By Joshua Lewin
We have a problem in the restaurant industry, and it isn't new. Talking about it isn't new either. But talking about it the way we are talking about it now is. Until fairly recently we talked about it like it was funny. At least a lot of us did.
Or, if not funny, expected; understood to be the case.
Harassment is a regular expectation for too many individuals in this business. This harassment takes a lot of forms, and they should all be discussed and brought to light, but for now, I'm referring to sexual harassment. And unfortunately more than I realized, sexual assault.
This harassment and assault primarily affects women. But not exclusively. Yes men, I know, it can happen to us too. And it does. For now, I'm talking about the sexual harassment and sexual assault of cis and trans women in restaurants.
If you work in restaurants, it has likely happened in every job you have ever held. You might have done it. If you eat in restaurants, it has likely happened at some point in every restaurant you've enjoyed (or didn't enjoy). You might have been responsible. Women in restaurants are often subjected to harassment and assault at the hands of guests. Literally. I've had a staff member harassed by a repair vendor in a small space where no one could hear it. Recently.
But for now I'm talking mostly about instances involving co-workers, and because it is so common, I'll stick to directing these comments at instances involving superiors; managers, chefs, owners, apparently also... investors.
Sexual harassment and assault is about power. So are our reactions to it. Restaurants should be a refuge and a place of opportunity for the people working in them. They were, and are, for me. But then again, I am a man.
Without the opportunity provided to me by this exciting industry, I really have no idea what I would be doing today. Restaurants gave me the time and the means to figure it out. Eventually, I figured out that I wanted to stay. Had I been subjected to sexual harassment or assault, especially repeatedly, I don't know that I would have been able to pursue what has become the work that I love. I wonder how many women have not...
The most important three people in my organization, of about twenty, are women. This includes my co-owner, our general manager, and our executive sous chef. My company wouldn't exist without Katrina. Not just that it wouldn't exist the way it does now, there is plainly no way my career would look remotely like it does today, without her contributions to what we do together. Juliet would be months and years behind where we are as a still start up business without the work and dedication of Katie and Rachael.
I hope they never leave. And I do my best to work, with them, to create and provide an environment that is meaningful and rewarding, provides opportunities to learn and develop (professionally, personally, creatively), and provides an income that is livable and fair (and growing).
This is really a form of hospitality. It's a similar philosophy to the way we approach our guests, even if the tools we use with them are different. In fact, our initial training materials include a lot of discussion that, in a way, removes the separation between who the guests are, and who the staff are, when it comes to what hospitality means, and how it works.
We take care of people. Sure, that's usually through cooking, setting the table, cleaning up, and pouring the wine. But it's also through telling our story, and listening to theirs.Through approaching each interaction with understanding and respect, through realizing that everyone involved in the interaction (at Juliet we call these stakeholders, and the stakeholders very clearly include our staff) benefits when, well, everyone benefits. The opposite by definition then, is also true.
Why is it so common then in a field that is built on hospitality, or at least is supposed to be, that a group of people can be so regularly and pervasively subjected to the harassment and assault that we are now reading about every day?
I don't know all the reasons, but I do understand that this issue is about power and who has it, and who wants to keep it. Again, I'm referring to the sexual harassment and assault of women working in restaurants at the hands of their managers, chefs, owners, and their investors.
These victims have felt afraid for years- and decades in many breaking cases- to come forward and report these instances. Often,they haven't felt they had anyone to report them to, because their attacker was their boss, or because they were told not to bother to report by their boss, or begged not to report by their coworkers, because they were afraid of repercussions based on threats from their attackers, or even a history of experiencing those threats being carried out.
Over the past few months high profile cases of systematic abuse and its covering up have broken about some of the biggest and brightest names that made this industry so attractive to so many seeking opportunity. I could list all the names, but thanks to some brave and diligent reporting, and much much braver informing, I don't have to. And for now, I won't. The information is easy to find.
For an industry that is founded on principles of hospitality and care, it is unfathomable to me that we have never discussed openly and proactively the issues of the sexual harassment and assault of women in these jobs. We knew. We all knew.
As it says in our employee handbook: hospitality is proactive.
Everyone is culpable. The chefs and managers that look the other way when told to (I've done that), the investors and business partners that put up with unacceptable behavior to protect profits and branding, the press and other gatekeepers that sprinkle out the attention that keeps these businesses churning, and the foundations and organizations that hang medals around the necks and bestow honorifics on the individuals who will become symbols of success.
I have no idea how to fix it. I train and work side by side with a staff of twenty, serving 300 guests each week. All I can really do is refuse to accept it, and let people know. We can, and will, create better training programs within our organization to guard against it happening here, and to take specific action if it does. We will encourage discussion and solution based conversations among our team and outside of it. We will provide a place of opportunity, safety, and dignity, not as an afterthought, but as part of our foundation and woven into the creativity of our work.
Award winning restaurateurs and chefs should have their names removed from their plaques if their success has come at the expense of the dignity and safety of others. Strip those awards away and put together a committee to seek out and award hardworking and talented people who were held back by their actions. This won't be easy, or perfect. But it could be done.
Well intentioned individuals and businesses with smaller voices should be sought out by the press, large and small, and heralded as trailblazers. It sounds a little ridiculous to suggest that it is a trailblazing attitude to promote equality, opportunity, and dignity for everyone working in this industry of opportunity and hospitality. I know. But I also know that it is true. The press could have an overwhelmingly positive influence in telling these stories, which will be invaluable for those that have them told.
There are a lot of good people working in this business. It should be notable though how powerful so many of the bad ones were, and are. This is a watershed moment for dignity in the workplace. It is a painful moment for many. We have an opportunity as an industry to lead the way forward, the way we always should have.