Acadia Bromke got a hosting job at Jack Astor’s in Ancaster, a small town about an hour outside of Toronto, when she was 15 in the hopes of making some extra cash while she finished high school. Bromke was expecting a family-friendly dining environment—the restaurant chain mostly found in the suburbs is known for its casual atmosphere and chicken fingers. Instead, a bartender old enough to be her father grabbed her bottom at the host’s stand.
Bromke was shocked, and reported the incident to the manager on duty that day in 2014. The manager allegedly told Bromke that she would handle the situation, and instructed her not to tell any other staff.
But the manager did not bring it up with Bromke again and the bartender remained employed. Bromke even had to work with him.
The worst part, Bromke said, is that she watched this bartender harass other other hosts and servers, and management kept doing nothing.
“Servers, (who were) 21, 22, 23 years old, would complain about him,” Bromke, who has been with the company for six years, told VICE World News.
“But I was in a position to think... if they’re not going to discipline him or do anything when he touched me when I was underage, they’re definitely not going to do anything when he touches girls of age.”
Fourteen current and former employees allege that sexual harassment, discrimination, and workplace bullying are commonplace across Ontario Jack Astor’s and SCADDABUSH restaurants, both chains owned by privately held SIR Corp.
When a line cook told her manager about an alleged incident of sexual harassment at a SIR Corp. location, she said the majority of her shifts were taken away—retaliation, she felt, for speaking out. When a former Jack Astor’s host told her manager a male co-worker allegedly followed her home, she said she was told to “confront him yourself.” A Black staff member said she was asked by a SCADDABUSH manager if her hair was real multiple times, and when the manager didn’t believe her, he touched it. A then-general manager, who has since been promoted, reportedly said he “doesn’t hire fat or ugly people.”
SIR Corp. would not respond to specific questions or allegations citing privacy reasons, but CEO Peter Fowler said in a statement to VICE World News that “SIR Corp. has work to do as an organization to address the problematic cultural behaviours that have historically permeated the restaurant industry.”
“While we are not alone facing these issues, it is our vision to lead our industry in creating a culture of equality, diversity, and inclusion, free of harassment,” Fowler said.
“It’s a man’s world in SIR Corp.”
Many of the employees that talked to VICE World News allege the sexually charged, toxic culture is particularly harmful to young women, like Bromke, who enter the service industry in high school, university, or college to help pay their bills. They say the company goes out of its way to minimize or hide workplace complaints and moves abusive employees from location to location instead of firing them.
As a result, these women have suffered long-lasting effects, with one former bartender saying she’s had to seek therapy for on-the-job mistreatment.
“It’s a man’s world in SIR Corp.,” one former manager, who was with SIR Corp. restaurants for six years, said. “They don’t care how the women are portrayed.”
Many of the people who spoke to VICE World News asked to remain anonymous as they are either still employed by the company or worry about the consequences of speaking out. In some instances, current and former employees fear for their safety, as some of their former co-workers are known to be violent or verbally abusive.
VICE World News has learned that multiple SIR Corp. employees have filed formal complaints against the company in recent months. In response, SIR Corp. has retained human resources law firm Bernardi Law to investigate. In order for formal investigations to be launched, employees say SIR Corp. makes them sign confidentiality agreements preventing them from speaking publicly or with anyone except their lawyers about their experiences.
“As the head of this organization, I am committed to leading the charge and taking the necessary steps to address these issues.”
Fowler did not respond to questions about workplace investigations, but said in his statement that the company began making changes to its culture in July, including conducting a third-party review of workplace behaviour policies and making revisions based on that review.
Fowler also said SIR Corp. has since implemented an anonymous third-party hotline for staff, began mandatory “respectful conduct in the workplace training,” and had the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion facilitate a virtual “executive bootcamp” for all senior leadership.
“As the head of this organization, I am committed to leading the charge and taking the necessary steps to address these issues and shift the culture of our organization to create and maintain a more positive, safe, and thriving environment for all of our employees,” Fowler said.
Jack Astor’s has dozens of locations across Ontario as well as restaurants in Quebec, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia. It brands itself as being a fun restaurant that doesn’t take itself too seriously, between its “Sorry we’re open” sign above the doors to the paper tablecloths customers can draw on with crayons.
