After the Apologies, Restaurants Struggle to Change
Posted January 18, 2018 5:06 p.m. EST
The first act of the drama was loud and public: Reporters exposed pervasive sexual harassment at a handful of high-profile restaurant groups around the country. Accused chefs and restaurateurs issued apologies and vowed to step away from daily operations.
The second act is playing out much more quietly, as customers consider whether they should eat at places that once brought joy, and everyone seems to be wondering which chef will be next.
Backstage, the first four prominent restaurant groups caught in sexual harassment scandals are grappling with the thorny complications of just how to extricate themselves from a tarnished partner: John Besh in New Orleans; Charlie Hallowell in Oakland, California; and Ken Friedman and Mario Batali in New York. The companies have begun to reach for some sort of equilibrium, working in very different ways to figure out how — and if — they can move forward.
The most famous figure to fall has been Batali, the celebrity chef who was the subject of several published reports in December alleging behavior that ran the gamut from piggish to coercive.
Aside from some initial public apologies, including one emailed newsletter that included a recipe for cinnamon rolls, Batali has been silent. By all accounts, he is not engaged in running the restaurant group that he started with his partner, Joe Bastianich, in 1998 when they opened Babbo in Greenwich Village. The terms of his income stream from the company have not changed, Bastianch said.
In an email Tuesday, Batali, 57, said he had been spending time with his wife, Susi Cahn. “I am taking some time away from the restaurants to work on myself,” he said. “Business decisions will come after that.”
But Bastianich, who has apologized for his own sexual missteps, is moving ahead to remake the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, which has nearly 2,100 employees and 24 restaurants, including operations in Las Vegas and the elegant Del Posto in New York. That includes plotting a future without Batali.
“Divorces are never easy,” Bastianich said. “Do we buy out? Do we split restaurants? We may have intentions. He has intentions. Really, the decision is his. He’s going through a process. We’re going through a process. We’ll see.”
‘Changing the DNA’ At first, Bastianich said, the two were talking frequently. Then came a period when they would communicate only through representatives. They recently began speaking again.
Batali has lost his contract with the ABC-TV show “The Chew.” Licensing deals have disappeared; the Eataly stores have pulled his books and food products from shelves, and have said he is no longer actively involved with the chain.
“He’s going through a very difficult thing,” Bastianich said. “He is prioritizing his personal life because that will bring more clarity to his future as chef.”
Bastianich said he is intent on “completely changing the DNA of the company.” He is interviewing branding agencies to develop a new name. He is centralizing some business practices and expanding medical and other benefits for employees in an organization that has let each restaurant essentially function as its own company.
Frank Langello, executive chef at Babbo, who staff members said had created a sexualized and hostile work environment, left the company this month and was replaced by Rob Zwirz, from Lupa. A new human resources manager started this month, and an outside firm has been hired to investigate any future claims of employee harassment.
Both Bastianich’s mother, chef Lidia Bastianich, 70, and Nancy Silverton, 63, a partner with Bastianich and Batali in the Mozza group of restaurants in Southern California and Singapore, have been elevated to leadership roles. Silverton, a respected veteran of the California dining scene, said she had been so focused on her own group of restaurants that she had no idea that sexual harassment was so pervasive in other parts of the B & B empire, or of how Batali behaved around women.
“Was he a prude? No,” she said. “But did I know to what extent? No.”
Like many in an industry fueled by good-natured sexualized camaraderie, alcohol and a battlefield mentality, Silverton is still parsing the line between boorish and unacceptable behavior. With time, a more nuanced view will prevail, she said.
“The way I look at it is, OK, take a deep breath and now let’s turn something positive into what was such a negative,” she said.
In New Orleans, Women Step Up
The effort to stabilize the chef John Besh’s restaurant group in New Orleans has had more time to jell. News that 25 current and former employees had been sexually harassed at some of his dozen restaurants was reported by The Times-Picayune in October, two weeks after The New York Times broke the story about predatory sexual behavior by Harvey Weinstein.
Besh, 49, remains an owner of the business, which includes eight restaurants and has renamed itself BRG Hospitality, and he has final approval on major business decisions. But he has permanently turned over everything else to Shannon White, 31, who started with the company as a server.
When the scandal broke, she had just been named the company’s chief operating officer and had become a mother for the first time. In an interview in New Orleans last week, she said that in those first few days she realized that if the ship was going to be saved, somebody needed to take control.
“It was like we were in the eye of the hurricane,” she said. She persuaded Besh and his business partner, Octavio Mantilla, to make her chief executive. “I think it’s a women’s problem, and women have to take the lead,” she said. “A man is not going to understand it.”
In an emotional meeting with the executive chefs and general managers, White said they had a long road ahead but assured them that drastic changes were coming.
She set up a hotline, revised training procedures and updated the employee handbook, adding a code of conduct and a morals-and-ethics clause. She started an assistance program open to all 1,200 employees, and is creating an employee advisory committee. She hired an independent investigator who unearthed another case of harassment; the bill for that alone may top $50,000, she said.
“I really don’t think of the financial implications of any of this,” White said. “No matter what, there were people who were at our restaurants who were being harassed, period. And it was going to stop, whatever it took.”
As for Besh, she said, “We are trying to figure out what, if any, role he may have in the future.” White also consults regularly with Kelly Fields, the outspoken star chef at Willa Jean, the Besh restaurant Fields helped start in 2015 and where, until the scandal hit, Besh got his morning coffee.
