Industry Issues

Confronting Sexual Harassment in the Drinks Industry

Managers take a stand against workplace harassment with staff training programs and zero-tolerance policies

illustration of harassment
Illustration by Neil Webb.

Over the last few months, numerous women have come forward to accuse movie producer Harvey Weinstein and dozens of other men in various industries of sexual assault and harassment. The restaurant world has begun its own reckoning: Celebrity chef John Besh was the first to fall, as documented in a lengthy exposé in October in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Twenty-five women came forward to share their stories of sexual harassment while working for the chef’s restaurant empire. Besh, who has stepped down from his role at the company to “focus on his family,” has inspired both fear and soul-searching in the restaurant industry. Could your company, too, be fostering a culture where sexual harassment thrives?

For those working in the restaurant and alcohol industries, it’s not exactly breaking news that sexual harassment is widespread. In 2014, a report by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that 90 percent of female restaurant workers had experienced sexual harassment. Two-thirds had been harassed by a restaurant owner, manager, or supervisor.

The women SevenFifty Daily interviewed for this story—sommeliers, PR execs for alcohol companies, event planners, bar managers—mentioned not only persistent sexual harassment throughout their careers but also “look the other way” human resources policies, especially at male-run restaurant groups. “It’s just endemic across the whole industry,” says one wine PR executive who asked not to be named. Melissa Lang, a veteran of several restaurant groups who now is the events manager for the Dallas-based restaurant chain Dave & Busters (more on that later), says, “Sexism is so rampant—you become jaded to even noticing.”

The alcohol industry may be even worse than the restaurant world. Though no sexual harassment statistics are available for the booze industry overall, the culture of free-flowing wine and liquor is certainly known anecdotally to spur bad judgment. “A lot of my sexual harassment complaints are alcohol-fueled—there’s no question about it,” says Richard Curiale, a Bay Area lawyer who litigates sexual harassment cases and leads sexual harassment training for the tech and wine industries. “I would say 60 percent of the complaints I get wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been drinking.”

As stories of sexual harassment and even assault continue to emerge, it may be instructive to look at companies that have structures in place to deal with sexual harassment. The resources and tips cited here have proven effective in reducing harassment by employees, employers, and customers.

A Sexual Harassment Training You’ll Never Forget

California is one of three states that mandate sexual harassment training every two years—at least for supervisors at companies with more than 50 workers. (The other two states are Connecticut and Maine, though other states require government employees to receive training.) Folio Fine Wine Partners, in Napa, has required sexual harassment training for all new employees—not just supervisors—since 2006. This despite the fact that the company has only 35 employees in California, says Diane Simpson, Folio’s vice president of human resources.

If the words “mandatory sexual harassment training” make your eyes glaze over, think again. Curiale, a former high school English teacher, knows how to hold an audience’s attention. His presentation to new hires at Folio is full of practical, important information but is peppered with lighthearted banter and irreverent asides. In a recent training, after asking new hires to give examples of common forms of sexual harassment, he said, “Okay—touching, jokes, and pictures. You’ve got all three of the big ones. You’re either very smart or you’re doomed.”

“The crazy stories he tells, which are real-life cases, are memorable,” says Simpson, who has worked with Curiale for 20 years—first at Robert Mondavi Winery and now at Folio. There was the male supervisor whose Secret Santa gift to a female employee was a 20-inch soap in the shape of a penis. There was the senior VP of sales at a tech company who saw that a senior female colleague’s blouse was unbuttoned in the back and decided to unhook her bra. (The woman sued the company and settled for $1.4 million, and the man was terminated.) And the infamous “M&M case” of 1994: A secretary at a Palo Alto law firm accused her boss of grabbing her breast after pouring M&Ms into the pocket of her shirt. Several other women who worked for the firm also testified to being sexually harassed by the same lawyer. The firm never disciplined him despite knowing about these allegations. The jury unanimously agreed that the lawyer was guilty and sought $7 million in punitive damages from the law firm. (A judge later reduced the award to $3.5 million.)