“We specialize in delicious food and drink and are a lot like a reverse mullet—we’re a party in the front and all business in the back,” the restaurant says on its website.
Meanwhile, SIR Corp. markets SCADDABUSH as a more sophisticated, contemporary Italian restaurant and bar, where “tables crowded with friends and family” are welcomed. The chain has locations in and around Toronto.
While SIR Corp.—which stands for Service Inspired Restaurants—is known for Jack Astor’s and SCADDABUSH, it has 59 restaurants in Canada within seven restaurant brands, including the Loose Moose and Duke’s Refresher and Bar in Toronto. The company says it employs nearly 4,800 workers, and that its “brave, bold and results-driven culture inspires and creates new opportunities for everyone.”
The company started in 1990 when the first Jack Astor’s location opened in St. Catharines, Ont., by Fowler.
“There was a laid-back style; an irreverent sense of humour and our service staff were wearing T-shirts they’d decorated instead of uniforms. No one else was doing that,” Fowler said in a press release celebrating the chain’s 20th anniversary.
Jack Astor’s “humour” got it into trouble in the past. In 2014, the restaurant was called out for a sexist ad about “cougars” frequenting its patios. And in 2017, at the height of the MeToo movement, Jack Astor’s came under fire again for another ad showing two large, round cocktails with the caption “We like ‘em round and big.”
In 2017, a restaurant industry publication reported the company generated $281 million in sales in its most recent fiscal year. But like most restaurants, things have changed due to the pandemic; SIR Corp.’s fourth quarter filings show COVID-19 lockdown measures have cut their cash reserves by more than 50 per cent, dropping from $3.6 million as of August 2019 to $1.6 million as of this August.
Beneath the welcoming, family-friendly appearance, staff at both restaurants paint a very different picture.
Despite the MeToo movement, which shed light on the restaurant industry and its notoriously booze-soaked culture where sexism and sexual harassment is commonplace, current and former employees said meaningful changes did not occur at SIR Corp. This summer’s protests over systemic racism and police brutality forced a restaurant reckoning of sorts as well, with many folks in the service industry speaking out about racism in hospitality.
But even in an age where the cultural tolerance for allegations of sexual assault and discrimination has significantly dwindled, staff allege SIR Corp. leaders would rather cover up bad behaviour than change it.
“The males at SIR Corp. get away with a lot,” said Tiffany Chevers, a former bar manager at SCADDABUSH who worked on and off for SIR Corp. since 2009. She alleges the company wrongfully terminated her this year after management learned she was looking for a new job.
“Instead of firing them, they transfer them and allow them to behave like assholes all over the company,” she said.
A former male SIR Corp. kitchen manager who left in 2019 told VICE World News that he’s not proud of some of the ways he spoke to staff during stressful periods, and knows that if a woman spoke aggressively as he did, she would be “ripped apart.”
“Because I’m a man, no one said anything to me… and I think that same thing happens with any other man in that company,” the kitchen manager said.
“They just treat women like shit.”
Rae was 18 years old when she got a job hosting alongside Bromke at Jack Astor’s in Ancaster in 2018.
She said she soon picked up on male staff’s “creepy” behaviour at her restaurant, but it wasn’t until she was followed home by a kitchen worker when she was 19 that she felt scared for her safety.
Leaving the restaurant one night, Rae said she saw the kitchen worker in the Jack Astor’s parking lot and knocked on his window to say goodbye. She said she sat in her car on her phone for a few minutes, then drove her car out of the parking lot and headed home. Soon, she said she saw him in her rearview mirror, tailing her every turn. Then, she alleges he followed her into her housing complex—an area that people don’t turn into unless they live in there.
Eventually, after Rae kept making needless turns to avoid pulling onto her street, she said the kitchen worker drove off.
“When … he finally gave up I went home right away and I was crying as I told my parents,” she said. “It was probably one of the scariest things that I’ve ever experienced.”
When Rae spoke to her manager about the incident, saying she was terrified to be near him and needed help, she was reportedly told, “If you want to, you can go confront him yourself.”
After that, Rae said, “I made one of the servers walk me to my car every time… (Management) didn’t really put any effort into making sure I was safe at all.”
Staff say ignoring women’s complaints is a SIR Corp. restaurant pattern. According to two former managers who asked to remain anonymous, after upper management was told about a sous chef at a downtown Toronto SCADDABUSH allegedly touching a co-worker inappropriately, the sous chef was transferred to another SCADDABUSH location in Scarborough, east of Toronto.
