Women are vulnerable in just about every inch of a restaurant. Behind the bar. The hostess stands where patrons are greeted. Behind stoves and in front of dishwashers.
From lewd comments to rape, sexual misconduct is, for many, simply part of the job. It takes place in suburban chains and in dazzling three-star Michelin restaurants, and its perpetrators might just as easily be owners as lowly barbacks.
The Washington Post interviewed more than 60 people across the country who either claimed they experienced such treatment while working in restaurants or witnessed it. Men are not immune from abuse, but the vast majority of victims The Washington Post spoke to are women. Their stories show that how women experience sexual harassment depends on their place in the restaurant ecosystem. Cooks are harassed by other cooks, servers are harassed by everyone. And immigrants and young people — who make up a large percentage of the workforce — are particularly vulnerable.
In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 5,431 complaints of sexual harassment from women. Of the 2,036 claims that listed an industry, 12.5 percent came from the hotel and food industry, more than any other category, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
A third of women reported that unwanted touching was routine, the survey found.
Many kitchens are boys’ clubs, dominated by machismo and flashing knives. Management also holds a great deal of power with scheduling. Putting a restaurant worker on a bad shift could affect their cash flow based on the number of tips they get.
‘I felt cornered, and trapped and scared’
One day seven years ago, Miranda Rosenfelt — then a cook — went into work at Jackie’s restaurant in Silver Spring, Md., to help with inventory, at the request of one of her direct supervisors. That supervisor had been harassing her for months, she said.
When Rosenfelt, now 31, walked into the narrow basement room, far from the bustle of the kitchen, she turned around to find him “standing there with his pants on the floor, and his penis in his hands,” blocking her exit from the basement, she said.
“I felt cornered, and trapped, and scared, and what ended up happening was that he got me to perform oral sex, and it was horrible. And the whole time he was saying things like, ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to do this.’ ” Her instinct was “not to do anything, and wait for it to be over. Because that’s what will make me the safest.”
Complaining to management — about management
Seven years ago, Vaiva Labukaite got a bartending job at celebrity chef Rick Moonen’s restaurant, RM Seafood, in Las Vegas.
Not long after she started, she alleged in a lawsuit, her manager, Paul Fisichella, started to harass her verbally. She brushed it off and reminded him that he was married. One time, he grabbed her hand and put it on his crotch to make her feel his penis, she alleged in the lawsuit. Labukaite, now 38, told The Washington Post that the incident took place while they were in the restaurant having a glass of wine after her shift.
Fisichella “adamantly disputed the claims,” according to one of his attorneys.
Labukaite said Fisichella kept dangling the possibility of a promotion for her. One night, she alleged, Fisichella told her she needed to go with him and Moonen to dinner to “talk about my advancement in the company.” She got in the car with Fisichella, “and that’s when he started groping me and putting his hands up my skirt. And again I was in shock.”
She later complained about the sexual harassment to the restaurant’s management, and “the next thing you know, my shifts were going down from five days a week to two days a week.” She filed suit against Fisichella and RM Seafood, and eventually the parties settled, with the restaurant settling on Fisichella’s behalf, according to his attorney. Both Moonen and RM Seafood declined to comment.
Harassment is so routine that many restaurant employees say they do not consider sexual comments or touching to be worth reporting.
A lighter to her head
One former server from Seattle spoke on the condition of anonymity because she still works in the industry.
“This one particular busser . . . had asked me out a couple of times, and I had always said no,” she said. “He came up behind me, and I had really long hair, and he held a lighter underneath my hair like he was going to set my hair on fire.”
The general manager saw him do it, made him stop and reprimanded him, but afterward, “We were all supposed to go back to work like everything was normal.” The busser was not fired, she said. The incident took place about 15 years ago, and she didn’t tell anyone else at the time.
Using a fork for protection
Chef Maya Rotman-Zaid, 36, says she was cornered once about 12 years ago, by a co-worker who tried to grope her in a walk-in cooler.
“The guy tried to feel me up, and I stuck a fork in his leg,” she said. A friend she had confided in confirmed details of this story to The Washington Post. Although she doesn’t think she broke his skin, he “screamed and ran out of there like it never happened. I mean, talk about embarrassing. But he never tried to touch me again.”
Rotman-Zaid said female chefs have learned to “just go with it” when men harass them, to fit in and gain the trust of male colleagues. If you are a “prude and don’t want to be in that situation, you won’t last very long in the restaurant world in general.”
Servers and bartenders also have to worry about harassment from their customers. And because of a “customer is always right” mentality and the pressure of working for tips, they often feel compelled to accept it.