Most day-to-day complaints, however, aren’t so clear cut. “It’s the subtle stuff,” Curiale says. And often, in sexual harassment cases, he says, the person being sued is the supervisor—not the harasser—who’s accused of knowing about the conduct but not doing anything to stop it. “Clients will say, ‘What’s sexual about him giving her a neck rub?’ Or they’ll overhear someone telling someone a sexual joke and say, ‘What’s so offensive about that?’  The big one is the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. They’ll say, ‘Nobody complained!’” Curiale says. “So the standard is, ‘Did you know or should you have known that the conduct could’ve been offensive?’” Once he runs through the day-to-day complaints in his sessions, employees say they spot these scenarios at work all the time.  

“Our whole goal is to avoid a complaint from ever being filed,” says Curiale, who also does trainings for Constellation, Mondavi, and Opus 1. To date, no supervisor who has gone through Curiale’s training has ever been sued.

More importantly, the harassment training has created a culture in which women are respected and believed. Simpson tells the story of a woman, a member of a sales team at Folio, whose job it was to call on a prestigious restaurant in a big city. “One of the two owners of the restaurant was making her uncomfortable—touching her, hugging her, making inappropriate comments,” Simpson says. “Because we did this training regularly, and because we want an environment where people feel safe, valued, and respected, we stood behind her.” At the time, Simpson was the only woman in a leadership position: The CEO was a man, the vice president of sales was a man, and of course the company’s founder, Michael Mondavi, was a man.

“We didn’t question her,” recalls Simpson. “We called that account and said, ‘You either change this behavior or we will no longer allow you to have our wines in your account. We tried calling the owner who was doing this. We also called his business partner. Neither would return our calls. So we no longer service that account.”

When Guests Aren’t Welcome Anymore

Sarah Briggs, 30, of Portland, Oregon, has worked at restaurants and bars since she was 15. Sexual harassment has sadly been the norm for her. At her first job—as hostess at a pizza spot—her 32-year-old male boss would rub her shoulders and call her sweetie. Later, at another restaurant, a male coworker would repeatedly flirt and put his arms around her. “I turned him down every time,” says Briggs. When she began dating someone else, he visibly pouted and treated her poorly in front of the entire staff. At the Richmond Bar in Portland, where she’s now bar manager, the staff is tightly knit and professional, but guests can be a problem. Recently a customer harassed Briggs. The man, a regular, was chatting with her and told her his hobby was BDSM photography. “So you know,” Briggs says, “there’s this line between: How do I still feel safe and be nice to this guy and hear all about his hobby?” The next time he came in, he said, “Sarah, check this out!” and whipped out his phone to reveal a photo of a naked woman tied to a tree. “It was completely inappropriate,” says Briggs. “It made me so uncomfortable that I ran into the kitchen and said, ‘I cannot go back out there until that guy is gone.’”

The next day, she told her (male) bosses and coworkers she wasn’t comfortable serving this guest anymore. “It felt like he was propositioning me,” Briggs says. The team had an impromptu staff meeting and unanimously decided to ban the customer from the premises.  

Briggs and her nine-person staff have not gone through formal sexual harassment training, but the men she works for and with dealt with the problem in a professional manner: They listened to her. Says Briggs, “It’s really important to have each other’s backs.”

This last story illustrates a conundrum that’s unique to the service industry: How do you confront regular customers—high rollers or not—who are disturbing you or a staff member when it’s your job to make people feel welcome? “We’re hospitality workers, so we have to make everyone happy who walks in the door,” says Angie Fetherston, CEO of Drink Company in Washington, D.C. “But the moment a person makes someone else uncomfortable, that’s where that ends.”  

Chef Edward Lee, of the restaurants 610 Magnolia and Milkwood, in Louisville, Kentucky (as well as Succotash in D.C. and National Harbor, Maryland), agrees. “Though almost every customer who walks through our doors is respectful and delightful,” he says, “there have been rare cases of customers who have been disrespectful to our female staff. In every single incidence, that person has been banned from the restaurant.”

