Five years after I went public with my #MeToo experiences in the restaurant industry, has anything really changed?
I remember the moment I first read Ashley Judd’s account of being sexually harassed by Harvey Weinstein. After a 25+ year career in the service industry, I had spent the summer leading up to the October 2017 Weinstein exposé back in my hometown caring for my mother, who was just beginning her battle against ovarian cancer. Having left New York City only a few months prior, I still woke up in the middle of the night with anxiety dreams about being screamed at for lagging on table 2’s appetizer order, or having to walk a drink tray through an obnoxious group of finance guys with aggressive, groping hands.
Throughout my life, I had built up a fantasy that sexual harassment and abuse was a blue-collar issue that could be transcended: a cross to bear by women like me who would eventually work our way up the ladder to an “untouchable” place where financial stability and prestige would render us safe from the antics of power-hungry, abusive superiors. But if a prominent figure like Ashley Judd had to deal with abuse, then a working-class woman like me who makes her bread and butter as a waitress didn’t stand a chance. I felt hopeless. Oddly, though, when there is no hope left, there is also nothing to lose, which can be a very freeing place to find oneself.
That night, I wrote about the first time I was assaulted by restaurateur Ken Friedman at the Spotted Pig, and posted it on my Facebook page. (I worked at the Friedman-owned Spotted Pig between 2006 and 2007, and at the Rusty Knot and the Breslin from 2008 to 2012.) At the time, I didn’t realize the New York Times was doing a story about abuses in the restaurant industry; the next day, investigative reporter Julia Moskin reached out, and my life quickly became engrossed in daily phone calls reliving some of my most unpleasant memories. The resulting Times investigation, published on December 12, 2017, featured several women, including myself, who accused Friedman of sexual harassment, and the story described a permissive culture in the restaurant toward harassment and abuse. In a statement to the Times, Friedman said, “I own my behavior which can accurately be described at times as abrasive, rude and frankly wrong.”
In 2017, when #MeToo — a movement originally founded by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 — went viral, several exposes revealed examples within the entertainment, business, and restaurant industries. Allegations surfaced against major chefs, from Mario Batali (who acknowledged reports of allegations “matched up” to the ways he had behaved) to John Besh. (Besh, for his part, categorized an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sexual harassment complaint as a “consensual relationship” and “sincerely apologize[d] to anyone past and present who has worked for me who found my behavior as unacceptable as I do.”) I would hear whispers from industry colleagues that some restaurant owners thought the whole thing would eventually “blow over”; among the rank-and-file, there was skepticism that the collective would care about a class of workers deemed disposable. But one year into the movement, it felt like there was upward momentum. Decades of abusive conditioning and silencing tactics had finally been upended, and it became clear that women were never planning to go back to the way it used to be.
Five years in, there’s a lot that still needs to change. Some employers admit to being more reluctant to hire women because of the potential for sexual harassment allegations. Women are still underrepresented in leadership roles: Although we make up 63 percent of entry-level positions within the restaurant industry, that number significantly diminishes to 38 percent for senior-level management.
But there has also been measurable progress since 2017. In many circles, consumers have a much stronger sense of moral responsibility as to where they spend their money; in workplaces, habitual abusers can’t necessarily depend upon the silence of their employees. And new legal protections are being implemented to safeguard workers.
Thanks to the efforts of advocates and organizations like Lift Our Voices, a nonprofit that started in 2019, new laws are on the books to curb common silencing mechanisms used by employers. In March 2022, President Biden signed into law the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act; forcing employees into arbitration clauses makes it more difficult to hold employers accountable because it prevents a jury from hearing the case, and this law renders those clauses unenforceable in cases of harassment. In December 2022, Biden signed into law the Speak Out Act, which renders nondisclosure or nondisparagement agreements unenforceable in cases involving sexual harassment and assault; having employees sign NDA waivers has long been a practice that keeps victims silent. Of course, it’s often difficult to enforce these laws when infractions continue to happen behind the closed doors of unmonitored restaurant establishments, but it’s a start.
