From Plates to Predators

Inside the Pervasive Problem of Sexual Harassment in F&B

The restaurant industry is known for its vibrant, colorful, diverse staff and the camaraderie that comes with being together in the trenches during a Saturday night dinner rush.

The fast-paced and stressful atmosphere can bond a group like no other (sometimes only half-jokingly referred to as “trauma bonding”). Unfortunately, sexual harassment is another reality of restaurant life. Partially because of the rampant drug and alcohol use in food and bev, but mostly because of the patriarchy, many men clearly have the perceived right to dehumanize women down to sexual objects to be abused. Working as a woman in food and bev is fucking rough, and sexual harassment is a pervasive problem.

Sexual harassment can take many forms from inappropriate comments and gestures to unwanted advances and touching. According to a study done by the Restaurant Opportunities Center, and reported on by Alana Semuels of The Atlantic, “half of women working in the restaurant industry experienced ‘scary’ or ‘unwanted’ sexual behavior”. The harassment can be so subtle, so commonplace, that you can forget that it isn’t healthy, safe, or acceptable behavior.

If you’re a woman in food and bev, you’ve experienced this at some level. In fact, more sexual harassment claims are made in food and bev (and accommodation) industries than in any other sector. Anecdotes of this crap are truly endless, just ask any woman in F&B. Sexual harassment can come from your bosses, your coworkers, and your guests. The following are just a few enraging examples to highlight this pervasive problem.


Stop sexual harassment | Image by Stop sexual harassment

One South Carolina restaurant owner allowed his adult son seemingly unrestricted funds to enable his violent, misogyny infused antics. Nepotism got this coke and booze soaked asshole his position as glorified host in the restaurant. His signature move was to “buy” (put on the house account) shots for all the guests he wanted, which of course, he would also partake in. He would frequently verbally assault employees for things he had little to no understanding of like the steps of service in a fine dining restaurant or weird shit like not buying him coffee. He’d get so wasted that he’d sit down at tables with guests and pick at their food with his bare hands. Many entire bills were charged to the house as a result.

In 2017, however, Nepotism Ken finally crossed the line.

One server was bending over to talk to her table and he put his hand up the back of her skirt. She was brave enough to report this and initiate legal action. Long story short, she no longer works for the company, and he still does. It can be safely assumed that they settled, and part of this was that she signed an NDA. It was rumored that the offender went to some sort of drug and alcohol rehabilitation, but no statement was ever made by the owner, his son, or the company.

Managers, too, use their power to enable the harassment of their employees. One manager, let’s call him Sleaze Boss, makes comments to almost all the women who work for him. He told one server that he’d know her legs anywhere. To another he said that she had beautiful eyes, while standing obscenely close to her. Perhaps the most egregious offense, though, is when he told the expeditor that he liked her chest, and began to call her the “sexpo”. Complaints had been made to other managers, and the expo reported him to HR. Sleaze Boss’s boss dragged this poor 19 year old girl into the office with her abuser to talk about it. He still hasn’t been fired.  He even reportedly said that, “I’ve been accused of this before.” One woman who spoke to me said that she’s scared to report more of his behavior because he’ll know who she is based on her complaint. And then she’ll “have to work with [her] predator and he’s still managing [her]. It is not a safe environment.”

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Scared Women | Image by Joanne Adela

As we know all too well, sexual harassment is not always perpetrated by the owner or boss. It frequently comes from coworkers. One server worked at a restaurant for over a decade while quietly creeping on coworkers and customers alike. This close talking predator got away with it for so long and even bragged about it. Though management was very aware of this, he wasn’t fired until he was caught on camera literally smacking a girl’s ass. It’s not surprising that management waited until an actual assault happened to address the issue. What is shocking though, is that Close Talker McGee got a job at a restaurant right down the street. The new restaurant never called for a reference or to ask why he was fired.

At the same restaurant, a dishwasher continuously hit on women by way of yelling half intelligible comments as if he was catcalling a stranger on the street. When he was rebuffed by one server, Screamy Cat Caller literally slammed a glass rack into the server’s ribs and cursed under his breath whenever she walked by. Another server reported some of his other behaviors. Instead of firing him, they told her that he’s been warned, and to let them know when it happened again. This left her to fend for herself in this unsafe environment while also leaving the responsibility of his job status essentially to her. He was eventually fired after she reported another incident. Interesting, that those lower on the totem pole have consequences for their harassment and those in power don’t, isn’t it? But again, not all that surprising, am I right?

And last up on our unpleasant walk down sexual harassment lane, are the customers. There’s the (often rich and old) dudes who think they can monopolize all your time while you get more and more grossed out and more and more in the weeds. There’s the guy who insists on having only attractive, female servers wait on him (yes this is real and yes, the restaurant group goes out of their way to accommodate this demand because he is a well paying and loyal customer…and you know, the patriarchy).

