Stamping Out Sexual Harassment in the Kitchen: Rocked by #MeToo Revelations, the Restaurant Industry Seeks Solutions

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Cobrina Grieco has worked on and off in food service since she was 15. She waited tables during college in Northern California, and while living in Boston she worked as a pastry chef for a catering company, as a baker at an independent café, and as an assistant pastry chef in a fine-dining restaurant. The 39 year-old says that she’s seen all the “usual stuff” the #MeToo movement stands against: the unequal power dynamics between industry men and women, being overlooked, talked down to, subjected to endless sexual jokes, a gendered division of labor. “Like most young women in kitchens, I endured by playing along and/or keeping my mouth shut,” says Grieco, a San Francisco native who has worked at Josey Baker Bread since she returned to the city in 2013, when she started on the pastry team at the popular bakery housed inside The Mill on Divisadero Street. “Nothing out of the ‘ordinary’ happened to me—including someone standing up and saying it wasn’t okay,” wrote Grieco in an email response to questions for this story.

But up until she attended a now-infamous Four Barrel staff party at Smiley’s Saloon in Bolinas in West Marin in October 2015, the former San Francisco Baking Institute graduate says she had always felt safe at work. Grieco doesn’t want to rehash the details of the incident that took place that night. It’s been difficult dealing with what happened—an alleged sexual assault by former Four Barrel founder Jeremy Tooker. She says she’s now in a healthy place, physically, mentally, and emotionally. “Up until I was approached by the other Four Barrel women to join the lawsuit, I had never reported the incident or told anyone—including Josey—about that night,” says Grieco, who was a witness, not a plaintiff, in the case, which was quickly settled for an undisclosed sum. “There is so much shame and regret tied up in assault.”

Grieco agreed to speak about the matter because, she says, she understands that adding her voice to the movement could help bring change, encourage employees to stand up for each other, foster greater accountability on the part of management, and help create environments where people treat each other with respect. She says she knows such places are possible because that’s the company culture at Josey Baker Bread. The bread business shares space with Four Barrel, from which Josey Baker Bread subleases. Both Grieco and Baker say each business has its own distinct workplace culture, despite the close proximity and informal partnership.

In her current role as general manager with the baking business, Grieco says she plays a key role working with Baker to ensure it’s a safe, sexual harassment–free working environment for its employees and that workers have the resources they need on that score. “The truth is, you can have every handbook, poster, and anti harassment training, but it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t care for one another,” she says. “Being in compliance, while it may cover our asses legally, is nothing without commonsense, understanding, and a strong moral code.”

Few would disagree with such sentiment. Is the professional cooking world up to the task?

Predatory Pigs, a Rape Room & Redemption

In the past year, the restaurant industry has been rocked by widespread sexual assault and harassment charges, with accounts of male chefs behaving beyond badly from coast to coast. Disgraced New York chef Mario Batali and restaurateur Ken Friedman have been the subject of New York Times, 60 Minutes, and Eater exposés, for alleged serial sexual misconduct at the Spotted Pig, the West Village hotspot formerly run by James Beard Award winner April Bloomfield. Among the most egregious allegations: the Spotted Pig’s private third floor for VIPs was reportedly the site of so much sexually inappropriate behavior it was dubbed the “rape room” by concerned staffers.

Bloomfield, who declined through representatives to be interviewed for this story, has since parted ways with the Pig. She is reportedly turning her focus to her West Coast operations, Tosca Café in San Francisco and Hearth & Hound in Los Angeles. A New York Times story on Friedman’s unwanted advances quotes several women who say they brought his boorish behavior to Bloomfield’s attention and were ignored or dismissed by the lauded chef. Bloomfield has denied such charges. She issued a public apology on Twitter last December (since deleted), and in a written statement to the Times, noted that she referred two reports of harassment to an outside labor council and met with Friedman, her ex–business partner, about the allegations. Still, she wrote, “now I know that wasn’t enough.”

