What’s next for #MeToo in the restaurant industry?

Influential women from all areas of the food business, from chefs to restaurateurs and food writers, dissect how the national movement has impacted their industry.

What’s next for #MeToo in the restaurant industry?
[Photo: Flickr user Lou Stejskal]

“The restaurant industry feels to me like Wall Street did in 1996,” OpenTable CEO Christa Quarles says. That’s one reason Quarles felt compelled to host a family-style dinner this month at Shuka, a Mediterranean eatery in New York, with women who’ve made food their business. The event was the second of OpenTable’s Open Conversations dinners, an experimental series that kicked off earlier this year in San Francisco, after a wave of sexual harassment allegations washed over the restaurant industry.


OpenTable CEO Christa Quarles [Photo: Flickr user Christopher Michel]
“The first order for these dinners was really to create space and forum for conversation. And from there, I think everybody wants to know that this isn’t just about having the cathartic conversation. While that’s super important and frankly very much needed, it’s also to create space for what’s next,”Quarles explains.

Over plates of mezze, the women in attendance debated everything from tipping to whether to boycott a Mario Batali restaurant. I spoke to Quarles and the other women who hosted the event about how the industry is evolving post-#MeToo, and what restaurateurs are thinking—and acting on—now.

Awareness and education

Even for women in the industry, the sexual misconduct allegations against celebrity chefs like Batali and Ken Friedman were revelatory. “I didn’t realize quite the extent,” says Bowery Group restaurateur Vicki Freeman. “I don’t know if I had my head in the sand. It was this very big wake-up call to me.”

Some of Freeman’s employees have come forward with harassment allegations, even prior to the #MeToo movement. While she took such allegations seriously, Freeman confesses she felt those incidents were part and parcel of working in restaurants. “I have to admit there was a tiny part of me that was like, ‘Get over it,'” she says,”as someone who has dealt with that in my own time. I was a waitress until I was 30.” Now, all that has changed. “I don’t know what part of me thought that was okay in any way, shape, or form,” she adds. “I completely don’t feel that way anymore.”

As in other sectors of the hospitality industry, the most vulnerable parties in a restaurant can be the least equipped to report—or even detect—misconduct. That’s why educating workers is a crucial piece of addressing harassment and revamping workplace culture. Chef Ashley Christensen recently wrote a post urging her peers to invest in human resources. “I know intimately how tight the margins are in our business, but it is so crucial to find room in the budget for this resource,” she wrote. “I think it’s almost impossible as a business owner to review situations between employees in a truly neutral manner, and having a skilled HR director allows us to provide that resource and safe zone to our team.”


Following the first OpenTable dinner in San Francisco, restaurateur Karen Leibowitz decided to create a PSA-style poster—in the vein of the required choking first aid poster that New York restaurants are required to put up—to help restaurant employees identify and report sexual harassment. In the restaurant business, harassment can come not only from bosses and coworkers, but also from customers. “We need to make sure that restaurant workers feel protected and empowered to speak up, and we need customers to know what the restaurant’s policies are,” says Clare Reichenbach, the CEO of the James Beard Foundation.

Still, it’s no small feat for restaurateurs to bend their approach to customer service. Kerry Diamond, the editorial director and cofounder of indie food magazine Cherry Bombe, notes that a zero tolerance policy for guests can be a “really hard position to take.”You’re so trained to be a certain way in the hospitality industry,” she says. “It’s always been guests first. But that line of thinking is starting to evolve.”

The tipping conundrum

Tipped workers in the restaurant industry are paid a lower wage to account for the extra cash they earn via tips. In New York, advocates and workers are pushing to get rid of the sub-minimum wage. Advocacy organizations like Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United argue that increasing wages would help mitigate the harassment weathered by front-of-house staff. At the OpenTable dinner, however, there was little consensus on the merits of increasing wages. Some worried that it would force restaurants to eliminate jobs and further widen the pay gap between front-of-house staff and kitchen staff, who don’t receive tips; others felt it would empower servers in their interactions with customers.

Diamond believes having two classes of employees, where one group receives tips and the other does not, is “not the way forward. The front of house is not working any harder than the back of house,” she says. “So how can you have these two teams compensated in such a wildly different way?” That’s one reason why countless restaurants in the U.S., including David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi, have attempted to do away with tipping. (In doing so, restaurants usually increase menu prices to cover the higher wages paid to front-of-house staff.) Few have done so successfully: Many establishments reversed course after losing business and sometimes employees.

Freeman, who is “very against getting rid of the tip credit,” doesn’t think increasing wages is a surefire way to curb harassment. “I don’t believe that’s how it’s going to work, because no matter what you do, there’s always going to be a hierarchy; there’s always going to be someone in more power.” But a number of states have already approved a minimum wage increase for tipped workers—which means the relationship between tipping and wages will continue to be hotly debated.


Shifting culture

“Everyone says the answer is to own your own restaurant,” Diamond says. That’s easier said than done. Women are said to account for about half of culinary graduates but are underrepresented in the chef ranks. “Supporting women to own and run scalable businesses is something the Foundation really wants to get behind, as we believe it is a key to shifting the culture,” Reichenbach says.

While it’s true that women restaurateurs can set the tone and culture as owners, that assumes they want to (and can) take on that responsibility. Being a working woman—especially a working mother—is difficult in any industry, but particularly so in the restaurant business. If a restaurant employee has kids, working a night shift will, for example, require childcare at night.

And as Diamond points out, not everyone wants to be a restaurant owner. “I think one of the interesting things about the women in the world that [Cherry Bombe covers] is they’re really carving out their own paths in this industry, whether they’re caterers or bloggers; whether they’re opening small cooking schools, or they are recipe testers and work out of their homes,” Diamond says. “There are so many different roads into this industry. It’s not just about being a chef.”

But what should women in the business do with the men who have wronged their peers? Should shifting the culture mean helping them stage a redemption tour? Gabrielle Hamilton sure thinks so. The Prune chef opted to partner with Friedman after April Bloomfield left The Spotted Pig and dissolved their partnership. Hamilton’s decision was criticized by folks within and outside the industry. (Hamilton doubled down, adding that “everyone is a better spouse their second time around.”)

“I can think of 1,000 people who deserve redemption more than Ken Friedman,” Diamond says, arguing that Friedman should have divested from his restaurant group. “The fact that anyone would want to sweep in and save or redeem Ken Friedman is ridiculous.” But in a post-#MeToo reality, women in the industry will have to make decisions like this one. Hamilton may have given Friedman a second chance he doesn’t deserve—but she also saved a lot of jobs.

Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that The Spotted Pig’s employees will have to work under Friedman. “I feel like what those employees are going through is a completely different form of harassment,” Diamond adds. “Having to choose whether to stay and work at a tarnished eatery for a disgraced restaurateur, or go stand on the unemployment line, is its own form of harassment.”

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.