known, it seems the most prominent accused chefs and restaurateurs haven’t suffered the greatest downfalls. According to location technology platform Foursquare, the restaurants embroiled in #MeToo experienced more of a slump than an outright boycott.

A selection of 15 restaurants associated with accused men, including Batali, Besh, Friedman, and Bay Area restaurateur Charlie Hallowell (who was accused of sexual harassment by 17 employees), experienced 17 percent less foot traffic over the course of 2018 than other restaurants visited by Foursquare users. The data was collected from the foot traffic patterns of people (including app users and Foursquare partners who use its location technology in their products) who opt into “always-on location sharing.” This means that Foursquare is tracking their locations at all times (so it even logged visits from diners who may not have wanted to advertise the fact that they ate at a controversial restaurant). These foot traffic patterns were stripped of identifying information and analyzed together as a group, taking into consideration overall restaurant foot traffic during this period. It appears that at least some diners have made the choice not to go to restaurants owned by bad men.

For others, the experience of eating at a restaurant is more important than anything that may be happening outside of the dining room (or in the kitchen, out of sight), and an abusive reputation doesn’t distract from from a well-cooked veal chop. Kfir Bar visited Babbo in November 2018 and posted a glowing review on his Instagram account, @jeweats. “Of course I heard some stuff, but at the end of the day, the restaurant is still well spoken about in terms of producing food and that’s really what we cared about — to make sure we’re going somewhere where the food is good,” he says. Other diners had the same idea. Babbo was “vibrant and alive” the night he dined there, according to Bar. “It was packed.”

Bar is unequivocal in his belief that this is a good thing. “[The waitstaff] are the ones who suffer the most,” he says. “They’re the ones who are going to get hurt from people not showing up. The food there is good, no one can deny that. The chefs in the kitchen are still producing very high-quality food...there’s no reason to punish them either.” It’s true that Batali isn’t doing the work of cooking for restaurant patrons each night, even before the accusations, and certainly not now. That it’s the staff that also suffers when a powerful restaurateur or chef is allowed to harass women unchecked doesn’t factor into this perspective. But Bar doesn’t put much stock in the accusations at all. “I don’t think people should do things based on accusations that they may have heard,” he says.

Bar and customers like him are correct in that disappearing diners — or discarded business deals — put employees out of work. When the Sands Casino, which owned Batali restaurants at casinos in Las Vegas and Singapore, severed its partnership with B&B Hospitality, its three restaurants in Las Vegas and two in Singapore closed. In Las Vegas, 300 B&B employees lost their jobs. B&B Hospitality’s Joe Bastianich told New York magazine that business was down across the group’s portfolio, but particularly at “Mario-centric” restaurants Babbo, Lupa, and Otto. Batali’s New York City restaurant La Sirena also closed last year. Eater NY reported that sales began to slow before the accusations, but weakened further in the weeks after Eater NY’s report. Bar, who dined at La Sirena around the time news of the accusations against Batali surfaced, said “the vibe there was gloomy.”

Online, the call for boycotts of restaurants from accused chefs and restaurant owners is quiet, nearly drowned out by the voices of the enthusiastic restaurant-goers. Few reviews on the Yelp pages of restaurants like the Spotted Pig reference their owners’ misconduct, and some of those that do don’t see it as a problem. In a Babbo review from September 2018, Yelp user Phil G. wrote “[Batali] has been destroyed by the ‘Me Too Movement,’ which doesn’t negate from the excellence of his restaurants.” He noted that he has an “unpopular view” of the #MeToo movement and added, “If it’s just ‘finger pointing,’ shut up and move on.” Yelp user Julianne C. began her July 2018 Babbo review with the caveat, “Not a fan of Mario Batali (always seemed a little disingenuous and his recent escapades confirm that suspicion).” She left the restaurant a full five stars anyway.

Still, there are restaurant-goers speaking out against these chefs and restaurateurs, in addition to cutting their restaurants out of their lives. André de Souza, who lives in New York City and eats at restaurants almost every day, was once a regular at the Spotted Pig. He remembers seeing a protest outside the restaurant shortly after the Times story came out and looked it up. He says he was shocked to read about the “rape room,” the reported staff nickname for the third-floor private room where multiple alleged assaults took place. On December 21, a year after the news about Friedman broke, de Souza left a one-star review of the Spotted Pig on Yelp. It’s not that just he wanted to avoid the restaurant after learning of what happened, he decided he wanted people to know that they should too.

More than the prospect of enduring a meal marred by the thought of what happened in the (rumored) Jay-Z-owned space, de Souza doesn’t want to support Friedman financially. “I’m not sure there is any meaningful amends have been made or will be made so I don’t think I will be going back,” he says. De Souza says it’s not the first time he’s made a decision to avoid a business because of bad behavior on the part of the owner. He once witnessed a bar owner inappropriately touching his employees and vowed never to return. Just as he did after hearing the news about the Spotted Pig, he left a review saying as much on Yelp.

