Women are Uniting to Fight Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry

In the wake of #MeToo, Women in Hospitality United is working to create more equity, fairness, and concrete policies for positive change.



Late on an autumn afternoon in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Kate Galassi stood with a baby in one hand and a microphone in the other, addressing a group of about 75 women and a handful of men who sat around long tables in a warmly lit, brick-walled event space at the Wythe Hotel.

“We want to change the narrative for working moms in our industry,” she said. “We’re seen as a liability when we believe we’re a strong asset.”

Galassi, who is a former forager for New York restaurants including the Spotted Pig, was speaking on behalf of a group that had spent the last seven hours or so brainstorming solutions with the other members of Women In Hospitality United (WIHU).

WIHU was cofounded in 2017 by Elizabeth Meltz, Erin Fairbanks, and Liz Murray in response to the sudden, painful #metoo and #timesup reckoning that spotlighted sexual harassment and assault in the industry, including high-profile restaurateurs Mario Batali, John Besh, Ken Friedman (owner of The Spotted Pig, who has stepped back from day-to-day operations), and others.

Meltz, who had worked in Batali’s organization for years as director of environmental health, had “one of those reactions,” recalls Fairbanks: “‘Holy shit, what does this mean? What role did I play in that? Was I a victim; was I an enabler? Why didn’t I know or share?’” In response, Meltz sent an email out to every woman she knew in hospitality.

“I said, ‘I’ll join you in this,’” says Fairbanks, who as a long-time member of the food industry—she was a line cook at New York restaurants Gramercy Tavern and Savoy and former executive director of Heritage Radio Network—had witnessed the problem first-hand.

“There’s kind of a history of abuse and having to prove yourself in kitchens,” Fairbanks says. “When I was cooking, part of that was very thrilling: ‘I can do this; I’m a tough chick.’ You kind of buy into the narrative of your oppression.”

But now, during this movement of self-examination and reflection in the industry, the time has come to have these tough conversations. “There’s something weird and disorienting for people to have somebody tell you, ‘That’s harassment’ or ‘That doesn’t have to be that way,’” says Fairbanks. “It requires a moment of breath-taking, especially if nobody’s ever asked you.”

WIHU founders, from left: Liz Murray, Elizabeth Meltz, Erin Fairbanks. (Photo credit: Bridget Shevlin)

WIHU founders, from left: Liz Murray, Elizabeth Meltz, Erin Fairbanks. (Photo credit: Bridget Shevlin)

Carried forward by the momentum of women reclaiming their power, WIHU quickly took shape. A series of meetings at local event spaces and restaurants drew ever-larger crowds, the organization’s name began to stick, and the members began to make concrete plans.

“In that fourth meeting, we asked, ‘Why do you guys keep coming?’” Fairbanks says. “And overwhelmingly people were like, ‘I don’t want this to be a narrative that falls out of the media cycle and then is gone. I need to keep showing up so we can keep [safety for women and gender equity] at the forefront of this industry.’”

Making Restaurant Work Work for Everyone

WIHU grouped the participants into six teams; Galassi was part of the Working Parents group, which unlike the other teams—Sexual Harassment, the Wage Gap, Mental Health, Financial Literacy, and Mentorship—began with a partially formulated mission: to resurrect and reinvent a training program for young women.

Team member Suzanne Barr had launched the original program, called the Dinettes, in 2014 in her former Toronto restaurant, Saturday Dinette.

“The night we opened was the night I found out I was pregnant,” says Barr, now the mother of a three-year-old son. “Everything changed.”

Barr explains that she began the Dinettes program as a way of hiring affordable staff while being able “to train and inspire some young women between 18 and 25.” Her local YWCA had a program that taught kitchen skills-training, knife skills, and offered food-handling certification, and a government program offset the cost to businesses that hired these young women. Three of them became part of the restaurant’s opening team.

“So it [offset] 80 percent of our opening costs for our payroll,” Barr says. After three months, she was given the option to hire the women, and she did—then began working with other organizations that offered workforce training.

At the WIHU gathering, the idea was to reimagine the Dinettes program to train young working mothers and address the particular issues they face as restaurant employees.

“In this industry you don’t have the option of late-night daycare, late pickups, maternity leave, paternity leave,” says Barr. “You don’t have the option of being able to create a schedule that’s flexible.”

The WIHU team envisioned the new Dinettes as a program that would benefit both the trainees and the restaurants they would work for—places that are often inhospitable to working mothers. The new version would be “a cooperative, working to identify and advance solutions for working moms and their employers,” Galassi told the crowd.

The Working Parents team in action, with Susan Spikes writing on the easel. (Photo credit: Bridget Shevlin)

The Working Parents team in action, with Susan Spikes writing on the easel. (Photo credit: Bridget Shevlin)

The Working Parents group identified priorities for what the Dinettes—and parents in the restaurant business in general—would receive. The list of “non-negotiables” included non-judgmental lactation breaks and dedicated lactation space, livable wages, maternity leave, health insurance, and a consistent schedule to plan childcare around.

