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An In-Hospitable Industry: Harassment and Abuse in Restaurants

Restaurants have always been a hotbed for abuse and harassment. Physical, verbal, psychological and indirect abuse through long hours in uncomfortable conditions. In addition, harassment of employees by co-workers, managers and customers has been normalized for a long time. An Australian study showed that 89% of female restaurant workers had experienced sexual harassment. In an industry which employs 1.2 million Canadians, that number becomes staggering.

Exposé articles, such as the recent NY Times piece on the atrocities of Blaine Wetzel and The Willows Inn, may come as a shock to people outside of the world of hospitality, but for those of us on the inside, we can all relate to a place, a person or an event within our own experiences.

For an industry that prides itself on service, with its very name, hospitality, meaning “a friendly and generous reception”, why is it that this sentiment rarely extends to its employees? “The short answer is, because it’s permitted” states Christina Veira, co-owner of Bar Mortdecai and hospitality educator. Veira goes on to note that the servile nature of the hospitality industry in North America lays the foundation for abuse and mistreatment of people. Along with this, food and drink is fetishized, enforcing a culture of quality above anything else and villainizing mediocrity.

Through this article, I am in no way attempting to oversimplify what is an interconnected web of issues burdening restaurants. The causes of abuse and harassment are deep rooted in our foundations. But to summon change requires analysis of the underlying pretext.

The ‘tip’ of the Iceberg

“Tipping is fundamentally the backbone of a lot of the problems in the industry” says Suzanne Barr, Chef and social advocate. Tip culture impacts heavily in the conversation of harassment. Barr adds “it is an archaic system designed as a way to keep people at the bottom of a manipulated meritocracy”.  

It separates the restaurant industry from almost all others, in that tipped workers are legally allowed to be paid a lower minimum wage and rely on the customer’s arbitrary judgement to contribute the rest. The Glass Floor paper (2014) showed that sub-minimum wage tipped workers in the US are more likely to report sexual harassment than those who are paid the same minimum wage as workers in other industries.

It is not out of the ordinary for employers to require female servers to dress or look a certain way, before offering them up as bait to the unvetted public. Young female servers have likened it to the sex industry, where it is learned that the more abuse you are willing to tolerate from guests, the more money you stand to make, providing immediate reinforcement to the practice.  When it reaches the point that it becomes unbearable, standing up for yourself could mean losing tips, being the subject of a guest complaint for being ‘inhospitable’, losing shifts and even termination. These are real scenarios that many in the industry have experienced.

Said behaviour from guests and the reactionary treatment from managers has long been commonplace. And if the reporting of harassment results in such a response, how could any employee feel safe or comfortable bringing it to their employer? The statistics around harassment only show the numbers for reported cases. The reality is certainly much more shocking.

The Stress of it All

A US study on sexual harassment in the hospitality industry found that high stress environments have contributed to overwhelming levels of harassment. 

These high stress/low reward environments take a heavy toll on mental and physical wellbeing.  According to Statistics Canada, poor workplace well-being and a low sense of belonging in an organization leads to a higher likelihood of workplace harassment. Both of these attributes are heavily related to the hospitality industry. High employee turnover, unstructured work flows, little to no training and a lack of development paths all contribute to a toxic environment.

Patriarchal Island Nations

The restaurant industry is controlled by males. It is dominated by white men in their late twenties to mid thirties and of an anglo background. I am well aware that I, too, am part of this majority. Females, racialized and queer individuals are statistically more likely the subject of harassment but are rarely in positions of power to make change, explaining why these patterns of abuse continue to thive.

Ivy Knight, former line cook turned journalist, speaks of each establishment only needing to answer to itself, enabling them to make their own rules of how to operate with little to no consequences. “Each restaurant is its own country. Its own dictatorship”. 

With that being said, each owner, chef and manager makes a decision on the culture they create with absolute freedom. With the high levels of abuse and harassment still present in restaurant environments, it’s clear to see that the choice to cultivate a toxic culture is being made time and time again.

A Call to Action

Our industry has been decimated by the pandemic. Never before in the modern age has there been a time where restaurants were shuttered for over a year and were forced to take a long hard look at themselves with some added perspective. 

From the rubble there is opportunity to rebuild an industry full of the good and do away with the bad. We have proved time and time again that we can adapt to change to survive. Now is the time to adapt to thrive. Harassment occurs at all levels of society and is exacerbated by ingrained prejudices and systemic inequities. As independently owned small businesses, there is tremendous opportunity for restaurants to be leaders in dismantling these prejudices and build frameworks based on equity.

But ultimately, the responsibility falls on owners and managers to make these changes, to do better and stand for what is right. Male leaders in the industry particularly need to steward change by learning, listening, acting and intervening. This industry can be a celebration of food, drink, culture and people. We can achieve more together without the baggage of abuse.

A great education resource is The Full Plate, an NFO filling the gaps in services available to hospitality workers. Launched at the beginning of the pandemic, the platform offers, amongst other things, seminars in creating and promoting equitable, non-discriminatory spaces. It is uncommon for restaurants to offer this kind of training for managers, making it an invaluable resource. But according to founder and chair, Sarah Bailey, 90% of the attendees for these seminars are female. With women being one of the groups most likely to experience harassment, the bulk of the responsibility does not lie with them to solve the problem of abuse.

We need to not be uncomfortable with being uncomfortable. Avoiding these conversations will not work. Doing the work will work. The future of restaurants is in our hands. 

Chris Locke

Chris Locke, Executive Chef - Marben Restaurant and The Cloak Bar English by birth, Chef Chris Locke has honed his culinary skills and knowledge internationally through the UK, Australia and France and Central America. Now homed in Toronto, Chris has a passion for using locally sourced ingredients, showcasing the best of Ontario's bounty bringing honest and challenging dishes to the table. There is a heavy emphasis on seasonality in his cooking, using fermentation and preservation where possible to lengthen the seasons and transform their flavours. Chris is currently the executive chef of Marben Restaurant and The Cloak Bar and has been for four years. He was a proponent of guiding the restaurant to a no tipping model; increasing benefits and working condition for employees and promoting a professional workplace.