Other high-profile chefs tarnished by accusations of rampant sexual harassment include John Besh, who presided over a restaurant empire in New Orleans before he stepped down from the company he founded and co-owns, the Besh Restaurant Group. This action was prompted by allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct by more than two dozen current and former female employees, as the Times-Picayune reported

Closer to home, Charlie Hallowell, the former Chez Panisse chef who had built his own restaurant group in Oakland, running Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe Service, and Penrose with business partner Richard Weinstein, also stepped aside from the day-to-day responsibilities of running his restaurants amid widespread charges of sexually charged, unsolicited behavior.

In December 2017, Tara Duggan of the San Francisco Chronicle reported on more than 17 women accusing Hallowell of sexual misconduct in the workplace. In the wake of these allegations, many more women came forward, taking the total beyond 30. An outside human resources consultant was retained to investigate the accusations. Hallowell took a leave and during his time away sold both Penrose and Boot & Shoe to former employees. In August 2018, Hallowell’s attempts to make a comeback, specifically his return to the Berkeley Farmers Market, a local chef favorite, met with both industry and community backlash as well as support. Given the opposition to his presence, Hallowell told the Chronicle he would wait longer before returning to the market or his flagship restaurant.

Redemption narratives for accused chefs have surfaced too soon for many #MeToo advocates, who question whether alleged sexual harassers and/or abusers are genuinely remorseful, have truly changed their ways, and deserve a second act. Some cases are currently working their way through the legal system, whether as civil rights violations, or, in Batali’s case, for potential criminal prosecution, according to news accounts.

Some are being prosecuted in the court of public opinion. Case in point: the outcry that ensued in June on social media and elsewhere when lauded New York chef and New York Times Magazine Eat columnist Gabrielle Hamilton and her wife Ashley Merriman, announced plans to partner with Friedman to resurrect the Spotted Pig. Hamilton, the James Beard Award–winning owner-chef behind beloved East Village institution Prune, did herself no favors when describing the controversial proposed relationship with the disgraced restaurateur, who happens to be a close friend. In a statement released to Eater she likened her actions to José Andrés’s humanitarian efforts feeding Puerto Ricans following 2017’s Hurricane Maria. Such sentiment did not go over well with many fellow chefs and industry workers who view her actions as a betrayal of the #MeToo movement.

At first, Hamilton dug in on her decision. While critics pointed to the economic incentives of maintaining relations with Friedman, Hamilton and Merriman sought to spin it as a kind of rehabilitation for Friedman, who has remained mute on the subject beyond an initial qualified apology when allegations, some of which he denies, were first reported. Meanwhile industry insiders debate whether restorative justice is appropriate for accused perpetrators, especially those who show little or no remorse. Some prefer public shunning and a complete financial divestment for those charged with harassment or assault. Some argue the Pig should be shuttered, with its employees readily finding other industry jobs in a tight labor market. Others think the space should be used to house a victims’ rights center. Still others argue it’s fine to keep the space as a restaurant, just as long as Friedman isn’t in the picture and it’s called something else. Regardless, in September Hamilton and Merriman announced they were pulling the plug on the proposed Pig partnership with Friedman on the grounds that they could not come to an agreement on who would have final say over the restaurant’s operations.

Clearly, searching for solutions in a post-#MeToo world is complicated and not without controversy. As industry exposé after industry exposé has piled up in the past 12 months or so, restaurants and food business owners have sought professional advice and are eager to step up anti–sexual harassment strategies, including sexual harassment training for all employees (such training is already mandatory for managers), revisiting anti-harassment policies, and pro-actively looking for ways to weed out sexual harassment at the table—whether from co-workers, managers, or restaurant diners.

Creating Harassment-Free Restaurants

Attorneys who represent restaurant employers, like Kasia Nowak, a lawyer for labor and employment law firm Fisher Phillips in San Francisco, have seen an uptick in inquiries around sexual harassment concerns in the past couple of years. The #MeToo message is loud and clear: employees should not have to deal with such behavior, employers should not tolerate it, and no restaurant wants to be the next news scandal. “I’m getting a lot more calls on the front end about what to do to avoid a sexual harassment complaint,” says Nowak. “Employers and supervisors want to be vigilant and pro active. If they’re in any doubt, they call for a consult.”

