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The Price of Fast Money: The Dark Side of Bars and Restaurants

June 17th, 2019     by Erin Baldwin     Comments

Illustration: Saul Freedman-Lawson

There’s fast money to be made in bars and restaurants, but it can come at a price.

When I was eighteen and getting paid about $13 an hour as a swim instructor, I heard through friends how lucrative serving and bartending could be. I was determined to get into the industry, and it didn’t take long before I found an entry-level host job at a well-known, upscale restaurant in midtown Toronto.

On my first day of orientation, I sat down with the general manager who took me through the employee handbook. When we reached the page devoted to sexual harassment, he firmly said they had a zero-tolerance policy. Fast forward a couple days and a male server was already making an array of comments about my dress, my ass, the way my hips moved when I walked in heels. He was older, well-liked and buddy-buddy with all the managers. I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I laughed it off, rolled my eyes and tried to avoid him. For me, the incident still epitomizes the presence of sexual harassment in the industry. It’s often present, often tolerated, and certainly inappropriate.

For Christian Veira, a prominent Toronto bartender who can be found giving panel discussions at industry conferences, running charity popup events and coordinating cocktail competitions, there are a variety of reasons why these incidents are so common. For one, gendered roles remain present in bars and restaurants, particularly when it comes to starting positions: hosts are typically female, barbacks and bussers are often male. For another, since staff are on display when working, you have managers frequently hiring for physical looks. Finally, and perhaps most harmful, there’s the lack of formal training.

“Restaurants are places that, for the most part, get people quite young who are trained by other people who are quite young. There’s very little in terms of formal management training that happens,” Veira says. “Most people who are in management, or even are owners, became a manager because they were good at serving or bartending. There are a whole range of skills that are completely irrelevant to you being good at a table that become relevant to being a manager.”

In other words, you can be the best server or bartender but still have no understanding of how to create a safe work environment or run a professional business. While some larger restaurant chains might have HR departments, most of the smaller ones don’t. This means managers are left to handle complex issues like sexual harassment with little to no training on how to do so. Add to that high staff turnover and countless paying customers coming in and out, and you have a massive number of social interactions going on, with almost no formal system for solving problems when things go amiss.

Viktoria Belle, the founder the Dandelion Initiative, a Toronto-based not-for-profit that works to prevent and respond to sexual violence in the hospitality industry through education and survivor centric delivered training, agrees. “There are power dynamics, gender norms, high ratios of men and very few options and resources for people to seek support. Training delivered by and for our industry has never been a norm,” Belle says. “What we have found across Canada is that people are hungry for this education.”

Restaurants and bars don’t exist in a vacuum, and with large-scale movements like #metoo and increased attention on sexual harassment and violence in society, things are changing. In recent years, national media coverage has increased and ignited a conversation on the topic: The Globe and Mail investigated allegations of sexual harassment against well-known Prince Edward Country winemaker Norm Hardie while the Toronto Star covered the case of a former pastry chef who described ongoing sexual harassment endured in the kitchen at popular Toronto restaurant Weslodge. By providing workshops for bars and restaurants on how to recognize, respond to, and prevent harmful behaviours and actions, projects like the Dandelion Initiative, are helping to make the industry safer. But things don’t happen overnight, and there’s a difference between talking about something and actual transformation.

Yet while there’s no denying that sexual harassment remains prevalent, Belle and Viera believe that being aware and looking for red flags from the beginning can help you avoid the more toxic environments. They also had some tips to keep in mind while job hunting.

“First and foremost, when you go in for the interview, look at the space and environment. What does it say to you? How are you reading the questions they are asking? How did you feel after you left the interview?” Belle says. You can often get a sense of the environment, and you don’t have to accept a job offer if you feel uncomfortable.

Belle also believes it can be helpful to ask what their policy or practice is around workplace incident or disclosure. “You can say you are really interested in HR or you had a great policy at your prior job and are interested in theirs. It’s a good non-confrontational way to see what protections you will have and see if the people you are going to work for prioritize people and safety over profit.”

Veira thinks it’s just as important to look for other signs. “How much does the place seem to represent the community it is in? Is it just women as servers and bartenders, and managers seem to be men? Does it have nuanced gender or sexual identities? Places that try to be more intersectional and inclusive are ones that tend to avoid a lot of these issues because there’s a bigger array of voices in there to challenge anything that might happen.”

Looking back at my first restaurant job, I know I learned valuable soft-skills that helped me later. But there were also red flags: the managers were mostly men, the staff lacked diversity, there was the gendering of roles and frequent sexist overtones. I was never fully comfortable with my managers, and certainly didn’t feel I could bring up something like sexual harassment. It also ended up being a place where there was no room for growth career-wise. It wasn’t until I left that I became a server, and eventually bartender, at other places that recognized my capabilities. I likely would have been happier, more at ease, and promoted faster if I’d taken the time to find a more progressive work environment. I also know those restaurants exist, because I work in one now.

Despite the problems in hospitality, there can be a silver lining. “It’s really unnatural to have interactions with 80-100 people where you’re always just taking what they want and giving it to them. It’s not normally how you live your life,” Veira says. “But there’s a lot you can gain from that. There’s a lot of insights you get into people. There’s a lot of ways you can actually find your autonomy and strength through doing that.”

It’s the type of environment that can teach you a lot about yourself and make you a stronger person. But at the end of the day, it’s important to remember what’s right, and where the line needs to be drawn.

“It’s generally a good industry to have a thicker skin,” Veira says, “but I don’t think your skin should become callous.”

Tags: body politics

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