“It perfectly sets me up like a dog on a leash: Master kicks the dog, and I’m supposed to bark? I think the kicking of the dog speaks for itself.”
— author/chef Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune in New York City
For better and for worse, the restaurant industry has always functioned a bit like a pirate ship, or at least maintained a crew like one. The application process is typically brief, and for the most part, the primary qualification for the job is simply showing up. Almost anyone with any background can walk into a restaurant and get some kind of job as a server, bartender, cook or dishwasher. A high school kid can pick up a summer gig busing tables at the diner down the road; a college student can pick up shifts on the line to help pay for school; and someone recently laid off, tired of their job or even fresh out of a correctional institution can make a new start behind the bar or flipping steaks.
It is one of the best things about the restaurant industry and one of the reasons for its broad appeal among one of the country’s most diverse workforces. Closer to home, it’s one of the reasons for Asheville’s burgeoning restaurant scene, which accounts for nearly 30 percent of the city’s jobs, according to a 2017 Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce report.
But this may also help explain why nearly 37 percent of all sexual harassment charges filed by women with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from the restaurant industry — more than five times the rate for the general female workforce, according to a 2012 report from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United titled “Tipped Over the Edge — Gender Inequity in the Restaurant Industry.”
Any industry that requires insanely long hours working under high pressure in tight spaces for low wages, with few days off, is predictably going to attract mostly temporary laborers and transient workers, along with a smattering of dedicated, career-driven workhorses. That’s not a formula for encouraging professional behavior.
Instead, the stereotypical restaurant staff is more likely to resemble the aforementioned pirate crew: a ragtag family of fun-loving, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed misfits, most of whom would probably never have met if they hadn’t happened to land under the same flag. And this dims the prospects for curbing a disturbing, long-standing industry trend: the objectification and exploitation of women. On the heels of the nationwide #MeToo movement and Asheville residents’ response to the 2015 Waking Life scandal, however, some local groups and individuals are starting to push back.
Normalizing inappropriate behavior
“We don’t make a lot: eight- to 12-hour shifts for shitty money,” says Sam Pennington, who’s been managing restaurants for a decade. Pennington grew up in Johnson City, Tenn., mopping the floors at her uncle’s bar, Cahootenanny’s. After moving to Asheville, she spent the better part of a decade working in a half-dozen local dining and drinking establishments. “As a result, you work a lot more, and pretty soon your restaurant family becomes your real family because you see them so much.”
That casual familiarity, as well as many restaurants’ rough-and-tumble attitude, has the unfortunate effect of normalizing behavior that would be deemed inappropriate in other work environments. “When you walk by someone and maybe grab their hip, or say ‘You look really good today,’ I don’t think that is appropriate for the workplace,” says Pennington.
Kristen Skelton agrees. Having put in her time at culinary school and invested seven years in the business, she considers it her career and hopes to eventually run her own kitchen. “Sometimes you just want to be friends with someone you work with and have good rapport,” she says. “That doesn’t mean you are interested, but finding that line can be weird.”
It doesn’t help that women constitute a stark minority in restaurant kitchens. According to a 2016 Orlando Sentinel story, “just 18.7 percent of chefs and executive chefs are female.” Other sources give similar numbers.
“There was one guy I worked for. … It started as co-workers and friends, but he would send me inappropriate text messages: ‘What are you wearing right now?’ or ‘You should leave your husband.’ And he was my boss,” Skelton explains, adding, “It’s worse when it’s your boss because you feel like you can’t ask them not to do that.”
Pinpointing what sexual harassment constitutes can be difficult, she acknowledges, adding that it wasn’t the off-color nature of the kitchen banter that irked her. “You can keep a level of professionalism and still talk about sex because we are adults.” Yet, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography, harassment may be hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
“There was a guy I cooked with,” continues Skelton, “and he’d pull my apron string and pull me close to him and say, ‘I’m going to steal a kiss from you.’ And that is just the kind of crap I have to deal with, but I have shit to do. I’m trying to work a lunch shift. It’s busy! But at the same time, I’m not going to ruin that person’s life: I don’t want them to not … have a job.”
Far more women work front-of-house, yet the problems are the same. And like so many others facing similar situations, Skelton has left jobs for what she hoped would be a better situation. Unfortunately, though, there’s no guarantee that things will be any different elsewhere.
“The EEOC did a study and found that around three-quarters of employees who experience harassment or assault in the workplace don’t ever report it — they just find another job,” says human resources attorney Sabrina Rockoff of McGuire, Wood & Bissette, who represents many local independent restaurants. “If you have a situation where there is a lot of unexplained turnover or even a lot of unexplained absences,” she advises, “you might want to do some investigating of the work environment in that department.”
The customer is always right
It’s not just a question of bosses abusing employees, however.