The sous chef told VICE World News that he never touched his co-worker inappropriately, but was moved to another location after the co-worker filed a complaint.
Following the sexual harassment allegation, the sous chef appeared in a “Predator Poachers Toronto” YouTube video in which he was accused of trying to meet up with a 13-year-old girl. Predator Poachers is a vigilante-type group that exposes men allegedly trying to meet up with minors. That video prompted SIR Corp. to suspend the sous chef with pay and later fire him, one former manager said.
The sous chef confirmed he was terminated after the video surfaced, but said that he did not attempt to meet a teen girl, and that he was “scammed” by the creator of the video.
Another former SCADDABUSH sous chef, Andre White, allegedly harassed multiple employees, and was transferred to different locations despite complaints made against him, according to a former manager familiar with the matter.
In the summer of 2019, White was charged with two counts of assault against a SIR Corp. bartender he once dated, pled guilty, and was sentenced to 12 months probation and a $100 fine this October. VICE World News has learned that White pleaded guilty and was convicted of assault three other times between 2006 and 2015, according to Ontario court records.
His behaviour affected multiple SIR Corp. employees. In one instance, a female SIR Corp. line cook said White made remarks to her around 2017 while working in the kitchen about “fucking” a co-worker.
Despite White’s behaviour, management allegedly still let him work at different restaurant locations. White left the company of his own volition in late 2019, according to three employees familiar with the matter.
White did not wish to comment for this story.
This same female line cook who was verbally harassed by White said she tried to report another incident of alleged sexual harassment at a SIR Corp. restaurant in 2016 and lost work as a result. After she told management a female co-worker was inappropriately touched by a male line cook who showed up drunk to work, she said she was called into a meeting with the restaurant’s general manager. Instead of investigating the incident, the general manager reportedly asked her if she “felt good” for reporting her fellow line cook. Her work schedule went down from full-time hours to a couple shifts a week.
“Little did I know that politics played a huge role in the restaurant industry, and (reporting) was a naive thing to do—although it shouldn’t have been,” she said.
The general manager declined to comment. The male line cook did not respond to a request for comment.
Attempts to reach out to HR were often fruitless, multiple current and former employees said, with emails going unanswered sometimes for months. As one former Jack Astor’s employee put it: “Their HR is a joke.” In July, an anonymous Instagram account was created for current and former SIR Corp. employees to anonymously share their experiences of sexual harassment and racism. The account offered resources for people wanting to report their allegations, and was created to “expose” the bad behaviour that employees say has gone on for years.
“I would constantly cry in the bathroom at work because I hated being touched by him.”
Four other women, who worked at Jack Astor’s Ancaster location at various times over the last six years, told VICE World News about the behaviour of the bartender Bromke said sexually harassed her when she was 15—all alleging they either experienced sexual harassment themselves or witnessed it. The women say this bartender made inappropriate sexual comments and would use any opportunity to grab women’s hips or rub his genital area across their bottoms as he passed them in a cramped kitchen or bar.
“I would constantly cry in the bathroom at work because I hated being touched by him,” said a host who was a teenager at the time.
Caitlyn, a former server who worked at the restaurant for several years and left in 2019, told VICE World News she complained about this bartender’s behaviour to a bar manager who reportedly said he would talk to him. She can’t recall the bartender ever facing any disciplinary action and she kept seeing him act in inappropriate ways towards female staff.
The bartender still works at Jack Astor’s. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The SIR Corp. line cook says she was unprepared for the sexism she experienced when she started working for SIR Corp. about four years ago. She has worked in various locations for several SIR Corp. brands.
When a manager told her that her restaurant’s general manager “doesn’t hire fat or ugly people,” she said her jaw dropped and she told him that discrimination is illegal. Despite that, she saw this “policy” play out in practice: when a larger-bodied woman came in for a trial shift, the general manager reportedly said that “she was too big for the kitchen and we aren’t to hire her.”
“Women were told that we needed to ‘look like we were going to a party, not coming from one.’”
Comments about women’s bodies are commonplace by both managers and staff, multiple employees said. Even after a CBC investigation into sexist uniforms at Jack Astor’s and other Canadian chains in 2016, staff told VICE World News they routinely got called out for dress code “violations,” and that one set of rules are enforced for women, and another for men. One SCADDABUSH bartender said she essentially begged to wear a sweater in the winter because the restaurant was so cold.
