How Sex Abuse Culture Threatens Restaurant Industry and What It Can Do About It

By Kate Krader | December 21, 2017

That there’s abuse behind the scenes in restaurant isn’t news. Within the chef community, the news is that people are surprised to hear about it.

The true scale of the issue has yet to be revealed, though it’s been hinted at in details of the behavior of some of the country’s highest-profile food figures, such as Spotted Pig restaurateur Ken Friedman and chefs John Besh and Mario Batali. Accounts include incidents of groping, stalking, abuse, and even industry blackmail. Almost everyone agrees this is just the beginning.

The potential price tag for these harassment cases to restaurants is quite large. In 2014, P.F. Chang’s paid almost $1 million to two women over harassment claims. In addition to payments, brands experience ripple effects: Batali’s products, such as tomato sauce and cookbooks, have been pulled off the shelves at Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., and even Eataly, in which Batali holds an ownership stake.

According to Myles Share of Myles Share and Associates, one of the New York’s biggest restaurant insurance providers, the landscape has changed drastically—in a lasting manner, he hopes—following the recent rush of scandals.

“In the past decade, I can count on one hand the number of sexual harassment lawsuits I’ve covered. After last week, things will be different,” says Share. He predicts that Employee Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI), which covers charges over sexual harassment, discrimination, and wages, plus hourly legal fees, will become much more popular.

Currently, EPLI coverage costs at least $100 per employee per year; a business with 100 employees would cost at least $10,000 for insurance, annually. “Five years ago, 20 percent of our clients had EPLI coverage,” says Share. “By the end of 2018, I’d say 80 percent of our clients will have secured coverage.”

Restaurant consultant Stephen Loffredo, of Seasoned Hospitality Strategy and Management notes that the $100 per person figure can be higher if there have been previous settlements.

Loffredo has a 60-page handbook he provides clients that includes proprietary templates with sexual harassment clauses on how to report any inappropriate behavior to management. He’s owned a version of it since he opened his former restaurant, Zoe, in 1992 in New York. “I came from the hotel industry, where these types of documents were standard. It becomes more necessary in the restaurant every day,” he says. “Now—even at small, casual operations—you need to have {human resources] policies in place. It has become 100 percent necessary.”

Not every restaurant business sees the answer as more rules and insurance coverage; Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, a company that has been vocal about its emphasis on employee well-being, has opted to start round tables in the wake of the stories that have surfaced. USHG recently hosted its first, inviting company women and men at all levels to talk with Meyer, Chief Culture Officer Erin Moran, and other members of the management committee.

Training, Training, Training

Other chefs were working to put systems in place long before the recent rash of allegations and reports. For Martha Hoover of the Patachou Restaurant Group in Indianapolis, culture training is so essential that her orientation can stretch to three weeks. It focuses on respecting colleagues. Before she got into the restaurant business, Hoover worked in the sex crimes unit of the prosecutor’s office in Indianapolis. “I’m fully aware of how women are treated and how the restaurant system rarely protects them,” she says. “I put money in the front end to retain employees and make sure everyone feels safe.”

Key to her philosophy is instantaneous response, coupled with an intensity that comes from prosecuting crimes. “We should all stop saying, ‘I’m sorry you feel offended.’ My position is: ‘You’re offended; let’s address the person who offended you right this minute.'”

When Alex Stupak opened 160-seat Empellon Midtown in New York earlier this year, he created the position of director of human resources as part of growing his company. Counting this as a prescient move, he has since added an annual, mandatory anti-harassment training seminar that will take place at each of his three restaurants. (He estimates the cost at $15,000). “I want everyone to know what harassment means,” Stupak says. “Now is the time to talk about it.”

