Can Human Resources Save the Restaurant Industry From Its Own Toxicity?

More and more restaurants are implementing HR. But whether it’s a fig leaf or meaningful change remains to be seen.

Jun 24 2021, 2:06pm

Amanda, a self-described restaurant lover, was excited to join a young and growing New York City restaurant as the Human Resources director in 2016. “From the outside, I'm like, This place is cool as fuck—like everyone’s having fun, everyone’s happy, they’re so chill, they’re busting out these cool food and drinks,” she said, recalling her eagerness to enter the restaurant world. “And then when you kind of go behind the curtain, you’re like, none of that is true.” Just a few months into her role, the owners told Amanda, who is using a pseudonym due to employment concerns, that she was “too employee-friendly.” 

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Her misstep: surfacing a complaint from a worker who felt they were being spoken to more aggressively by a manager and treated differently than other workers. Amanda’s excitement about her new job withered into disillusionment as she discovered rotten, if familiar, patterns: complaints about verbal and sexual harassment, staff drinking on the job, unpaid and underpaid labor, and managers who turned a blind eye to those issues.

The restaurant industry—long a preserve of borderline lawlessness steeped in hard-partying antics and its reliance on marginalized populations with scant paper trails—seems ripe for a radical administrative overhaul. In a normal (non-pandemic) year, it employs approximately 15 million people, generating nearly $900 billion in sales, according to the National Restaurant Association, and encompasses bored teenage workers at Taco Bell drive-thrus, salty waitresses in exurban diners, and college-educated professionals offering literary banter at fine-dining establishments. But cutting across class and county lines are endemic issues of labor abuses. In 2019, 25 workers in 20 cities filed sexual harassment complaints against McDonald’s—the world’s second-largest private employer—through the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Two years prior, as a wave of #MeToo claims came crashing down, celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Johnny Iuzzini were both accused of gross sexual misconduct, and more recently, one of Seattle’s most famous chefs Edouardo Jordan faced accusations from 15 women.  

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Human Resources has existed in certain corners of the restaurant industry, mainly for larger operators, for decades. “The timing of the adoption of HR departments occurred at about the same time as the expansion of restaurant chains—in the 1950s and 60s,” said Allen Z. Reich, professor at Northern Arizona University’s W.A. Franke College of Business and author of Management of Hospitality Human Resources. McDonald’s, established in the mid-20th century, was a forerunner in terms of restaurants with professional HR departments, he said, a key element enabling its huge global success. 

Most restaurants don’t have the resources of McDonald’s, but a turning point for smaller operators came in 2010 with the Affordable Care Act, which required employers with more than 50 workers to offer health coverage for all full-time employees. “Somebody needed to manage the enormous amount of paperwork that resulted,” restaurant HR director Elvira Ryder told Mic in 2017. And that meant more restaurants needed HR.

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Fine-dining restaurants would seemingly be more amenable to professionalization than fast-food jobs. But many were built on hierarchical French brigade systems that entrenched a culture in which aggression was normalized, lewd jokes were considered camaraderie, and abuse was obfuscated by the allure of chefs as auteurs. In many restaurants, enduring abuse is considered just part of the job. As New York City restaurant owner Leah Campbell wrote for VICE in 2017: “We can’t change the restaurant industry without improving HR.” So, how do you bring HR into an industry where bad behavior and a sense of lawlessness has long gone unchecked and even encouraged? 

This culture clash came to a head in late 2017, as the MeToo movement gained traction, and the silence around harassment in restaurants began to break. What was an open secret to workers became known to the general public, thanks to stories like Brett Anderson’s October 2017 Times-Picayune investigation on the “bro culture” of sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation within celebrity chef John Besh’s Besh Restaurant Group (BRG). Twenty-five women who had worked in BRG restaurants or corporate office detailed experiences like uninvited touching, sexual comments from coworkers, sexual coercion, and workplace retaliation for those who complained.

Not only did managers and owners engage in misconduct, a former employee told the Times-Picayune, but “there was no human resources person available, only other supervisors who were either afraid of losing their jobs or saw no benefit in challenging the good old boys club.” In September of 2017, BRG’s legal counsel told the Times-Picayune that improving HR was a focus of the consulting group Postlethwaite & Netterville, which the company had hired the previous year before any employees had filed discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As part of these changes, BRG’s first HR director in its then-12-year existence took the job on October 11, 2017. It was 10 days before the Times-Picayune story went live.

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Part of HR’s absence in restaurants has come down to the industry’s tight financial margins. The average profit margin for restaurants is around 3 to 5 percent. According to Measured HR consultant Rachel Ramsey, small and independent restaurants, whose teams are lean and budgets tight, are less likely to be able to afford HR. “It’s very easy to see how buying a piece of meat is going to make you money—you can sell that; it’s tangible,” said Ramsey. The nitty gritty of establishing operating policies and creating systems for managing people doesn’t have the same quick return for owners.  

“If they’re always looking for staff, like posting ads, that’s the question: What’s going on there?”

In independent restaurants, HR tasks are often absorbed by whomever can take them on. For Tara Glick, who worked as an executive pastry chef at New York City’s American Cut Steakhouse from 2012 to 2020, overseeing three pastry kitchens meant overseeing upwards of a dozen staff in each, and HR tasks naturally developed in that role. “In the restaurant industry, that's how the chain of HR goes, where usually an employee brings a complaint, issue, or question even to their direct manager, and then it filters up through the ranks,” Glick said.

