Welcome to Doing It Right, a column where Eater meets chefs, restaurateurs, and entrepreneurs who recognize challenges in their communities — and are actually doing something about it. In this installment, we head to New Orleans to focus on the work of activist Ashtin Berry.
Historically, the bar and restaurant industry has not allowed diversity to thrive or people of color to prosper. Plus, the industry’s longstanding culture supports unhealthy working environments.
What Ashtin Berry is doing about it:
Activist Ashtin Berry is working towards a healthier hospitality industry for everyone in it through beverage consulting and speaking engagements, and with her own collective, Radical Xchange.
Inequality is built into the structure of the hospitality industry. Historically, restaurants have thrived on the efforts of invisible labor, while only a few — the head chefs and restaurateurs — gain power and recognition. The practice of tipping can be traced back to a post-Civil War desire to avoid paying former slaves. This history has clear ramifications on hospitality today, from role and wage segregation to worker exploitation. And as chefs and restaurateurs strive to push the industry forward by implementing kinder working conditions and flirting with no-tipping policies, there are activists reminding them of hospitality’s fraught past, and working to change how people think about these issues in the first place — activists like Ashtin Berry.
Berry is both activist and beverage consultant, but the work she does can’t be distilled into an easy line or even paragraph-long bio. “I do everything from sexual education to operational models to racial justice work,” she explains, all with the intention of improving the hospitality industry. More specifically, she wants restaurant leaders and employees to think about intersectionality, the idea that people can be disadvantaged by multiple overlapping identities. “I explain to them why intersectionality is important for them to be able to hire spaces that don’t just look diverse, but are diverse,” she says.
To begin to grasp what her work entails, it may help to start with Berry’s most recent project: Radical Xchange. It’s a New Orleans-based collective — a joint effort between Berry and Kisira Hill — that links food and drinks with “art, music, history, and community.” It’s an effort that hopes to spark new dialogue about people of color, and African-Americans in particular. “The hospitality industry was literally built off of black people in this country,” Berry says. “So we’re having a conversation: If that’s true, then how did we get here?”
Radical Xchange’s first event, the two-and-a-half day conference Resistance Served, focused on recognizing the contributions of African-Americans to hospitality and their continued ingenuity, despite being consistently erased from the narrative. Conference participants attended panel discussions and dinners hosted by Michael Twitty, Carla Hall, and Leah Chase. Berry points out that New Orleans, her current home, is majority black and yet in the city’s celebrated restaurants and bars, there are few visible people of color. “How is it in a place that is 60 percent black, we are struggling to see [black] sous chefs, bartenders?” she asks.
Part of the answer is that many restaurants and bars don’t make the effort to embrace intersectionality and diversity in their spaces. Berry leads workshops and appears on panels to discuss how businesses can structure their operations to foster inclusivity. She speaks at conferences, like at Portland Cocktail Week where she taught a class on ethics for bartenders considering consulting careers. She also does consulting work herself, often delivering trainings or advice to bars that want to know how to make their spaces safe and welcoming for all genders and people of color. “I call myself a prevention-ist,” she says. “The hospitality industry — if we truly want to change — has to change the way that we even look at operational models for business.”
These conversations can go a few different ways: When Berry comes in at the beginning of an operation, she can review a business’s language to ensure that it’s in keeping with a healthy employee culture. “What does [intersectionality] look like in every breath of what we do here?,” she asks. “From the language on our menu to the way you greet the customer to the way the hostess seats people.” Berry believes that it makes sense for businesses to think about what they want an inclusive culture to look like before they open. “Why would you want to wait until someone says something racially insensitive in your space to talk about race?”
Sophia de Oliveira knew that to build the culture she wanted at Good Measure, a Chicago bar and restaurant, she would need to train her staff, and so she called Berry in to discuss all the ways restaurant staff can prevent harassment. “We all know how to make great drinks, but this is the stuff that’s really important to us that we want to bring to the forefront and have for years to come,” de Oliveira says. “I wish I could have Ashtin Berry fly out [for a training] four times a year.”
Other times, a bar or restaurant will hire Berry to diagnose an issue. For example, a bar having trouble with staff turnover might call Berry, suspecting something is wrong with its culture. “When [employees] say everything’s broke here, what do they mean?,” she says. “And generally what you find is that they’re talking about the system.”
Berry knows she can provide some solutions for the hospitality industry’s diversity problem, but she’s not entirely optimistic about its future, especially when it comes to the segment of hospitality closest to her own working experience — craft bars. Change there, she says, will be slow partly because it requires individual owners to come to the realization that it’s in their best interest to hire and support people of all backgrounds, and partly because powerful liquor brands aren’t prioritizing these issues. However, she sees potential for bigger industry-wide shifts. If a company like Applebee’s prioritized intersectionality in even a single region, Berry says, “it would have ripple effects — crazy ripple effects — because of their buying power with distributors, the amount of guests that they touch.”
But in the meantime, Berry continues to educate people on how to improve the industry for people of color, and her influence isn’t limited to the organizations that hire her. “She offers her expertise on social media accounts,” says de Oliveira. “She’s dropping knowledge all the time. I think it’s really awesome that she makes those opportunities available for free and in a different way.”
Moving forward, Berry has other ideas for Radical Xchange. She says the next event might focus on “feminine rituals.” “Many of the conversations around race and gender, and around sexuality in our spaces in hospitality are tokenizing, and they’re monoliths,” Berry says. “Radical Xchange is interested in how we talk about things that we think are important or that we think are cool. How do we provide a historical context? How do we create something that’s a little bit more full?”
Just three years ago, people in the hospitality world didn’t know what Berry was talking about when she brought up “intersectionality.” Now she sees the word everywhere, progress that’s the result of a wider movement — one that she sees gaining momentum for years to come. “I really hope in 10 years I’m not even considered radical anymore, because there are so many younger people that have included this intersectional work into how they do hospitality. That would be my dream, to become irrelevant,” she says, before adding, that actually, being a researcher would be good, too.
Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor.
• Radical Xchange [Official]