"We’re sending our daughters into a workplace designed for our dads,” Melinda Gates recently said. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the restaurant industry. Although food and hospitality has evolved over the last few centuries, treatment of women has barely moved past the Stone Age.
“But how can you be a sommelier?” a recent guest asked one of my female colleagues. “You’re a girl!” That same evening, another guest in the restaurant slapped a female server's ass. Cote is not a brothel or a strip club; we’re a fine dining Michelin-starred restaurant with a no-tolerance policy for this type of behavior. Still, in other top restaurants across New York City, I have seen this type of abuse and misogyny since I began in this industry 15 years ago.
“No one should be surprised,” was Tom Colicchio’s response on Twitter to the recent sexual harassment allegations that took down Mario Batali. It’s true: The electrifying stories that have surfaced involving Ken Friedman, Johnny Iuzzini, and John Besh have shocked some, but others, especially my female colleagues, are anything but surprised. The media has simply brought to light what we have all already known: These men are creeps. Why have so many men continued to use their power to mistreat women and minorities? And how do we stop this behavior from continuing?
Jordan Salcito, founder of Ramona and Director of Wine Special Projects at Momofuku, sees this dark time as an opportunity for change: “The collective concern for and intolerance of sexual harassment we're seeing in this moment is incredibly heartening and presents a powerful chance to ensure that this cultural shift is a permanent one.” Salcito adds, “I think that a next step in this evolution is to encourage more women to become restaurant owners and partners. At the end of the day, those at the top hold the power.” Today, successful female-owned restaurants can thrive and act as role models in our male-dominated society. Salcito names Lilia (owned by Missy Robbins) as one of her go-tos, along with Ariel Arce's Air's Champagne Parlor, Mandy Oser’s Ardesia, and Laura Maniec's Corkbuzz. “The more strong women we have setting examples and running restaurants and bars, the more we can make sure our New York restaurant scene is indeed a meritocracy, and everyone benefits.”
Maniec of Corkbuzz explains, “We are almost entirely a women-run business at this time, and have tiers of leadership in place so that hopefully everyone has someone they feel comfortable going to if there is a problem. You can’t control all employees’ actions, but hopefully you lead and inspire by your own.”
So women-owned restaurants are great, but what about the boys’ clubs? Abigail Oliveras, sommelier at The Pool, has a solution: “We need to start empowering the women that work in restaurants to come forward to their employers or HR departments when they face harassment. Part of that comes from eliminating the idea that the customer is always right. Don’t tell your employees to deal with an inappropriate guest on their own; don’t tell them to just stay away from the table. The clientele we deal with is under the impression their actions are okay because no one has ever told them otherwise.”
Making the restaurant environment a professional one is a good first step. The next would be making restaurants a place where women can build careers over a lifetime. One of the reasons men still dominate this profession is because few companies offer paid parental leave or even health insurance. Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group is one of the rare restaurant groups where women can actually afford to start a family. Four weeks’ paid parental leave is offered to all full-time employees; another four weeks after that is offered at 60 percent of their base wages.
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To many women in other sectors, at least some amount of paid leave might be a given. In restaurants, however, that’s not the case. Many women fear for their jobs upon becoming pregnant, and in many cases, rightfully so. I have seen countless women try to get their old jobs back when re-entering the workplace, only to find them no longer available or a lesser position offered instead. Jessica Brown, the former wine director at Ken Friedman’s The Breslin, found her job eliminated within weeks of announcing her pregnancy. She told The New York Times, “The sex factor is important to Ken… having a pregnant woman on the floor is not sexy.”
Even despite our current political situation, a couple things could happen to ensure that 2018 is the year the restaurant industry finally evolves and recognizes equality for women. Restaurants should establish strict no-tolerance sexual harassment policies for professionals and patrons alike. Oliveras adds, “call out all of the predators, burn it all down, and start over. Invest in women and, for the love of God, not just white women!”
In the idealist words of Maniec, it’s simple: “Just do the right thing.”