In many ways, that culture shift has to be enough, because for those who’ve endured toxic work environments, reparations are difficult to come by. In January 2020, the State of New York settled its civil suit against Friedman and the Spotted Pig. As one of the employees who had withstood years of harassment and abuse at the hands of Friedman, I stood alongside 10 fellow claimants and accepted a settlement that averaged around $20,000 per person to be spread out over two years of payments, as well as a profit-sharing model that would grant us additional reparations for as long as the Spotted Pig was open. The settlement didn’t come close to matching the lost wages I suffered after leaving my longtime position, but it felt like a symbolic token of redemption. The restaurant closed its doors for good just 20 days later.
A lot of conversation during the early days of the restaurant industry’s reckoning focused on changing its profit models — forcing bad actors to divest and, in some cases, transfer ownership to workers in the rank and file. But that action has been relatively rare over the past five years. During the weeks that followed the Spotted Pig’s closure, I began to negotiate with the building’s owners in an attempt to take over its lease, with a team of industry leaders guiding me through the process. I had high hopes of being able to redeem the integrity of that location while also reclaiming the many slivers of my soul that were still painfully embedded into its mortar: To have the opportunity to turn that space into an establishment that celebrated women and the working class would have so many positive reverberations. I also wanted to have the opportunity to honor the profit-sharing reparations that had been promised to those who were a part of the State of New York’s case. Then, the pandemic hit. I continued to reach out for 15 months, but our conversations eventually came to a halt, and thus my “longshot bid” for the Spotted Pig ended.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was the second reckoning to hit the industry in half a decade. While #MeToo exposed the lack of protections for restaurant employees against abuse and harassment, COVID exposed our lack of career stability, and revealed the multiple fractures and shortcomings of owners’ business plans.
Throughout COVID, many of us who had invested our hearts and souls into restaurant work began to question the industry’s viability, and walked away from their restaurant careers. Restaurant owners came face-to-face with the reality that their margins were simply too thin, and closed their doors for good.
In the wake of these dual reckonings, I began pondering what a way forward for the industry might look like. Is it possible to create a business model that puts the needs of employees front and center, while also being profitable? Can you offer a healthy work/life balance, a living wage, healthcare, mental healthcare, sick pay, parental leave, childcare stipends, financial planning services, 401(k) plans, profit-sharing agreements, paid holidays and vacations, and not be dead in the water before you even open your doors? Is there a way to create a system that holds everyone accountable so that staff members have protections in place should they need them? I’m currently in the process of finding out.
Throughout this past year, I’ve been collaborating with seasoned restaurant consultant and development company Plate & Glass, run by industry vets Stacy Rudin Harding and her husband Robby, designing a business plan and investor deck for my own restaurant project that I’ve begun calling “The House That Women Built.” I want to make integrity-driven choices for my future employees, like implementing the aforementioned benefits package and providing a healthy and stable work environment. Rather than solely investing in a human resource department that overtly protects the interests of the business owner, I’m aiming to provide a labor law attorney on retainer that employees can access anytime they feel there is a need. I’m working to establish an arts, culture, and community service department that will help to create live shows, festivals, rotating art exhibits, and artist residencies, as well as community outreach for the training and advancement of underprivileged women and girls. And most importantly, I am committed to becoming more thoughtful about who I place in leadership positions.
To fund this model, I’m hoping to build an enterprise that’s less reliant on the limited revenue stream of a restaurant. For the past five years, I’ve been considering how product development — retail products like packaged sauces, jams, dry mixes, and wine, a core income stream for any restaurant — is the way forward for our industry. To survive, restaurants should be multifaceted brands. As employees like myself continue to evolve into employers, I believe that venturing outside of the box will help to push us forward.
The reemergence of #MeToo helped to inspire a revolution. I am sincerely grateful to all those who found the courage to end their silence and invoke positive change. Five years after that spark, and almost three years into a pandemic, we as industry leaders are at a crucial moment: We have the benefit of learning from the mistakes of those who came before us, which enables us to make better choices for those coming after us. Having witnessed the anger, the passion, and the tenacity of my colleagues and industry friends throughout these past few years, I know that we will continue to work together in an attempt to create a better landscape for generations to come.
Trish Nelson is a long-time waitress, writer, live show creator/producer, and the founder of the House That Women Built, a burgeoning hospitality-driven art collective that is working to highlight the incredible talents of women through the expression of food, art, music, storytelling and community outreach. Allison Vu is a Vietnamese American illustrator based in Seattle.