“At Our VOICE, we have gotten an equal share of complaints of ‘I’m being sexually harassed by a colleague’ as we have of ‘I’m being sexually harassed by my manager or owner,’” Executive Director Angelica Wind reports. The nonprofit assists people who have been the targets of sexual violence. Clients, notes Wind, have said that some local restaurant owners have “encouraged them to wear skimpier clothes or to come see them after hours.”
“While there are some pluses to a tourism economy, there are drawbacks in the sense that if you work in a restaurant and there are no other jobs, where are you going to go except another restaurant?” says Wind. “So it really puts survivors at a disadvantage in terms of their options.”
Another key factor in the normalization of sexual harassment is restaurant patrons who take advantage of the service sector’s “customer is always right” attitude.
“It’s gotten so bad for us this last year that I added a sexual harassment addendum to our service agreement,” says Lexie Harvey, co-owner of Cordial & Craft. The catering company provides bar services for local weddings and other high-end events. In one instance, a guest followed a staff member into the elevator of a downtown venue and assaulted her, grabbing her by the neck.
The employee never reported the incident; Harvey found out about it through a mutual friend. “I really wish she had just come to me so I could have helped,” Harvey says.
Still, Harvey says she understands why someone might be reluctant to report such an experience. “Sometimes when these kinds of things happen to you, you feel like you are the only one they’re happening to, and it feels like you must be causing them or that it must be something wrong with you.”
Wind, meanwhile, points the finger at certain deep-rooted attitudes in the restaurant business. “Objectification [of service staff] plays a huge role in this industry,” she says, arguing that the prevalence and staying power of restaurants like Hooters underscores what she sees as the restaurant world’s primary weakness: “There is this pervasive mentality that you should do anything and everything to please the customer.”
Further complicating matters is workers’ extreme dependence on tips. “It’s hard because those customers are paying your bills, more so than the establishment that has hired you,” notes Harvey. After taxes, she adds, most bartenders walk away with about a $15-$20 paycheck for a week’s work. “You can’t rely on a good tip by just being good at your job, and sometimes that entails not speaking up when a customer acts inappropriately.”
Nikki Bang, an organizer with the Asheville Sustainable Restaurant Workforce, maintains, “A lot of the underlying issue is financial. It is a poor-people issue; it’s a power dynamic of who’s writing the check and who is in control. And being in that kind of survival mode makes people feel trapped.”
The situation, notes Bang, gets even tougher when you factor in Asheville’s rising cost of housing, which threatens to devour an even larger part of those already scant paychecks. “And the big paradox of that dynamic,” she continues, “is that we are the dominant workforce in this city, and we can’t afford to live here anymore.”
ASRW founder Alia Todd agrees. “It perpetuates silence because you have so much more to protect. When you live on the bottom, you have a lot more to lose.”
Pushing for change
Several local groups are taking steps to shine a spotlight on the problem. ASRW, the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association and Our VOICE have all hosted forums for different pockets of the industry in hopes of stimulating constructive dialogue, as the first step toward much-needed change.
“We can all speak to being in work situations where there was a dynamic that was clearly not going to change,” says Hannah Morgan, who’s also involved with the restaurant workers group. “You don’t need to be changing jobs — we need to have the resources available to be able to actually make those changes in our workplace.”
Training, argues HR attorney Rockoff, is the quickest route to addressing the issue. “It’s important to teach that we all come from different places, we all have different experiences, and we all have different definitions of our personal space. We have certain expectations about what is acceptable at work: Don’t touch each other, don’t talk about your sex life.”
Often, she points out, “When someone becomes a supervisor or a manager, it’s because they were good at what they did, not because they’ve had any training in being a supervisor or a manager, or even how to deal with people.”
Our VOICE, meanwhile, does offer training for industry staffers, including the brand-new 86 Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry course. “We want to help owners and staff have restaurants that still thrive and yet can be disrupters around this kind of behavior,” Wind explains.
“I feel that a lot of the ignorance has to do with the silence around what sexual violence looks like. When we say sexual violence, we think of it as a spectrum. It starts with the inappropriate jokes, the catcalls and whistles, [escalating] to inappropriate touching, sexual harassment, all the way to full-on human trafficking and rape.”
But the courses the nonprofit offers, she stresses, are “not about shaming.” During the training, she explains, “Folks are able to recognize that what they thought was a harmless joke actually had lasting implications, and they’re very open to getting the tools to help them be disrupters. … We see a lot of people saying, ‘I want to stop this; I just don’t know how.’”
Although these behaviors are already illegal, the issue has only recently begun claiming public attention. Thus, training is a first step in expanding awareness, which is key to triggering a cultural shift. Beyond that, advocates say, it’s important to report workplace incidents — and seek the help of local organizations working to address the problem (see box).
Editor’s note: Jonathan Ammons is employed part-time by Cordial & Craft.