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The Complicated Legacy of the Spotted Pig

For over a decade, the Spotted Pig represented the best and worst in American restaurants

The Spotted Pig is officially done. After Eater NY broke the news that staff and diners were hearing about the closure, owner Ken Friedman confirmed it in a statement to the New York Times: “For over two years I have done everything possible to keep the Spotted Pig open. I’ve been working to try to raise funds or sell my shares, in order to save the business, to continue to support our great employees — many of whom have been with us for over a decade — so they could keep their jobs and health benefits.” Nearly 80 employees reportedly lost their jobs.

The closure is a stunning turn in the specific, highly complex saga of the restaurant and its relationship to the #MeToo moment. In December 2017, multiple women accused Friedman of sexual misconduct. His business partner, the acclaimed chef April Bloomfield, initially distanced herself from those accusations, despite allegations that she was complicit in maintaining a hostile work environment; she eventually admitted that she did not do enough to stop Friedman and protect their employees.

After the two dissolved their business arrangement in the summer of 2018, Friedman retained control of the Spotted Pig, and almost immediately there were appeals from industry insiders and observers for Friedman to divest entirely. Chefs Gabrielle Hamilton and her partner Ashley Merriman nearly partnered with Friedman to run the restaurant, but faced a swift, strong public backlash that included many calls for the restaurant’s closure. A year later, Friedman said that he was “open to doing whatever it takes to have the Spotted Pig live on” — including leaving entirely — admitting that his ongoing connection to the restaurant was keeping “foodies” away.

In what looked like the beginning of the end of the Pig, earlier this month, the New York attorney general ordered Friedman and the business to pay $240,000 to the 11 former employees who accused him of sexual harassment. The attorney general also ordered Friedman to hand over 20 percent of the Spotted Pig’s profits for 10 years — including from a sale of the restaurant — to those employees. The settlement also ensured he would step down from management and operations.

For those who lost jobs this weekend, the impact of the closure is something immediate and tangible. These workers — 78 full- and part-time employees, per Friedman — have lost their incomes and livelihoods because of Ken Friedman’s behavior. The serious allegations against him resulted in a split at the upper levels of the organization, a public relations nightmare, and a loss of interest from press and savvy diners. And instead of swiftly removing himself or divesting, Friedman remained tied to the Spotted Pig, roping the fate of his employees to his own. Simply put, its demise is yet another way Friedman harmed his staff.

For the many, many people whose careers included spending time working at the Pig (myself included), its closure also marks the end of a specific time and place within the New York City restaurant community. When it opened in 2004, the Spotted Pig was hailed as the first true gastropub to arrive in America — perhaps Father’s Office in Los Angeles deserved that title, but the Pig grabbed the spotlight. Bloomfield had buzz from her work at London’s iconic River Cafe, Friedman filled the restaurant with celebrities (and investors) from his Rolodex, and the restaurant had financial backing from Mario Batali. The Spotted Pig quickly became one of the city’s essential restaurants and a known industry hangout, its burger topped with Roquefort but never ketchup. It earned a Michelin star — a rarity for a casual restaurant stateside — rave reviews, hours-long waits, and spots on Best Of lists. Thanks to this success, April Bloomfield was among the most prominent of a new type of celebrity chef, one famous for their work in a restaurant kitchen rather than their Food Network show. Friedman became known as one of the country’s pioneering restaurateurs: Before the pair split their empire in 2018, it totaled seven restaurants in NYC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The Spotted Pig proved to be a winning model for other restaurants trying to navigate the waters of post-Recession dining in America. For years after the Spotted Pig’s ascent, it was hard to find a major American city without a restaurant that didn’t nod to its famous burger, or its unexpectedly adroit pasta menu (the gnudi commanded almost as much reverence as the burger), or its clubby-casual mood, or its clever combination of bar-like setting and comforting yet serious cooking. Even 10 years after opening, the Recession largely in the past, the restaurant was jam-packed.

Following the industry-rocking allegations against Friedman, and the departure of the embattled Bloomfield, the restaurant struggled to find its new footing. Friedman told the New York Times that the Spotted Pig’s dire financial situation resulted in its closing: “I’ve spent all my family’s savings to keep the Pig open. Sadly, it wasn’t enough. We’ve been unable to raise funds or sell the business, which we needed to do to pay the rent and other debts. The Pig has been running in the red for a long time. And so it must close.”

But just because the restaurant is closed doesn’t mean its story is over. The Spotted Pig — and what happens in the aftermath of its closure — will have ripple effects throughout the restaurant industry for years to come.

If Friedman is indeed closing the restaurant because it is just not financially viable anymore, those who hoped to see the restaurant shuttered on principle can see this news as validation that voting with one’s dollars can work — even if it puts nearly 80 people out of jobs, and denies recipients of the settlement some of the profits promised to them. (One former employee told the Times that she never expected to see any of the promised profits.)

And now some of the former Spotted Pig employees who came forward are reportedly trying to buy the restaurant, which would mark another major achievement for the cause. If they succeed, they’ll join the the Bay Area restaurant workers who now own the restaurants that once comprised part of disgraced chef Charlie Hallowell’s empire — a transition of ownership that shows a path forward that includes financial and institutional power shifts in the wake of discrimination and abuse. The 78 employees who lost their positions at the Spotted Pig deserve a chance to exist in the restaurant industry, outside of the dark shadow cast by their employer: It is profoundly important that hiring managers across the restaurant industry evaluate these job-seekers fairly, without any assumptions about their relationship to harassment or whistleblowing. And as for Friedman, we can only hope he stays out of the restaurant industry for good.

By the end of its tenure, the Spotted Pig was more an embodiment of the endemic culture of sexism and abuse in the restaurant world than a groundbreaking restaurant. With the settlement and the closure, however, perhaps the Spotted Pig can also stand for a change — one where the men who abuse their power suffer financial consequences for what they’ve done, and their businesses close because of the harmful choices they’ve made as those businesses’ stewards. That would be a fitting, even hopeful end to an institution whose impressive highs and truly despicable lows told the story of elite restaurant culture in America. At the very least, there’s now one less pig in the shit.

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