“The men could literally roll out of bed, still smelling like alcohol from the night before, throw on some hair gel, and put on some cologne and be allowed to work,” Bromke said.
“Women were told that we needed to ‘look like we were going to a party, not coming from one.’ They would say that word for word.”
This year’s surge in protests over systemic racism forced restaurants and bars across Canada to face their own implicit bias and discriminatory practices, while the ”ChangeHospitality” hashtag took off on social media. In some cases, leaders resigned; Jeff Stober, the CEO of the popular Toronto hotel and restaurant Drake Hotel, stepped down after former employees accused him of anti-Black racism.
Multiple current and former employees told VICE World News that they personally experienced or witnessed incidents of discrimination or racism while working at SIR Corp. restaurants.
One former manager at a Toronto SCADDABUSH location allegedly asked a Black staff member if her hair was real multiple times, then touched it because he believed it was a weave. The same manager allegedly asked the same worker in 2019 if she had herpes when she told him she was sick.
Two employees said one senior manager who oversees various SIR Corp. locations openly calls one of their restaurant’s Black sous chefs “Beyoncé.”
The senior manager did not respond to a request for comment.
Multiple current and former employees told VICE World News that this manager’s behaviour is abusive and threatening. Employees say women are afraid of speaking out against him because it can result in cut shifts or being pushed out of a job.
“But it’s not just him; it’s the company,” one former manager said.
“He will say, ‘I want this person out because of this,’ and they’ll support it and be like, ‘This is what you can do to get that person out’ instead of dealing with the real issue—even with harassment claims.”
Name-calling like “retard,” “stupid” and “fag” are slurs a SCADDABUSH kitchen manager at a Toronto location uses towards staff, allege multiple employees. Employees say senior management have received multiple complaints about him, with one former manager describing him as “verbally and emotionally abusive.”
Still, nothing happened, they allege, and he still manages the restaurant’s kitchen. The manager did not respond to requests for comment.
Multiple employees allege that another SCADDABUSH kitchen manager, who now works in a Greater Toronto Area location, has been sexually inappropriate and verbally abusive towards female staff, and has called them “tampons” as an insult to imply they were being moody.
“He would come up to us unexpectedly and touch our faces in a very rough and sexual manner and try to stick his finger in our mouths,” said a former SCADDABUSH cook, who left in 2018 due to frustrations with how she was treated in the workplace. She said few women worked in the kitchen, and the ones who did often quit. This cook said she felt the men in the kitchen took advantage of that power imbalance.
“Every time a new girl... would leave, they’d be like, ‘Oh, she couldn’t handle it because she’s a girl,’” she said. “I guess part of me was trying to kind of prove that women can do it.”
There’s a saying among managers at SCADDABUSH locations: fit in or fuck off, or FIFO, a former manager said. This saying was printed on T-shirts and given out to managers by Mike Cappiello, the VP of operations at SCADDABUSH, two former employees familiar with the matter said. (Cappiello did not respond to a request for comment.)
The motto may seem flippant, but it translates into “if you don’t fit in, they fire you,” one former manager said.
People who were good at their job and really cared about their co-workers got “pushed out the door” simply because management didn’t like them, the manager said.
“SIR Corp. head office, even to us small little employees, was always known as a ‘boys club’ who had their own backs and no one else’s,” said a former Jack Astor’s bartender.
The harassment and discrimination employees said they experienced working for SIR Corp. has had long-lasting effects. One former bartender said she started therapy because of the emotionally abusive behaviour she experienced there. Another server with several years of experience said her job at a downtown Toronto Jack Astor’s was the worst one she’s ever had.
For Bromke, she said the sexual harassment she experienced at 15 seriously affected her both personally and professionally. She said she was made to believe that this type of behaviour “just happens” in the restaurant industry, and that if she wanted to move up in the company, she’d have to accept creepy comments and objectification.
Because the bartender who harassed her remained employed by SIR Corp. and continued to harass other workers right in front of her, it’s taken time for Bromke to more fully grasp the nuances of consent.
“All of these situations have made me think about how I perceive myself, what rights I have, and what I am able to say no to,” she said, “and what society is going to allow me to say no to.”
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