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How Me Too is Changing the Restaurant Industry

HOST INTRO: The Me Too movement has brought changes to the food industry. Celebrity chefs, including Mario Batali, have been accused of sexual harassment, and in some cases, have been forced out of their businesses. But according to a ten-year recent study, the food service business as a whole has the highest number of sexual harassment cases of any industry in the country. As Lauren Lantry many in the industry believe there’s still a lot more to be done.

LANTRY: Behind the scenes of a restaurant, jobs are specifically defined and strictly enforced. The chef, which means chief in French, is in command. In a kitchen, you’ll hear “Wi, chef” or “Yes, chef.” Not really “No Chef.” And these roles in kitchens haven’t changed in centuries. Nadia Hewka [NA-DEE-AH HEV-KAH] is a supervising attorney at Community Legal Services. She represents restaurant workers, who have been harassed by a customer, a co-worker, or a manager. Hewka says that this rigid hierarchy allows for sexual harassment.

HEWKA: It’s not a sexual thing. It’s a power thing. It’s like I can cross this line on the job and you can’t do anything about it.

LANTRY: And when workers are harassed, they often have nowhere to turn.

HEWKA: [23:05] Restaurant workers, um, have to figure out what to do on their own. They don’t have like union to go to

KRISHNAMURTHY: [11:28] Workers who complained about sexual harassment are in a particularly vulnerable position.

LANTRY: Kalpana Krishnamurthy [KUL-PANA CRISH-NA-MARTHY] works at Forward Together, an organization that helps win rights for disenfranchised people and communities. She says employees reporting sexual harassment might also face reprisals from their bosses.

KRISHNAMURTHY: [11:28] Are they going to get good shifts after they complain? Are they going to get any shift? Are they going to get fired? So we’ve created a condition in which workers have to assess how much can I put up with this behavior in order to get the shifts I need to pay for my family,

LANTRY: The restaurant industry is the second largest employer in the United States. Over 13 million people work in the industry. Saru Jayaraman [SA-ROO GI-YA-RAMEN] is the Co-Founder and President of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. They help restaurant workers find safer jobs and fairer wages. She says in the front of house, waiters, busboys, and hostesses work mostly for tips. And that creates another space for harassment.

JAYARAMAN: [13:57] A woman called in and she said, // I have to go into the kitchen and show my breast to the kitchen staff to get them to make the meal just as I need it to please the customers to get the tip.’

LANTRY: And sexual harassment happens at all levels of the restaurant industry, even at the very high end.

YUN: My roommate brought home some lamb neck and I had a hankering of ragu, even though I’ve never had it before.

LANTRY: Katie Yun is at home in her kitchen, making a lamb and pork ragu. It’s a dark red, brown color. It’s got a hint of cinnamon and a lot of red wine. Tonight she’s cooking dinner for a friend. But, she used to work at Eleven Madison Park, which is now ranked the fourth best restaurant in the world, according to the team at “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.” And she said she learned a lot there.

YUN: I’m grateful what it taught me // it taught me a lot about what fine dining means and it reshaped about how I think food should look and taste

LANTRY: Despite learning so much about food at the restaurant, she left her job. She says working there was unbearable… Her co-workers kept mistaking her for another female Asian employee. Her managers would make racist remarks about guests. One of her bosses used an ‘f’ word. A slur used to insult gay people. One day, she recalls, she was chatting with a supervisor.

YUN: We were talking about Stonewall Inn and how I had gone earlier that week and I was like, oh, I didn’t feel gay enough // And she said, well, you should go with me and we can go upstairs in the dark corner and then you’d feel gay enough.

LLANTRY: Yun said she was so shocked she became silent. Later, she not only confronted that supervisor, but she also told a manager. But nothing seemed to change. She says over the course of a year, she talked to a manager 13 times about inappropriate behavior – not all of which were sexual harassment related. Finally, three months ago, she quit. On her last day, that same supervisor made a comment about softcore porn.

YUN: And they claim to be higher in standards for a lot of things, including their kitchen culture // but at the end of the day, like no one got reprimanded // I’m never going to go back there.

LANTRY: Today, Yun hosts dinners and works at a coffee shop to pay the bills.

LANTRY: Katherine Miller is the Vice President of Impact at the James Beard Foundation. A group that awards restaurants for great experiences. She says that progress has been slow, even after Me Too. But, she says, the fact that these problems can even be openly raised is a big change.

MILLER: I think the best part of the shining the light on // on harassment is that we now have permission to talk about these things in a way that we never did. And we also have permission to address them. // we’ve just gotta keep talking about it. We haven’t solved the problem yet.

LANTRY: Miller has also noticed other positive developments within the industry. Like kitchens that are open to the dining room so bad behaviors would be on display, or not drinking once a shift is over. And a lot of these little changes are coming within the industry itself, from workers and restaurant owners. Serena Thomas is a Restaurant Opportunities Centers United organizer, and a lifelong industry worker. She says that some restaurants are beginning to raise their minimum wage.

THOMAS: [13:50] It does make a difference and it makes turnover way slower, which means you have better customer service, which means you have, you know, higher ratings. You have a happier staff, which means better food, you know, just like everything, um, domino effects on itself.

PREETI: I never in my lifetime thought that the types of things that we’re talking about in this industry ever would have been talked about.

LANTRY: That’s Preeti Mistry [PRI-TEE MYSTERY]. She lives in California and has cooked all over the world. She’s been a sous chef, an executive chef, a restaurant owner. She agrees that despite these improvements, the industry as a whole has a long way to go.

PREETI: And I think that we need to look inside and start treating our employees and our customers with the same respect and reverence that we treat our vegetables and where we source our meat from and how the animals were raised.

LANTRY: The Restaurant Opportunities Centers United is working to organize employees in the industry. They hope to create a system of accountability and raise the minimum wage for tipped workers. There are over 600 thousand restaurants in the United States, so far 700 have signed up. Lauren Lantry, Columbia Radio News.


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