Embarking on a shift in the hospitality industry, specifically in a bar or restaurant, often entails an “in-the-trenches”-type mentality. It’s a collective and community-oriented ordeal of buckling down for a manic seven to 10 hours of entertaining the whims of picky customers in a likely-hectic environment. And then going out afterwards.
While exciting, this perpetuates an intimate internal culture that blurs the lines of professionalism and social relationships, fostering a setting conducive to sexual misconduct. Paired with a fast-paced atmosphere and high turnover rate, subsequent neglect to address these issues is all too easy.
This is doubly concerning considering that 90 percent of woman and 70 percent of men working in hospitality have reported experiencing some sort of sexual harassment on the job, according to a 2014 report by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United.
Restaurant Culture Association, a non-profit organization founded by members of Chicago’s hospitality industry, is aiming to transform this negative culture through thoughtful policy reform and education. The organization was introduced Aug. 12, with a panel at Dorian’s in Wicker Park.
“Our goal is to create clear and consistent policy for restaurants and bars so that people in leadership can be confident in viewing these instances as opportunities to positively affect their work culture and employees can feel secure in coming forward,” said Trista Baker, Logan Square resident and one of the founders of RCA who has worked in the industry since high school.
The panel was moderated by Baker and consisted of six seasoned industry workers: Fred Noinaj, executive chef at Lost Lake, Chris Mars, food and beverage consultant for Intercontinental Hotel Group, Parker Haines, general manager of Cafe Roby, Emily Spurlin, pastry chef and baker working at Granor Farms, Adrienne Stoner, on-premise market manager at Maison Ferrand and Lorraine Nguyen, Land and Sea Dept. sous chef.
RCA was conceived after witnessing numerous after-work conversations with individuals who would raise questions about diversity in leadership or the prevalence of sexual misconduct, Baker said, but didn’t have the means to enact change.
“I was working with people with all the best intentions but didn’t have the tools they needed to support their work culture,” she said.
The panel at Dorian’s mimicked these feelings of incapacity. Questions by audience members were largely rooted in frustration with a lack of avenue for addressing issues of sexual misconduct.
This is where RCA comes in. RCA focuses on employee training by facilitating conversations between management and staff, and policy, designing guidelines to fit the nuances of each specific workplace.
The need for clear policy and active address of these issues is evident. Restaurant employees file more sexual harassment reports than any other industry, according to a study by Buzzfeed. Women in the hospitality industry account for 14 percent of all sexual harassment claims, double that of the general workforce, according to the 2014 study by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.
Baker thinks the specific nature of the restaurant industry has made it slow to catch up with the #MeToo shift seen in industries like entertainment and politics. The hospitality industry hasn’t been apt in addressing misconduct outside of select high-profile cases.
“The industry itself is so different than any other,” she said. “We build strong social relationships with people that are often built around food and beverage: going out, eating and drinking.”
The close-quartered nature of the industry can be positive, Baker said. The family-mentality can create a supportive work environment. But it also can make it difficult to toe the line between the work-place and social situations, and without an updated and specific policy on how to handle issues of sexual misconduct, individuals are often left without the means to speak up.
Noinaj, the executive chef at Lost Lake who has been cooking professionally for 11 years, has noticed patterns of how these issues usually get handed off in efforts to save face. He said it starts at the top.
“I’ve worked a lot of places where management kind of dismisses the issues when it happens and it has hurt a lot of people,” Noinaj said. “Things get swept under the rug, or handed off to HR, and it ends up just protecting the house.”
This image-driven approach of sweeping issues like these under the rug is not unique to the hospitality industry. But the patterned prioritization of customer experience makes it easy to ignore the internal culture when policy supports that the “customer is always right.”
The panel additionally discussed methods of addressing unintentional harm through open conversation and education. Many workplaces adopt a “zero-tolerance” policy that not only dismisses individual cases rather than instituting culture-wide change but also creates a burden with the knowledge that coming-forward could cost someone their job.
“In times like these, we do need an outlet to go to,” Noinaj said. “There isn’t really protocol for what happens when personal issues arise and I think RCA is going to be a really good way to solve these issues properly.”
RCA is currently pursuing 501(c)(3) certification. Until then, the organization is looking to engage with restaurants and bars to establish policy and training programs. With this, RCA provides actionable ways to transform potentially harmful workplace cultures.
“These problems have always been there, but there have never been outlets to voice opinions and for employees to stand up for themselves,” Noinaj said. “In the wake of the #MeToo movement… people are seeing how it’s okay to say that things aren’t okay.”
Featured photo: Olivia Obineme/Chicago Reader