And then there are the customers who actually inappropriately touch you

Hopefully you work somewhere that management will not tolerate this behavior, but more often than not, they won’t turn away a customer because of this.

I’m guessing some of the guys in F+B are feeling a little targeted. If you feel that way, you’re part of the problem. Either you were creepy to a coworker/ employee or you stood by and watched it happen. Men have so much power in our fucked up patriarchical culture, that the best thing you can do is acknowledge what’s happening and report it to HR when you see it. Please be an ally. Don’t be that guy who defends predators or pretends they don’t see it. Women are getting pretty sick of the, “well he seems nice to me” bullshit. Of course he seems nice to you, he’s not harassing you.

If you’re a hetero/cis man who has been sexually harassed at work, that truly does suck, and I don’t mean to minimize your suffering. Trust me, we can relate. One male server said that he has been objectified and harassed at almost every restaurant he’s ever worked in. I asked if he’d ever been scared for his safety. He said no. There’s [clap] the [clap] difference! When women are harassed it is a threat to their safety, no matter how harmless it might seem to you dudes.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, not all instances of abuse go reported or, as in the case of Nepotism Ken, the victim is financially compensated.

Because of the nature food and bev, it can be easy not to recognize sexual harassment for what it is, and even harder to know when and how to stand up for yourself. Sometimes it just feels like friendly banter, but more often than not, it’s repeated, it’s unwanted, and can be downright frightening. Being able to recognize harassment for what it is is the first step to protecting yourself.

So, you’ve been sexually harassed. Now what? The ugly truth is that we will keep being harassed if we don’t report it. With the rise of the #MeToo Movement, we’ve seen a dramatic rise in the number of sexual harassment cases in the news (think Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and Bill Crosby). But it can be difficult to empower ourselves- especially if our jobs or safety are on the line. We’re afraid we won’t be taken seriously. We’re afraid of retribution. We need this paycheck and can’t afford to be fired. It is so unfair, but the onus is on the victims.

Unfortunately, knowing what the best course of action is, and being free to do it, are two completely different things. It is often difficult to report your abuser for fear of not being believed, for fear of retribution (bad sections, being fired, etc), or just being afraid of making a bad situation worse. In the case of Sleaze Boss, one server reported his harassment to her supervisor, and instead of taking the appropriate action, the manager “had a chat” with the perpetrator, did not enforce any consequences, and the server was told that it was “handled”. The perpetrator continued his inappropriate actions towards her and others, before the server finally quit.

Inaction by management is a widespread problem when dealing with harassment accusations. Many managers sweep these issues under the rug for a variety of reasons ranging from keeping the peace to staffing issues. They are failing to protect their workers and making a bad situation worse by contributing to an abusive work environment.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment |

It’s important to know your rights and what constitutes sexual harassment in your state. Knowing your rights empowers you to assert yourself and to know when to seek help. If you feel safe doing so, explain to the offender that the behavior is unwelcome and makes you uncomfortable. You can bet that if it’s happened once, it will happen again so keep a record of every incident. You can do something as simple as opening the notes app in your phone and record as much as you can; the date, the time, what happened, and who witnessed the incident. Also, check around your restaurant to identify where the security cameras are located. That would certainly be helpful if there is physical contact, but a well placed security camera may also provide proof of the actual interaction if there is no contact.

Chances are that if you’re being harassed, so are others. Encourage them to also record all incidents, and come forward as a group to your HR department. Do not wait for your manager to do the right thing. Bypass them and go straight to HR. The more people who come forward about incidents of harassment, the better. If it’s just one individual being harassed, be sure to bring witnesses or a witness list with contact information. Bring all of the recorded incidents. Make sure that there is a paper trail so that it cannot be swept under the rug. HR should make a record of your complaint. Ask what their next steps to address the issue will be so that they know you expect them to take action.

Many jurisdictions have whistleblower protection laws to protect employees who report harassment. Familiarize yourself with these laws. If you have been wrongfully terminated, otherwise retaliated against, or the issue has not been properly handled, consider talking to a lawyer. Many lawyers for sexual harassment cases have a “no win, no fee” policy. Remember that most restaurants (like Nepotism Ken’s) would rather quickly and quietly settle a sexual harassment case than go to a costly and public trial.

Everyone deserves a safe and healthy work environment. If you’ve been harassed, you need to stand up for yourself by reporting it. It is necessary to hold the harasser accountable and break the cycle of abuse not only for yourself, but for other victims. It can be a daunting prospect, but your friends at 86’d Me are here to help. If you need any help finding legal aid in your area, please contact us at 86’d me, and we’d be happy to help!