That makeshift system isn’t ideal. What happens when a worker’s problems, as they often are, are about that manager? Furthermore, managers are burned out, said Chelsea Gregoire, who operates the Baltimore-based hospitality consulting firm Drinkable Genius. Since they’re “expected to be such an extension of ownership for not commensurate pay,” Gregoire said, “it can be hard to find managers who can step away for 45 minutes to talk to HR.” And the tough “bro culture,” like that of the Besh Restaurant Group, can keep workers from challenging issues out of a fear of being perceived as weak.

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“What I’m finding is that people are recognizing that if you don’t invest in HR, it will come back to bite you,” says Ramsey. After an injury, she transitioned from kitchen roles to HR in 2015 at groups like Sodexo, the multinational food service company, and Major Food Group, which has 21 restaurants. 

Restaurant owners bring Ramsey in for many reasons: benefits and unemployment; diversity, equity, and inclusion support; anti-harassment training; or audits of existing HR systems and policies. Owners often reach out when they open their second restaurant, she’s noticed. “Then you’re splitting your time,” she said. “You have to find not one great manager, but two great managers—it’s a multiplication of an already difficult situation.” There are also signs that prompt her to reach out to a restaurant: High turnover, and rapid growth, which can sometimes proceed without proper strategies for managing the increase in workers. (“If they’re always looking for staff, like posting ads, that’s the question: What’s going on there?” she said.) 

Benefits and HR departments weren’t available to Brent Frederick, chief manager of the Jester Concepts restaurant group in Minneapolis–St.Paul, in his 20 years as a busboy, barback, server, and bartender. For most of his career, he saw HR as something “for the corporate world.” 

Now, Frederick thinks that restaurants need to provide more for their workers and that benefits are essential to be an appealing employer, he said. That’s even more pressing now as  the pandemic has made restaurants desperate for workers. As Jester—which has four brick-and-mortar locations—tacked on offerings like 401K plans for management, mental healthcare programs for all employees, parental leave, and healthcare options over the past five years, it added a full-time HR director to keep track of them all. Over the next five years, Frederick guesses, if a restaurant group doesn’t have a full-time HR director, “you’re going to be a dinosaur,” he said. 

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The rise of HR in the restaurant industry is a step toward changing long-simmering workplace issues, but as workers have found, it remains an imperfect solution. With 11 years in the industry, Gregoire, the Baltimore-based hospitality consultant, recalled a “very mild” example of HR’s shortcomings. At one restaurant where they’d worked, the owner refused to provide them with an offer letter or a job description. They requested them from HR, but were told that the department couldn’t do anything if the owner didn’t want to give them a job description. To Gregoire, that approach underscores how HR fails in the restaurant industry: “We are in the business of taking care of people, and I don’t think that we should have structures that uplift the company before it uplifts our workers,” they said. 

Indeed, there’s a common warning in workplace discussions that HR is “not your friend”—a sentiment meant to remind workers that the departments exist to first and foremost protect the company’s interests. Glick felt a similar frustration, whether HR was handled by an official employee, department, or consultant. “You’re led to believe that if you have a problem, you should go to HR,” she said. “But then, in my experience, when I found I went to HR, it was spun as how to protect the employer versus really listening to me or my concern as an employee. It just felt very duplicitous.”

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HR is a cog in the system, dependent upon the systems and culture that owners have established. When the New York Times reported on a toxic environment, rife with sexual harassment and fraud, at Blaine Wetzel’s Willows Inn on Lummi Island in Washington state, Wetzel responded that there was “an independent HR consultant available at all times.” Ramsey, the HR consultant, feels she always has a solution to an issue, but “we can’t make the changes that leadership doesn't want to have implemented.”

Amanda decided to leave restaurant HR in under a year on the job. While doing payroll, she found that the restaurant wasn’t paying a worker overtime, but when she brought up this concern, colleagues told her not to worry about it. Realizing she couldn’t succeed in her job without a management that wanted to engender a fair and healthy work environment, she left her position. “I, unfortunately, want a job where I feel like I'm making a difference,” she said.

While some, like Amanda, are leaving the restaurant industry, others are attempting to reform it. Gregoire will open Church, a “reverently irreverent” bar this year, and with it, they hope to rethink industry culture and HR itself. Born out of Gregoire’s background in theology, Church is rooted in the idea of the institution as a community space. 

At Church, the role generally known as “HR director,” will be re-envisioned as a “community partner.” This person’s whole focus will be community, both among staff and the surrounding neighborhood. The community partner will have an open door for issues and advocate on behalf of staff when owners make decisions. Traditional HR systems make decisions only for the good of the company: a “how do you not get sued?” ideology, Gregoire said. This community partner role is predicated on a different idea: “How can we better support these relationships that our staff is inevitably building with each other, and that our ownership has with our staff, and that our staff has with our community, like how does this symbiotically fit together?”

It’s been possible for restaurants to skate by without HR, but it’s becoming clearer that there is a need for institutional transformation. “When an organization is not healthy, you can certainly see it,” Ramsey said from her vantage point in HR looking at turnover. “But when it is healthy, sometimes you can take it for granted, like, ‘oh, well, this culture is great.’ Well, it didn't just happen by happenstance, like there is some tool that has been implemented.” In the restaurant industry, as elsewhere, human resources might not yet be perfect, but there’s now a noisy movement pushing for change in an industry where abuse was once accepted in silence. 

Follow Bettina Makalintal on Twitter.

Tagged:

CHEFS, Restaurants, human resources, restaurant industry, toxic workplace

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