“What is the revolution going to look like? How are we going to change the world?” asked Matt McFarlane, the only male member of the Working Parents team. “Restaurant owners would view access to these resources as essential—it’s something they need to have and if they don’t have it, they open themselves up to great risk and liability.”

The Bigger Picture

WIHU’s efforts are one of several seeds of this new vision for restaurant work that are taking root today. “A Fine Line,” a documentary by Joanna James originally released in 2017 but updated and re-released this year to reflect recent events, explores in depth the issues facing women in the hospitality industry.

As the film opens, former James Beard Foundation President Susan Ungaro says, “Over half the graduates of culinary schools are women, yet less than 7 percent of women own restaurant businesses in this country.”

James uses as the film’s narrative thread the story of her mother, a single parent and intrepid restaurateur in Central Massachusetts who fought hard to achieve her success. Woven throughout, prominent chefs including Lidia Bastianich, Dominique Crenn, Cat Cora, Barbara Lynch, and April Bloomfield share their perspectives and experiences.

Lynch, the acclaimed chef/owner of seven Boston restaurants, weighs in on issues facing restaurant workers with children, and her ideas mirrored those coming from the Working Parents’ discussion at the WIHU event.

“When you think about it,” Lynch says, “if you want to keep women in the kitchen after age 30, 35, and 40, and you want them to have a family, put a breastfeeding room in your changing room, offer help, give them CSA boxes so they don’t have to go grocery shopping, split the hours. You know, do you have to have one chef de cuisine and a sous chef? Jeez, why don’t we have three sous chefs, two of them are women and one’s a man?”

That’s the policy Lynch put in place within her restaurant group, and there are signs of progress elsewhere in the industry. In New York, Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group enacted a parental leave policy in 2017 that offers full-time employees 100 percent of base wages for the first four weeks and 60 percent for another four weeks. In San Francisco, the Paid Parental Leave Ordinance of 2017 requires employers to supplement disability insurance that covered 55 percent of workers’ pay during post-partum and parental bonding leave to bring it up to 100 percent.

But these policies remain the exceptions rather than the rule. Nationally, just 4 percent of food-service employees receive paid family leave, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (The Family Medical Leave Act requires that employers offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave, which is an unrealistic option for most restaurant workers.)

Bridging the Wage Gap

While the WIHU Working Parents group was mapping its plan to change the world, the other groups were coming up with their own smart, sometimes radical, plans. The Wage Gap team, for example, came up with a bold response to some disheartening statistics.

According to a study on race and gender by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, among California restaurant workers, women make 67 cents to the dollar (and 79 cents to the dollar on average elsewhere in the country). A national study published in 2014 by the Economic Policy Institute found that for women and men alike, restaurant work is significantly lower-paid than work in other fields, but that women earn nearly 8 percent less than men for the same work.

The Wage Gap group created a covenant, which read in part: “I believe in a free discourse about wage and income. I will share information about wage and income if asked.”

“It’s a huge taboo,” one of the team’s presenters said. “There’s no way [to eliminate disparities in salaries between men and women] unless we share them with each other. It starts today.”

And with that, each presenter stated her job title and how much money she earned, to enthusiastic applause and the snapping of fingers.

The sexual harassment PSA poster.

The sexual harassment PSA poster designed for Cherry Bombe (click image for larger version).

“When we came together at the end of the day, I was really blown away by the out-of-the-box thinking, the creative approach each group took to their own challenges,” says Susan Spikes, director of human resources for Quality Branded, a large New York-based restaurant group, and a WIHU adviser.

The Sexual Harassment group designed a poster that would hang in restaurants, “about creating safer space and giving people knowledge of what sexual harassment is,” one of that group’s members said.

Similar in some ways to a poster created by San Francisco restaurateur Karen Leibowitz of The Perennial and graphic artist Kelli Anderson for the magazine Cherry Bombe, this poster would diverge in a significant way. Whereas that poster directs workers to “Make It Official,” by filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, the WIHU team presenter said the group had considered “restorative and transformative justice models,” recognizing that not everyone who works in restaurants would feel safe contacting the government. “Everybody doesn’t have the privilege of engaging with government bodies,” she said.

Instead, they would also create what they called “a living document that exists in the community.” The idea centered on creating a sticker or card to share widely with community-based organizations and a variety of restaurant spaces, that would ask “How are we powerful?” and point to a variety of resources.

“A lot of people don’t know what abuse is, and doubt they’ve been abused. This would give people language to describe their own experiences. We are all powerful,” the presenter said, to snaps from the assembled crowd. “We are powerful and nothing is too small. No account of something that’s made you feel uncomfortable is too small.”

Seventy-five women snapping is a beautiful sound.

This article was updated to correct the fact that Ken Friedman still owns The Spotted Pig and the spelling of Karen Leibowitz’s last name.

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