National News

Fueled by indulgence and machismo, restaurants are a hotbed for sexual harassment

Posted December 24, 2017 6:06 p.m. EST

When Brenda Terry was 16 and living in St. Louis, she was a host and food runner at a sports bar where female employees wore cute little cheerleading skirts. One night, she said, a patron grabbed her crotch. She ran to her management team and they demanded she point out the culprit. Turns out, it was a regular customer. According to Terry, he was not reprimanded, nor ejected from the establishment.

Terry, 32, has worked in kitchens, in dining rooms and behind the bar. She has been a bartender at Ciro's, the Bricks and Fodder & Shine in Tampa and the Mill in St. Petersburg. She is the president of the Tampa chapter of the United State Bartending Guild. She said she has been sexually harassed in many forms in every work environment she has ever been in, usually by customers.

"I'm numb to it," she said. "I expect that behavior and allow it to roll off my back. Is that the best course of action? I'm not sure," she said, adding that bartending while female has additional challenges. "If you want to be a female bartender you need to be hot and you need to smile. I've known female bartenders who have been fired for not smiling enough."

In recent months, American women have stopped smiling.

The number of powerful men brought down by sexual assault accusations is growing daily. Hollywood, news media and Capitol Hill have all been dramatically affected by these accusations. But there's one industry that may trump them all.

The food industry -- restaurants, hotels and other hospitality establishments -- accounted for 14.2 percent of sexual harassment claims filed to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 2005 to 2015, the highest of all fields. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the food services industry accounts for just 7.2 percent of the total workforce. By comparison, health care jobs accounted for 11.5 percent of claims and the construction industry accounted for 2.5 percent.

In the past weeks, famous chefs including John Besh, Mario Batali and Spotted Pig owner Ken Friedman have stepped away from their restaurant empires as accusations of sexual impropriety have emerged. On Thursday, the James Beard Foundation, which has awarded honors to Batali, Besh and Friedman, announced it was reviewing policies "to ensure the integrity of our programs."

A statement read: "We do not condone any behavior contrary to the values of good leadership that our awards represent or that in any way thwarts the opportunity for everyone in our industry to thrive."

But it's not only famous people, and it's not only chefs and it's not only hospitality industry workers preying upon fellow employees. According to a 2014 Restaurant Opportunities Centers United report about sexual harassment, 78 percent of restaurant workers had been harassed at one time by a customer.

It seems the food industry is a Petri dish uniquely hospitable to sexual harassment, inappropriate behavior and missed social cues. It's an industry fueled by adrenaline, late nights and alcohol, one in which servers, 71 percent female, are often encouraged or mandated to dress in an alluring manner. It's an industry that often functions as the fiefdom of a chef/owner, workplace culture and mores established by the "king." Often without a human resources apparatus, it's an industry in which deep-seated animosities simmer between the back of the house (kitchen) and the front (service staff).

Then, add in this hackneyed credo: The customer is always right.

Jessika Palombo owns the Reading Room in St. Petersburg with her partner, chef Lauren Macellaro. Palombo in the front of the house, Macellaro in the back, they bring different perspectives to flaws in the industry.

"For me, personally, it has always been a male-dominated space where there's a mismatch of respect," Palombo said. "I've been spoken to in very inappropriate ways and never had the strength or the need to go to someone higher. Now I hear all this stuff coming out and I'm asking, should I have gone to someone?"

It's an age-old situation, she said. Customers request certain servers, often based on looks. As minimum wage workers (for tipped workers, that's now $5.08 per hour in Florida), it's in your best interest to be super friendly. Your tip depends on it. This can lead to misunderstandings and crossed boundaries.

Inappropriate language is common in many kitchens, Macellaro said, but it's a chef's job to create kitchen culture.

"In a lot of the kitchens I've worked in, the guys in the kitchen talk about the servers, about the way they look. If someone in the kitchen is saying something about a server's (butt), they're saying it to someone else. That person needs to speak up."

Knives and fire, long hours and tight spaces that don't allow for traditional physical boundaries, the industry draws workers, said Noel Cruz, co-owner of Ichicoro in Tampa and the new Ichicoro Ane in St. Petersburg, with a culture of "work hard/play hard."

"In a restaurant, we're creating a party every night," he said. "Even if there are rigid operational standards, I think there's a lot of casualness as well. Everyone is here to have a good time, and that permeates the employee side. It has bred a culture of 'no barriers' and 'anything goes.' The lines between a joke and seriousness are very blurred. If you get offended, I was only kidding. Nobody thinks they're doing anything wrong. That's part of the root of the problem."

In his response to the allegations first reported by Eater, Batali also said as much.

"We built these restaurants so that our guests could have fun and indulge," Batali said in a statement. "But I took that too far in my own behavior."

Change will be slow and painful, in the restaurant industry and elsewhere, Cruz said.

"I think a lot of people are being given bigger voices and things are bubbling up fast," he said. "But it's such an ingrained way that things have been done."

The challenge, especially for an independent restaurant or small restaurant group, is having the necessary staff and allocation of leadership time to continually deal with these kinds of issues, said Maryann Ferenc, CEO of Mise en Place Inc., the company behind Tampa's celebrated Mise en Place restaurant and other culinary businesses.

"We've continued to ramp up our policies and procedures," she said. "It's all about communication and spending more time with people. If you're paying attention, you have noted the change in the industry over the past few years. You as a chef/owner have to understand your artistic power differently from other kinds of power.

"The ability to use intimidation to run your kitchen is no longer the way. This is a new age."

Contact Laura Reiley at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.