In 2016, California began requiring mandatory sexual harassment training for company supervisors. Caroline Styne, who employs about 400 people at her L.A. restaurants, including A.O.C. and Tavern, was ahead of the curve. Since 1998, when she and chef Suzanne Goin opened their first restaurant, Lucques, she’s had a handbook that addresses the problem of sexual harassment, among other issues. “We’re a women-owned business and conscious of every single thing. The minute any employee relates an experience that might be inappropriate, we investigate. There’s no gray area,” she says.

Over time, the Lucques Group has added a human resources attorney and a human resources adviser to the roster, and the handbook has grown to 50 pages. “There’s not a ton of sexual harassment issues. We did fire a chef for inappropriate behavior at a holiday party. Now, we don’t have any more holiday parties.”

No Employee Drinks

For Top Chef star Hugh Acheson, whose Georgia restaurants include Empire State South and Five & Ten, documentation employees sign isn’t enough. “A lot of them are just there to appease the insurance company. And then they go straight in the drawer. Restaurants are alive and need to be watched over constantly.”

The chef stresses the need to make a distinction between employees’ professional and personal lives. “I find that the restaurants that are the most out-of-control, the most exploitative, are where everyone drinks together after hours.” Acheson continues: “I’m not the guy dancing on the bar at an Aspen after party. And your employees shouldn’t be dancing on the bar at their workplace, either.”

Sang Yoon of California spots such as Father’s Office and Lukshon has the same policy. “The problems we are seeing now aren’t a lack of established rules,” he says. “It’s people at the top not following their own rules; it’s no different than senators and studio heads.” With the late hours and alcohol, restaurants are an incubator for bad behavior. Yoon’s rule for avoiding these issues is to prohibit shift or after-work drinks. “Shift drinks turn into a two-hour thing, and nothing good comes of it. I strongly advocate a separation of church and state. You just cannot hop from one side of the bar to the other.”

Get in People’s Heads

One of the few women in the male-dominated barbecue industry is Amy Mills of 17th Street Barbecue, which has a couple of locations in Southern Illinois. Mills makes every employee sign a document drafted by her lawyer: “Sexual Harassment and a Hostile Work Environment.” “A lot of people in the barbecue industry are from a different generation, where bad behavior was acceptable. We are breaking that mold,” Mills says. She regularly posts stories that relate to industry problems on the restaurants’ social media and in the hallways. More important, she now makes a point of talking about them in pre-shift meetings. “You talk and talk and get in people’s heads.”

Sherry Vallaneuva, who runs six restaurants, including the Lark, Lucky Penny, and Les Marchands in Santa Barbara, Calif., has instituted a harassment training program that her managers take every year. Vallaneuva used to work at Twist Worldwide, researching trends for companies such as Target; now she’s responsible for almost 300 employees. “Those trainings are expensive, and they cut into the already thin margins you have as a restaurant operator. But this is not sex, drugs, and rock and roll. We’re the hospitality equivalent of a PG 13 movie.” Because there’s such a dramatic labor shortage in restaurants, Vallaneuva sees some places putting up with more bad behavior than they should. Once she gets a report, she moves fast to eliminate a problem employee. “I’m a believer in that “one bad apple” cliché. I’d rather do the job myself then keep that violating the rules. I’m fine to go in and work the line.”

Change the Message

Bobby Stuckey, owner and wine director of Colorado’s renowned Frasca Food and Wine and Tavernetta, believes that even just changing the messaging can help fight the problem of abuse in restaurants. He’s intent on getting rid of the glamorized, hard-partying chef credo. (That’s been celebrated since before Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential came out in 2000. Late in February, Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll (HarperCollins, 2018) by Andrew Friedman—no relation to Ken—will be released. It will highlight the origin of American cooking culture in the 1970s and ’80s.)

On a more concrete level, Stuckey credits a human resources manager he hired as a non-biased person to oversee problems. The company now executes confidential surveys among the staff—not a common restaurant practice. It’s not cheap; Stuckey says the manager makes close to a six figure salary. “But it’s so much better and more healthy now that our staff knows they have a voice.”

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