Fields, 39, who was traveling in Iceland when the harassment story broke, recalled her early conversations with Besh. “He was a mess and worried about his family,” she said. “But I was worried about this business and our family.”
It was ugly at first. Business slumped. People called the restaurants and asked how anyone could still work there. Influential New Orleanians stopped recommending Besh restaurants to visitors. Fields considered walking away, but decided to stay. She liked the challenge of changing both the Besh group and the larger restaurant culture.
“We’re not going to weather it — we are going to take it and run with it,” she said.
Besh said in an email last week that he was focusing on his family, and praised White and Fields for setting a new standard for the industry.
Seeking Justice in Oakland
The path forward appears rockier in Oakland, where several former employees of restaurants owned by the chef Charlie Hallowell described a pattern of sexual propositions and a near-constant stream of sexual innuendo to The San Francisco Chronicle in December.
Hallowell, 44, who began his cooking career at Chez Panisse, employs about 150 people at three restaurants with his business partner, Richard Weinstein. His first, Pizzaiolo, has been a hub of local left-leaning politics, art and community projects since it opened in 2005.
Hallowell has been the most public about his personal and professional efforts to navigate the scandal. “I have stepped aside and indefinitely left the day-to-day operations of the restaurant,” he wrote this week in response to several questions for this article. “I have stopped taking my salary and stopped taking any owner distributions.”
Listening to people’s experiences and hearing their anger and frustration “has been pretty brutal, and it has really illuminated the massive blind spot I had,” he said.
Hallowell said he is in the process of hiring a new chief executive with input from the staff, and is staying out of the restaurants as an independent investigation arranged by his legal counsel is underway. He has hired a human resources consultant, and said he wants to bring on a coach with expertise in management training and organizational psychology.
He is also working with Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, an organization founded by Fania Davis, the sister of the author and political activist Angela Davis, which aims to bring victims and perpetrators together to work toward reconciliation.
“I feel like we are digging so deep into this place of blame that we can’t find a place of healing,” said Teiahsha Bankhead, a co-director. The goal, she said, is to recognize that people are taught to behave in certain ways — and to change that culture, both for women and men.
It may not be enough. The seven-person management team at one restaurant, Boot and Shoe Service, has threatened that they will resign if Hallowell does not divest from the restaurant by Saturday. (At other restaurants, the staff is staying on and not joining in that fight.) Molly Surbridge is a former employee who told The Chronicle that Hallowell had once stopped her during an interview for a promotion to say he wanted to have sex with her. She and others said they think he is convinced that the scandal will eventually blow over.
“Right now, it’s just public shaming, which doesn’t work,” she said in an interview last week. “It needs to be a real consequence. Because it is a business, it needs to be about money.”
Silence and Conversation in New York
Friedman, 56, who owns seven restaurants in New York and California with the chef April Bloomfield, has dropped out of public sight since The New York Times reported in December that he had created a pervasive culture of sexual predation and harassment, especially at the Spotted Pig in the West Village, where some employees referred to a celebrity-studded private dining room as “the rape room.”
Since making some initial apologies, Bloomfield has not spoken publicly about the state of the restaurants or her business relationship with Friedman. She has taken over operations.
Friedman has sought treatment, according to former employees who said he had sent them apologies and the phone number of a Connecticut rehabilitation center in case they wanted to contact him.
Kelly Berg, the group’s recently hired human resources manager, issued a statement Monday that said the company was working with consultants and “rolling out a forceful action plan to elevate and empower our managers and enact our standards throughout the organization.” The plan includes increased training and better monitoring to ensure “a supportive and caring environment.” Friedman, the statement said, has not been involved in day-to-day management since The Times’ article appeared. “It’s heartbreaking to see your icons taken down,” said Kerry Diamond, a founder of Cherry Bombe, a media group dedicated to women and food that features Bloomfield on the current cover of its twice-yearly magazine — a feature Diamond said had been developed long before the revelations.
“At the same time,” she added, “these are important conversations we’re finally having about harassment and abuse, so you can’t be too sad. It’s going to be painful and messy if we want real change to occur.”
A Quandary for Customers
The dining public appears to be divided. At first, many reservations and holiday parties scheduled for Batali’s and Bloomfield’s restaurants were canceled. But business doesn’t appear to have suffered terribly. Babbo was packed on Sunday night. At the Spotted Pig, the wait for a 7 p.m. table Friday was an hour long. In Los Angeles, Bloomfield has been trying to steady the Hearth & Hound, which opened just as the Friedman exposé was published. Reservations aren’t hard to get, but last weekend tables were filled.
Samantha Martin, a customer who ate there last week, said she hadn’t heard about the accusations against Friedman. “I try to do everything right and be careful where my money goes, but I can’t keep track of everything,” she said. “Even if I heard it, I’m not sure I would have skipped coming here. The food is incredible.”
For some diners, the taint may never go away. Brian Gresko, a Brooklyn writer who addresses themes of gender and masculinity in his work, was recently casting around for a new place to eat near Union Square because he could not bring himself to go to Otto, a Batali restaurant.
Gresko used to meet friends there regularly, and even chose it to celebrate his birthday. Now he vows to show support for the #MeToo movement by “not consuming the art or the products that these guys have created,” he said. “To my stomach’s dismay.”