Popular opinion isn’t the only way to measure restaurant business success, or how well the accused men have recovered from widely reported scandal. In D.C., Mike Isabella saw his entire restaurant empire crumble in the months following a sexual harassment lawsuit, which was settled. Isabella blamed the media for his restaurants’ struggles more than once, and in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing, he wrote: “I no longer believe that any restaurant associated with my name can recover from the negative press that has enveloped me for nearly the entirety of 2018.” Nearly all Mike Isabella Concept restaurants are expected to close, but the failure of his restaurant group can’t be blamed on bad press alone, nor solely on the lawsuit levied against him by a former manager, which was settled. A Washingtonian profile indicated that the rapid expansion of the Isabella empire as well as an unorthodox corporate structure and the chef’s alcoholism contributed to Mike Isabella Concepts’s eventual liquidation.

Isabella aside, the men at the top of their restaurant groups don’t appear to be suffering drastic repercussions even as deals fall through and restaurant foot traffic declines. Besh’s restaurant group, BRG Hospitality, lost its deal with Harrah’s Casino following the accusations, and he was cut out of plans to open a CBD restaurant with fellow NOLA chef Aaron Sánchez. However, since Besh and his restaurant group were exposed for creating a culture that fostered sexual misconduct and harassment, BRG also successfully won the right to continue to operate popular Israeli restaurant Shaya after a protracted legal battle spurred by namesake restaurateur Alon Shaya’s split from the group. In the second half of 2018, the group opened two new restaurants: Eunice in Houston and Warbucks in New Orleans.

Batali will not be charged after an NYPD investigation into two alleged assaults. According to a December New York magazine article, he’s figuring out his next moves from his family’s summer home in Northport, Michigan.

Friedman retains ownership of the Spotted Pig, once the most celebrated restaurant of the Friedman-Bloomfield portfolio. In June 2018, he fielded an offer from Prune chefs Gabrielle Hamilton and Ashley Merriman to run the restaurant. In a New York interview, Hamilton said the restaurant wasn’t profitable, but hoped to build it back up. The two women never got the chance: That deal fell through when Friedman refused to give up his salary.

So while the #MeToo movement has swept through a number of industries — Kevin Spacey was written out of scripts, Charlie Rose was fired, and Ryan Adams was dropped from radio — in the restaurant industry, it has merely been bad for business, not disastrous. Meanwhile, Bloomfield has closed two of the restaurants left to her when their partnership dissolved. Hearth and Hound, which opened six days before the New York Times published its report on Friedman, closed in January. The John Dory Oyster Bar will shutter in February after eight years at New York’s Ace Hotel. Although Bloomfield notably failed to protect her employees from Friedman or support them after they came forward, it hardly seems fair that the chefs and restaurateurs who groped and harassed their employees continue to earn money from diners who still happily eating the food at their restaurants.

Some of these patrons don’t know there’s any reason they should consider staying away. At the Spotted Pig that Thursday night, several guests were unaware that the restaurant was at the center of a #MeToo scandal. A woman visiting from San Francisco simply remembered the Spotted Pig as a great option in the West Village from the last time she had eaten at the restaurant, 10 years ago. A couple of male friends were at the restaurant for the first time. Aside from positive reviews of its $28 burger, they hadn’t heard any news about the Spotted Pig.

These people did, however, want to know what happened, even if knowing the full story wouldn’t have necessarily prevented them from going to the Spotted Pig. Like Bar, one of the male diners noted that the restaurant still has a hardworking staff that should be supported by restaurant patrons. He also wasn’t surprised: having worked at restaurants, he knew “there are dickheads at restaurants.”

Another man eating at the Spotted Pig that night had heard about Friedman’s misconduct when it happened, but said the news clearly hadn’t made enough of an impact to stop him going. After all, it’s been more than a year, and people have short attention spans. Louisiana resident and restaurant-goer Kevin O’Connor says that at first, the misconduct at Besh’s restaurant group was big news, but it’s no longer talked about in his circle. “People get hot and bothered about something and they forget what they get hot and bothered about a few days ago,” he says. It’s not that they’ve forgotten about Besh’s bad behavior, it’s just not actively on their minds. O’Connor, for one, wouldn’t go to a restaurant tied financially to an accused man, but, after men like Besh and Batali “step away,” it’s not always clear to him where those financial ties stand.

Ultimately, the industry saw diners pull away and restaurants close as a result of women speaking out against abuse. But there are still fanbases for the perpetrators and their restaurants, and people who believe that decisions like which restaurant to go to should be based solely on the quality of a burger or deliciousness of a plate of pasta — not on accusations, no matter how many there are or how credible they may be. And so the spaces that were the settings for flash points in the #MeToo movement stay open. Whether they’re on the path toward obscurity or redemption is anyone’s guess.

Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

Sign Up for Dining In, the New Eater at Home Newsletter

The Move

The Best Way to Eat Ice Cream When It’s Cold Out Is a Stout Float

Eater at Home

In ‘Joys of Jell-O,’ There’s Nothing You Can’t Do With Colored Gelatin