Fetherston requires all new staff at her popular D.C. bars Columbia Room and Pop-Up Bar to take the Safe Bars training run by an organization called Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS). The three-hour-long training teaches bar staff (both those at the front of the house and those at the back) how to recognize and respond to sexual harassment among staff and patrons. Using bystander intervention techniques pioneered by Hollaback! and Alteristic, under its Green Dot program, to halt harassment and assault, CASS volunteers teach the Five D’s: direct, distract, delegate, delay, and document. Since instituting the trainings, Fetherston has noticed employees and managers reacting more swiftly and thoughtfully to cases of sexual harassment. “Going through these trainings,” she says, “gives you these preprogrammed automatic responses.”

Emily Cipes, manager of the Pop-Up Bar, thinks it’s odd that bartenders are required by law to take a responsible alcohol service class like TIPS while there’s no similar requirement to train bar staff on how to confront sexual harassment. “We know how to go through these uncomfortable conversations with people who are drunk and we have to cut them off,” Cipes says, “but we don’t learn, ‘Okay, someone is being sexually harassed at your bar—what do you do?’”

The Safe Bars training taught Cipes how to disrupt harassment effectively. “They teach you about direct as well as indirect intervention strategies,” she says. An indirect method would be to distract a problem customer by asking him a question (“Did you see the game last night?” or “Are those your keys?”). If that doesn’t work, you’d try a more direct method: Ask the woman “Are you okay?” in front of the harasser, or say to the harasser, “That’s inappropriate—please give our guest some space.”

CASS has trained the staff at 40 bars and restaurants in the D.C. area, including Colony Club, 801, and Sudhouse, says Ilia Esrig, the codirector of the workshop team for the Safe Bar Collective. CASS executive director Jessica Raven has also led trainings in New York City and Philadelphia, as well as in Canada.

You’ve Got the Power—to Leave

The worst scenario may be one in which a male superior is doing the harassing—and colleagues and supervisors turn a blind eye to it (or engage in it themselves).

A female sommelier who spoke to SevenFifty Daily on the condition of anonymity (because she still works in the industry), worked as a floor captain years ago at a “big deal” restaurant in New York City. One night a sommelier, angered by something she’d done, grabbed her and dragged her across the room. “I turned around,” the somm says, “and said to the manager, ‘You saw that. I quit.’” The manager, who had witnessed the incident, begged her to stay for two more weeks and promised, in exchange, to write her a good recommendation.  

“I was very young and very stupid, and I said okay, because I felt I needed that recommendation,” she says. “I said, ‘I have one stipulation: that I never have to close with this guy.’” The manager and the owner, who was made aware of the situation, both agreed. The two kept their promise until her last night, when the sommelier, at the last minute, was put on the schedule to close. “I was at the wine station decanting something, and he came up from behind me and whispered in my ear, ‘Tonight, you’re mine.’ I turned around and I just had had it. I said, ‘Go fuck yourself!’ He said, ‘What did you just say to me?’ and I said, ‘Go fuck yourself!’ and he went and got the owner.” The owner asked her if she’d said that, and she said, “Yes, I did.” She was told to leave. She got her recommendation anyway.

Several women interviewed for this story said they tolerated harassment like this for the sake of keeping their job or because they needed a good recommendation. But times may be changing. There are more restaurants and bars now than ever before. And the range of companies that hire food and beverage professionals today is broader—you might work for an airline, a hotel group, or a food service company, all of which tend to have stricter policies and procedures when it comes to sexual harassment.

“Maybe Harvey Weinstein could make or break you,” Fetherston says. “But that’s not the case anymore in food and beverage. John Besh can’t make or break you! If you’re not treated very well, you’ll go somewhere else.”

That’s partly why Melissa Lang took a position as the events manager at Dave & Busters, the family-friendly restaurant–video arcade chain. Dave & Busters has an effective HR department that would immediately discipline someone accused of sexual harassment, Lang says. The COO, Margo Manning, is a woman. “I think having women at the helm of companies makes a huge difference,” Lang says. “It’s not a culture where [sexual harassment] would ever be allowed to happen. The restaurant industry could learn so much from a publicly traded company like Dave & Busters!”


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Hannah Wallace writes about food, wine, sustainable agriculture, health, and travel for, Inc., Food & Wine, Vogue, Portland Monthly, and the New York Times.

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