For over a decade, Nowak has represented a range of industry clients including fast food franchises, food trucks, and Michelin-starred restaurants. She has handled more than 50 complaints of sexual harassment in the past 10 years. Ten to 15 employees have brought lawsuits against employers she’s represented, she says; none have gone to jury trial and all have settled with nondisclosure clauses.

Anti harassment training for supervisors—two hours of interactive training every two years—is required by law in California for businesses of 50 or more employees. Nowak says that’s merely a starting point and anti harassment training is an on going process. “The training may be a way to open a dialogue about what is not permitted under the law and what is not tolerated in a workplace,” says Nowak. Restaurants need to create and convey the culture of their place, she says, and define what their expectations are in an environment that is open, respectful, fair, transparent, and consistent.

That approach is shared by fellow employment labor lawyer Marie Trimble Holvick, assistant managing partner in the San Francisco office of law firm Gordon & Rees. Holvick, who represents dozens of restaurants, says she updates her clients on changes in the law, drafts employee handbooks, and makes sure employers comply with anti–sexual harassment mandates. Holvick says there is so much dubious conduct that has been tolerated or labeled okay in restaurants in the past that she finds herself walking management and staff through a lot of scenarios to educate them about what is appropriate. Managers are required by law to report something if they witness an incident; workers aren’t legally obligated to do so, but Holvick notes that employees have an ethical responsibility to speak up if they observe sexual harassment on the job. Standing up to bullies in the workplace, she says, helps to root out bad actors.

Of course, not all restaurants can afford having outside counsel on retainer, and many small restaurants lack internal human resources departments to address such matters, a fact that surfaced during the recent spate of sexual harassment scandals. “It is far less expensive to retain an attorney before a lawsuit is filed than after a lawsuit is filed,” says Holvick. “The better business decision is to do everything possible to promote a safe and legally compliant workplace, and avoid the cost and stress of litigation.”

Clearly restaurateurs leave themselves vulnerable to big risks without putting systems and procedures in place to tackle a problem that has plagued an industry for decades. In 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is charged with enforcing federal laws prohibiting workplace discrimination, released a report that found that much of the anti–sexual harassment training done during the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool—it’s been mostly focused on simply avoiding legal liability.

Many workers receive such education through online sexual harassment trainings but these are largely ineffective, says Holvick. “It’s certainly better than doing nothing, but it’s easy for employees to tune out, let the program run for the required time, and then answer a few questions,” she says. “It just doesn’t have the same impact as a live training where participation is required.”

Innovative industry insiders are trying to fill that void. Some restaurateurs are working on novel approaches to empower staff. Case in point: Karen Leibowitz, co-owner of The Perennial, who worked with designer Kelli Anderson and female-focused Cherry Bombe magazine to create and distribute a sexual harassment PSA poster for restaurants. “I was interested in doing something that talked directly to employees,” says Leibowitz. “Now we can move from expressing outrage to creating a work environment we want to see. We can’t make it go away by ignoring it.” The poster tells workers “you are not powerless” and gives four actionable steps if an employee encounters or witnesses sexual harassment: keep a record, tell your employer, make it official, and find allies. Leibowitz doesn’t claim to have all the answers and thinks that the industry needs to tackle the issue from different angles and work on more than one solution to address rampant sexual harassment within its ranks. But she is encouraged by the interest in her idea and other innovations stemming from within the industry.

{Editors note: the poster is available as a download on cherrybombe.com and is available in English, Spanish, and Chinese.}

Restaurant workers experience sexual harassment at a higher rate than in any other industry, according to a data analysis by Buzzfeed News in January 2018. Their review of more than 17,000 claims filed with the EEOC between 1995 and 2016 found that 83 percent of complaints came from women and just over 10,000 were filed by employees of full-service restaurants, with another 1,000 filed by workers from other eating venues and 800 claims from agricultural workers. These complaints, of course, only represent those not resolved internally and don’t count cases of sexual harassment never reported in the first place.

sexual harassment poster

The idea for the PSA-style poster for employees sprouted during an OpenTable-sponsored event dedicated to addressing sexual harassment in the restaurant industry in January at Octavia in San Francisco, which was attended by mostly women chefs. Its design was inspired by instructional Heimlich maneuver posters, intended to help choking victims, which both restaurant employees and diners are used to seeing. The poster has been translated into Spanish and Chinese, and can be found in a diverse range of food establishments from Hot Bread Kitchen in New York to Bernal Cutlery in San Francisco.