‘Don’t f — -ing touch me’
Stefanie Williams, 31, said that four years ago, when she worked at an upscale New York steakhouse as a cocktail waitress, she was groped by one of her regulars, an investment banker who spent lots of money entertaining clients there.
At a Christmas party, he “put his hand up my dress, and he put his hand under my underwear and asked if I was wearing any underwear,” Williams said. She said she told the story to two colleagues at the time, and they confirmed that account to The Washington Post. Later, he “put his groin against my butt and pushed really hard,” she said.
Williams told her manager that either the customer had to leave or she would, and he was escorted out. But before long, he was back.
‘Was it a thong? A bikini?’
When Sola Pyne, 33, was a waitress at a Washington sports bar from 2006 to 2009, she once served a table of half-drunk off-duty police officers, whom she identified by the T-shirts and hats they sported for the city’s annual National Police Week.
“They kept asking what kind of underwear I had on: Was it a thong? A bikini?’ I told my manager, and at first he giggled, but he said if they took it any further to let him know,” she said. “I just let it slide. I didn’t need any drama.”
Nearly a quarter of restaurant employees are foreign-born vs. 19 percent for the overall economy, according to the National Restaurant Association. And many are undocumented: Ten percent of the workforce in “eating and drinking places” in 2014 lacked U.S. work authorization, according to the Pew Research Center.
Fear of deportation may make undocumented immigrant restaurant workers who are abused less likely to report that abuse to authorities.
Repeated rapes over eight years
Maria Vazquez, 52, is a monolingual Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrant mother of six, so her job as a cook and dishwasher at Art’s Wings and Things in South Los Angeles was a lifeline. But one day in 2005, she alleges, restaurant owner Arthur Boone cornered her in the back of the warehouse where she was doing inventory and raped her.
Afterward, she said, he took her to a store for supplies, and everyone treated him like a king.
Vazquez couldn’t afford to be out of work, so she kept the job — and, she alleges, Boone kept taking her into the warehouse. She alleges that when she transferred to a different location of the restaurant — one that did not have a warehouse — Boone assaulted her in the bathroom there, and that the rapes continued over a period of eight years. Vazquez sued Boone in June 2014 seeking damages based on 10 allegations detailed in her lawsuit. Boone, who denied the allegations in a court-filed response, could not be reached for comment.
Vazquez is one of the rare immigrants who were able to sue their employers, and win. In her lawsuit against Boone and his restaurant corporation, a court awarded her a judgment of more than $1 million. But she hasn’t received a cent from Boone.
His restaurant business has closed, and Vazquez has not been able to collect.
In New Orleans, a blockbuster report by the Times-Picayune felled uber-restaurateur John Besh, who resigned after two dozen women said they had been subjected to sexual harassment within his empire — some of it by Besh himself.
Since the Harvey Weinstein and Besh scandals broke, the restaurant community has been in an unusually introspective mode.
Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who personified the swaggering alpha dog of kitchen lore, in recent interviews has publicly copped to perpetuating the "meathead bro culture”that allows sexual harassment to go unchecked. And “Top Chef” host Tom Colicchio posted an open letter to male chefs on Medium noting that Besh was hardly one of a few “bad eggs” and that men needed to “acknowledge the larger culture that hatched all these crummy eggs, and have some hard conversations among ourselves that are long overdue.”
While industry leaders talk about their culpability, some women are taking small steps.
Caroline Richter, a New Orleans waitress who described being assaulted by a customer, founded a group called Medusa — named after the mythical maiden turned into a Gorgon as punishment by Athena for being raped by the god Poseidon in Athena’s temple — with a goal of creating best practices for bars and restaurants regarding sexual harassment.
But training and strong human resources departments are not a panacea: Even big chain restaurants that have both have been the subject of sexual harassment lawsuits.
Advocates —including the Restaurant Opportunities Center United — say the tipped minimum wage, which is several dollars lower than the standard minimum wage, is a primary driver of harassment.
Many of the women who spoke to The Washington Post for this story said they were hopeful the Weinstein and Besh sagas would trigger a change in the industry. But many noted that the roots of the problem run deep and will not be easily dug up.
One factor is the relative dearth of women at the top of the food chain, as chef-owners, award winners — or even as general managers.
- Only 21 percent of chefs and head cooks are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
- Many women are discouraged by the constant harassment as well as by the lack of health care and regular hours, which can make it difficult to have a family.
While some say more women in management could be a solution, the harsh kitchen culture is so pervasive that even high-profile female chefs are among those accused of harassment. Celebrity chef Anne Burrell was sued in 2008 for allegedly harassing several employees at Centro Vinoteca, the restaurant where she worked at the time.