East Bay restaurant industry searches for solutions amid sexual harassment revelations

Photo: Chris Goldberg/Flickr

On Jan. 30, nine women stood in a line behind a podium in a conference room at the Oakland Marriott. They were there with their attorney, Mika Hilaire, for a press conference calling for their former boss, Oakland restaurateur Charlie Hallowell, to immediately and completely divest from his restaurant group. Hallowell owns Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe Service and Penrose.

“Please know that this process has been terrifying and invasive and time-consuming. There have been attempts to bully and smear us, but we will not be intimidated,” said Jessica Moncada, one of Hallowell’s accusers, a former bartender at Boot & Shoe Service.

The demand follows allegations brought against Hallowell in December when The San Francisco Chronicle first reported that 17 women had come forward with accusations of sexual harassment and verbal abuse by Hallowell.

The Chronicle article adds to the documentation of the burgeoning #metoo movement that started with the outing of Harvey Weinstein in the entertainment industry, but which quickly swept across myriad other industries. In the Bay Area, where food has made celebrities of chefs, and where many feel that food issues and social causes are interconnected, the sexual misconduct allegations in the local culinary world have sent shockwaves through the community.

Hallowell acknowledged to the Chronicle that his behavior had been “unfiltered and completely inappropriate.” He said he would step away from day-to-day operations of the business for the next six months. Although he will no longer take a salary, he is still a primary stakeholder in his businesses. His new Boot & Shoe Service restaurant in downtown Berkeley, which was set to open this month, has been put on hold indefinitely, confirmed Hallowell’s official communications consultant, Larry Kamer, who was hired after the accusations came to light.

Kamer told Nosh that, although Hallowell has not stepped foot into any of his restaurants for over a month, “Charlie would like to return to the business he built and loves, but knows much work needs to be done first.”

Kamer outlined a few steps that the group has taken, or is taking, since early January, to “professionalize business operations and improve the culture.” The company had hired an outside counsel to interview employees to improve policies and complaint procedures; brought on an HR policies and training specialist to conduct manager trainings, and updated the employee manual. In the meantime, Hallowell is partaking in a restorative justice program to “focus on personal work.”

On Jan. 30, Hallowell’s restaurant group held its own press conference to announce that the company had hired a new chief operating officer, Donna Insalco, who will have “the exclusive executive management position at the company,” according to a document shared by Kamer. Insalco will eventually determine Hallowell’s role in the business, which will probably be more of a “creative” role than a managment position.

One-third of restaurant workers report that they’ve experienced or observed some form of sexual harassment by customers, coworkers and management.

As the key players on both sides of this particular harassment case continue to seek a resolution, the discussion about sexual harassment in the restaurant industry continues to grow. As more people continue to speak out with their stories of harassment, a long-standing, industry-wide problem that was once swept under the rug is starting to get more attention — sparking conversations among many who work in the field.

Data from a survey by the Bay Area Restaurant Industry Coalition, published in a 2016 report by Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, states that “sexual harassment remains endemic to the restaurant industry in the Bay Area,” with one-third of restaurant workers reporting that they’ve experienced or observed some form of sexual harassment by customers, coworkers and management.

Pay equity related to sexual harassment

For chef Preeti Mistry it wasn’t the Hallowell news that prompted her to take action — being a queer woman of color in an industry dominated by white male chefs, she had been thinking about gender bias in the food world for years. Since opening Juhu Beach Club, her first restaurant in Oakland (which closed last month), Mistry has become an outspoken advocate for paying restaurant workers livable wages (even if it meant raising menu prices) and creating an inclusive workplace through hiring a diverse staff.

“Anytime you have a kitchen where everyone speaks the same language, everyone is of the same sexual orientation or gender, it devolves somehow to being about that [shared experience], rather than about the food and learning from each other,” said Mistry, “I think that’s why I appreciate having all kinds of different people working for me. Our staff is so different from each other. And I love that.”

In a report titled “Ending Jim Crow in America’s restaurants,” ROC United found that white males have the most opportunity to work in the highest paying, most exclusive bartender and server positions in fine-dining restaurants, while women of all races are more likely to be employed in lower paying positions in casual full-service restaurants where they are dependent on tips as their primary source of income. Women of color, and African Americans, in particular, are often employed in the lowest paying positions, usually in back-of-the-house positions.

Studies by ROC United shows there is a strong correlation between the tipping system and workplace harassment. The group’s research shows that providing employees with higher wages and positions with lower dependence on tips significantly reduces harassment.

“Pay equity and general equity are two sides of the same coin,” said ROC United co-founder Saru Jayaraman last week. “Pay equity is directly related to sexual harassment.”

This is an issue that beverage director and small-business owner Jennifer Colliau, who is set to open her own bar called Here’s How in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood later this year, has experienced first-hand. She says she can name several bars that, until recently, only hired male bartenders and female servers.

As a beverage director who manages staff at The Interval in San Francisco and from her roughly 20 years in the industry, Colliau has also seen how inclusive hiring practices that challenge division of labor based on race and sex are key to creating a safer, more equitable workplace.

“If you do Craigslist [for posting a job] and all you get are white twirly-mustache bartenders, you need to look differently. There are more ways to hire people.”

“I tend to have a reasonably diverse staff, and always I’ve had more women,” she said. “Having a diverse staff makes more people comfortable to apply there.”

She added that it can be easy for small business owners to say they want diversity, without going the extra mile to ensure they’re actually hiring a diverse staff. “If you do Craigslist [for posting a job] and all you get are white twirly-mustache bartenders, you need to look differently. There are more ways to hire people.”