In March of this year, reservation giant OpenTable—which boasts about 45,000 restaurants in its database system—launched Open Kitchen, a PSA-style campaign designed to encourage restaurants to foster better work environments for employees, with a zero-tolerance policy for harassment or discrimination as a starting point. Local industry heavyweights Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski of State Bird Provisions and The Progress, along with Tanya Holland of Brown Sugar Kitchen, were tapped to lend their voices to a cause declaring that “everyone deserves a safe seat at the table.” Commendable industry role models aside, it’s unclear whether such campaigns make a difference in stemming bad behavior in restaurants. As one critic at Eater noted: OpenTable didn’t divorce itself from restaurants run by alleged serial sexual harassment offenders (Batali, Besh & Co.) and thus still stands to profit by association with them. The idea for the campaign, which includes a video and a downloadable badge, also stemmed from the winter OpenTable meetup for women in hospitality hosted in San Francisco.

Sexual harassment in restaurants is not limited to owners, supervisors, and co-workers. A 2014 Restaurant Opportunities Center United report on sexual harassment found that 78 percent of restaurant workers had been harassed at one time by a customer.

Oakland restaurateur Erin Wade learned that firsthand. Wade was stunned to discover that sexual harassment was an issue at her mac-and-cheese restaurant, Homeroom. In late 2014, she was confronted by a flood of emails from staff about harassment—coming from the other side of the table. The catalyst was a customer—a father of four who put his hand up the shirt of a busser and stroked her bare belly while she was clearing his family’s table. The busser didn’t report the incident. But word spread and women began recounting their own experiences with handsy, harassing diners. Some had reported the incidents to male managers, who at the time didn’t really get it. Viewed through a male lens, the comments or behaviors did not seem threatening, Wade says.

Wade, a former labor and employment lawyer who calls herself a feminist restaurateur, realized she had a big problem on her hands. She encouraged her employees and managers to help brainstorm a solution. The restaurant devised a color-coded system—called the Management Alert Color System (fittingly for a mac-and-cheese restaurant, it’s known as “MACs” for short) for unwanted customer or vendor behavior. Yellow indicates a creepy vibe or leering look. Orange signals comments with clear sexual undertones, such as unwelcome comments on a worker’s appearance. Red calls out overtly sexual comments or touching, or repeated orange infractions after being told the comments are unwelcome.

Staff members simply report the problem—“I have an orange at table two”—and the manager is required to take a specific action. If it’s a code red, the customer is asked to leave the restaurant. An orange violation and the manager takes over looking after the table. With a yellow, a manager takes over the table if the targeted staffer requests such an action. In all three cases, the manager’s response is automatic, no questions asked.

At the time of implementation, all the shift managers at Homeroom were men, though their supervisors were women; since this issue came to light, Wade has worked to diversify each layer of management. Homeroom has close to 100 employees; 70 percent of the management team is made up of women and people of color.

Wade says that in the three years the program has been implemented—there’s a color-coded chart posted in-house—customer sexual harassment has ceased to be a problem and she’s been approached by other customer-facing businesses about the system and training staff on how to implement it in other workplaces.

One crucial aspect of this solution—the no-questions-asked policy—is that it prevents women from having to relive the unwanted experience with managers and it relieves managers from having to make judgment calls on what constitutes unwanted attention or threatening behavior. “A lot of really significant power dynamics are subverted by this system. It’s a pretty streamlined fix to a very relevant problem,” says Wade, who notes that standard sexual harassment training hasn’t been particularly successful in addressing when customers are the harassers.

#MeToo 2.0

For industry veterans like Gayle Pirie, who has co-owned Foreign Cinema in San Francisco for almost two decades, preventing sexual harassment in her kitchen and dining room is something she thinks about on a daily basis. “You have a responsibility and duty to the employees that make your industry shine,” says Pirie, who runs the 220-seat restaurant with 140 employees in the Mission. “At some point you have to get a grip and realize it’s not about chicken liver on toast or celebrities like Jay- Z, it’s about protecting these amazing people who are delivering your work,” she says. “A chef is a manager. You don’t dismiss the pleadings of people on your team,” adds Pirie, who, in an opinion piece for the Chronicle, was publicly critical of Bloomfield’s reported response to workers who complained of such behavior.

Nothing good, says Pirie, comes from allowing sexual harassment to fester in a professional setting. Pirie maintains that if a restaurant environment is toxic and causes pain and injustice, then it colors the food coming out of the kitchen. Beyond concerns over potential lawsuits, she says restaurant owners and managers have a moral and ethical responsibility to their staff to not condone or reward this kind of behavior.

In 18 years running a restaurant, Pirie says she’s dealt with about 10 incidents of sexual harassment from employees. “You take care of it quickly, you drop what you’re doing and you listen,” she says. “You want to convey to the person bringing you a complaint: I hear you. We do not take it lightly and we launch a full-scale investigation.” In each case, says Pirie, the restaurant has been able to resolve the issue from within, though they also have outside counsel on tap to advise—a luxury, she concedes, that smaller, newer restaurants may not be able to afford. Wrongdoers typically receive a suspension: it gives the instigator time to reflect and an opportunity for education, says Pirie, and it gives the target of harassment some space.

Pirie wants the public to know that restaurateurs are as concerned about the issue as diners. “Everyone has been shaken to the core by these allegations,” she says. “The brothers and sisters of chefs and operators we know in the industry are a hardworking, caring bunch who do the right thing. For the most part, I feel good about our community.”

Josey Baker Bread has taken steps to ensure the safety and inclusion of all its employees in the wake of the charges against Jeremy Tooker. Baker has partnered with a human resources consultant to reinforce the company’s reporting policies and to ensure they’re 100% clear to everyone on the team. “These policies reiterate what has always been our position,” wrote Baker in an email. “We have a zero-tolerance policy towards harassment of any kind, and anyone who feels uncomfortable has several safe avenues for surfacing any concerns.”

Baker says he is committed to providing a safe and fun working environment for his team. “I think the most socially responsible thing you can do as a business owner is build a workplace culture that is safe, communicative, and inclusive.”

There is heated debate about the role and timing of rehabilitation for accused perpetrators and whether or not they should ever be allowed to run a restaurant again. Has their punishment fit their reported crime? Is forgiveness possible for serial, long-term offenders? What about reparations to the victims of these alleged incidents? These thorny post-#MeToo matters will play out in the industry in the months and years to come.

For her part, seasoned restaurant chef Christa Chase, who has been in the industry for more than a dozen years, wants to not only lead by example but also hold alleged perpetrators accountable. She has openly criticized chef Charlie Hallowell’s reemergence in industry circles, including at the farmers markets. Chase, who has worked as a line cook at Oliveto, Pizzaiolo, and Boot & Shoe Service in Oakland, says it wasn’t until she landed in her current position, as chef at Tartine Manufactory in San Francisco, that she finally felt safe from sexual harassment on the job. “This is the first job where I haven’t had to deal with comments about my physical appearance or about being a woman that have made me uncomfortable,” she says.

Chase is adamant that perpetrators need to be held accountable and suggests that in some cases that may mean not being an owner of a restaurant anymore. “Empty apologies aren’t enough,” she says. “People need to take responsibility for their actions.”

Chase is motivated by a desire to mentor, to be the kind of boss she wished she’d had when she was starting out in fiercely hierarchical kitchens where sexual harassment thrived. “I feel as a young woman in a leadership role in a restaurant company, I need to make sure that every employee feels they are treated with respect in a harassment-free environment,” she says. “I want to be the leader I didn’t have. I want to help people feel safe at work and change the culture.”

Editor’s note: The inside back cover of this issue features the PSA poster for workplaces. Be sure to pick up a copy and cut it out for use in your workplace.

Stamping Out Sexual Harassment in the Kitchen: Rocked By #MeToo Revelations, the Restaurant Industry Seeks Solutions was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of Edible San Francisco. © 2018 Edible San Francisco.