Colliau is in the first stages of developing a program that will help bar managers understand how and why discrimination occurs in the bar industry. Although she’s not sure what format such a program would take, or how it would be distributed or shared, Colliau feels strongly that managers need to understand how prejudices can manifest themselves in hiring processes and ways colleagues interact with each other. She has reached out to ROC United, the Center for Restorative Justice, and the United States Bartenders’ Guild for help getting the program started.

Equity in hiring and promotions has been a major focus for ROC United in the Bay Area, where it works with restaurants on desegregating their businesses by bringing more people of color to the front of the house and professionalizing the industry, so that workers can develop and grow into career positions.

Jayaraman points to restaurants like Homeroom in Oakland, and chefs like Daniel Patterson who have worked with ROC United to create more equitable workplaces. In the case of Homeroom, it went from having two servers of color to 11 (out of 20 total employees). Patterson, who once employed 10% people of color at his seven Bay Area restaurants (Coi, Alta, Alfred’s and Astrid in San Francisco, Plum Bar, Haven and Locol in Oakland) now employs 60% people of color.

Jeremy Bled, owner of independent coffee shop and roaster Souvenir Coffee on Claremont Avenue in Berkeley, hasn’t worked with ROC United, but believes that small-business owners must operate on the motto “people first.” To him, creating a supportive work environment where employees are paid higher wages, given more training and encouraged to grow in roles at the company, is what can help break a culture rife with inequity. But he said it’s not easy.

“This is not for the faint-hearted. You’re not going to do this kind of work if you’re not going to take some kind of financial hits. You have to be prepared. You have to be able to take a couple of blows.”

“We’re working towards to breaking even ourselves,” Bled said (Souvenir only opened in Oct. 2017). He pays his café workers $16-$18 an hour, almost $3 above Berkeley’s minimum wage of $13.25. “The advantage is I have savings and a wife who has a good job. This is not for the faint-hearted. You’re not going to do this kind of work if you’re not going to take some kind of financial hits. You have to be prepared. You have to be able to take a couple of blows.”

At Mistry’s second restaurant, Navi Kitchen in Emeryville, a 15% surcharge is automatically added to all bills, which is equally distributed among employees based on hours worked. All workers, whether they work in the front or the back of the house, are paid the same wage — $14 an hour (the minimum wage in Emeryville; it will be $15 in June).

“There’s a level of equality amongst staff here that feels very different,” said Mistry. “First of all, no one is above or below doing any particular job because everyone is being paid equally.”

A lack of management skills

Correcting inequitable or toxic working environments, though, can only happen if those in charge recognize there’s a need for change.

One of the biggest issues facing small, owner-operated restaurants and bars is a lack of management and leadership skills to enact change. In many cases, business owners were once restaurant workers themselves, who worked up the ranks after years in the industry. Many don’t have any formalized training in managing people. In other cases, managers are brand new to the industry, without experience in handling conflict and resolution, and with little time to address complicated situations on top of their day-to-day tasks.

“In this industry, that’s mostly what happens. We advance, but margins are so thin, especially in restaurants, that you’re not going to pay some HR department. You are the HR department,” said Colliau.

“…margins are so thin, especially in restaurants, that you’re not going to pay some HR department. You are the HR department.”

In contrast, larger companies like Oakland-based Blue Bottle have the advantage of having a dedicated HR team (a team of about 30 that the coffee chain calls its “People Ops”) to prevent and resolve workplace issues.

When allegations broke of sexual misconduct by Jeremy Tooker, the co-founder of San Francisco coffee company Four Barrel Coffee, Blue Bottle CEO Bryan Meehan sent out an all-staff email letting employees know they’d be “tripling efforts in anti-harassment training.” Meehan told Nosh that Blue Bottle has had a formalized harassment policy since 2007, but that new steps are being taken to address issues before they become a problem, including a new policy that all managers and staff members in leadership positions must have annual harassment training. And, in the case that a staff member doesn’t feel comfortable speaking to their manager, Meehan said Blue Bottle has created a new email address for employees to share issues confidentially, without fear of retaliation from co-workers or managers.

Although a majority stake of Blue Bottle was sold to Nestlé last year, Meehan said the new efforts were not prompted by the new owners.

“Companies have to invest in their people. To invest in your people, you need to have policies and procedures in place and you need to have training. You need to have values as a company,” he said. “Being clear about your core values and principles and creating a company around that culture makes these things less likely to happen.”

All the industry workers and business owners we spoke to expressed the need for strong leadership to shape culture, to set norms and to step in when there are problems in the workplace, rather than the “look the other way” approach that has been too common in the industry.

“Fundamentally, when you have problems come up, it’s a worse decision to sweep them under the rug. You have to deal with it right away.”

“Putting your head in the sand isn’t going to be the right solution. A lot of employees see when you’re trying hard [to] make things better. There’s a certain amount of trust and flexibility there. Fundamentally, when you have problems come up, it’s a worse decision to sweep them under the rug. You have to deal with it right away,” said Bled.

As more people join the chorus of voices speaking out with stories of sexual misconduct, more people are willing to listen. And more people are banding together to work on solutions.

“There are newly ‘activized’ humans,” said Mistry. “A lot of people have experienced a lot of these awful things in the industry they work in, but they didn’t think anyone would care or listen, so they just thought ‘I guess this is just how it is. I guess I just have to suck it up.’”

Jayaraman is hopeful too by the current momentum around the issue. “It’s an extraordinary victory,” she said. “Restaurants are coming forward to us left and right asking for help… Workers are coming forward. Most importantly, policy and structural changes are coming forward.”

But she added, “The changes are necessary, but not yet sufficient.”