Sexual harassment in restaurants: How Philly's food scene is grappling with #MeToo

Employees at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons knew there was trouble in the restaurant. Last summer, following an incident between the chef and a female colleague that the restaurant’s owners have declined to discuss, chef Chris Painter was put on a schedule that barred him from being in the building while the woman was working.

Camera icon DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in Fishtown.

But this year, when a story on Philadelphia Magazine’s website detailed claims by four former Mulherin’s employees who said they had faced sexual harassment from Painter and other staffers, owners David Grasso and Randall Cook were forced to acknowledge that there were larger problems in the company — and to consider that the environment of their acclaimed Fishtown restaurant was hostile to the women who worked there.

The #MeToo movement has emerged in the culinary world with accusations against high-profile restaurateurs John Besh of New Orleans, Mario Batali, and Ken Friedman of the Spotted Pig in New York, but Grasso and Cook are the first local owners who have had to publicly contend with it. And in the wake of the Mulherin’s news, some in Philadelphia’s restaurant world said the conversation surrounding sexual harassment has led them to evaluate whether they are doing enough to protect their employees.

Cook said the experience prompted him and Grasso to look at how all aspects of the Mulherin’s workplace could be made more professional. In addition to hiring an outside human resources firm that introduced an employee handbook last year, they recently hired a director of restaurants who is tasked with customizing the handbook for the company. Meetings were held to introduce the HR representative to employees, Cook said, and to explain how they could contact her, anonymously or otherwise.

Marqessa Gesualdi worked for 10 months as a pastry chef at Mulherin’s, but left in October, in part, she said, because of vulgar comments, touching and other sexually aggressive behavior by Painter and other male employees. Last week, she was pleased to hear of the changes under way.

“Most people won’t do anything until their backs are to the wall,” Gesualdi said. “The only way it was going to get better was, somebody had to burn it down. But I’m happy they’re taking steps now to make it so employees can speak up.”

More sexual harassment complaints are filed in restaurants than in any other places of business, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But legal experts say many restaurants are ill-equipped to handle them.

While multi-restaurant empires often have dedicated human resources departments to which employees can go with problems, most smaller establishments don’t. That can lead to employees such as Gesualdi feeling backed into a corner, unsure of how to report harassment when the person doing it sits at the top of the restaurant’s hierarchy.

Gesualdi has since purchased Aux Petits Delices, a pastry shop in Wayne. She said her experiences inspired her to strive for a more professional workplace now that she’s on her own. She said she made it clear to her small staff that she won’t tolerate bad behavior, and that they are to report problems to her immediately.

“I was treated in the typical restaurant way for so long,” she said. “I’m trying to break the mold of what I was used to.”

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Marqessa Gesualdi at Aux Petits Delices in Wayne.

Nadia Hewka, a lawyer with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and a founder of the Coalition for Restaurant Safety and Health, said the restaurant world is only starting to reckon with aspects of the industry that have long allowed harassment to flourish.

“It’s a perfect storm of close quarters, alcohol, an unbalanced power dynamic, and an immigrant workforce,” said Hewka, whose organization recently launched a training program to help restaurants prevent sexual harassment. “Their workplace culture is one that sets the stage for this.”

Taking responsibility

Cook and Grasso have declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding the departure of Painter in March, as well as two managers and a server who left the restaurant at the same time. Painter did not return a call seeking comment.

But in a recent interview, Cook said he took responsibility for not researching the background of some employees thoroughly enough. He said he and Grasso are committed to being more involved in the daily operations at Mulherin’s so they can be aware of potential problems before they have a chance to fester.

“You stick your head in the sand, you’re not going to hear about the problems,” Cook said. “And you’re not going to uncover any solutions.”

In addition to providing a safe way to report harassment, Cook said the Mulherin’s human resources rep can help with other issues such as questions about tips or time off. Employee training sessions are planned that will address a broad range of workplace issues, he said.

“I don’t think there’s any system that can prevent things from happening 100 percent of the time,” Cook said. “But the expectation should be that when things happen, there’s a system in place for them to be dealt with appropriately.”

Though there is no state law mandating that employers educate their workers in preventing sexual harassment, Philadelphia voters last month approved a mandate to provide such training to city employees. City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart has said she would review how such claims are handled within city government.

Neither of those measures would affect the business community, particularly small establishments without formal HR guidelines.

A work in progress

The owners of some of the city’s top restaurants said they have tried to set themselves apart by establishing policies aimed at creating a professional environment.

Ellen Yin for years has provided employees at her restaurants — Fork, High Street on Market, and a.kitchen — with a handbook that includes a harassment policy, which is explained during orientation. The policy offers explicit examples of harassment, such as discussing sexual activities, telling off-color jokes, unnecessary touching, commenting on physical attributes, and using crude language. It spells out how harassment should be reported, and includes a mandate requiring managers to act quickly and inform supervisors.

Yin, who said women make up about half of her staff, said the policy was updated last year to better clarify how reports of harassment should be handled.

“This is a work in progress,” Yin said in an email. “In addition to responding to the national discussions, we are looking at human resources not only as a way to ensure compliance with regulations but as a way to recruit, retain and build depth of leadership amongst this highly competitive labor pool.”

Tyler Akin is co-owner of Stock and Res Ipsa restaurants, both small establishments where he said employees are encouraged to approach owners directly about interpersonal issues. Akin, who attended law school before opening his first restaurant, said he and his colleagues have consulted with a lawyer and are formalizing an employee handbook that will outline a system by which such complaints should be handled.

“To that extent, the national spotlight on these issues has prompted us to get to work as owners,” he said.

Chef-owner Nicholas Elmi said that at Laurel and ITV, his two small restaurants, general managers also serve as human resources representatives. His third restaurant, Royal Boucherie, is part of a larger company with a separate HR department. Employees at Laurel and ITV who are not comfortable reporting a problem to a manager can go to Elmi directly, he said.

“Recent events have definitely made us review our policies not only with our staff but with each other to see if we have room for improvement,” he said.

Camera icon DAVID SWANSON/ STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Nicholas Elmi says that employees who are uncomfortable reporting a problem to a manager can go directly to him.

Elsewhere on the spectrum is Stephen Starr, whose 34-restaurant empire employs thousands and has a team of people dedicated to HR, including an in-house counsel and director of compliance who monitors individual restaurants. The company has an employee hotline and email system to report harassment so that “employees are encouraged to communicate freely and without fear of reprisal,” said Andrew Robinson, Starr’s chief people officer.

The owners of several of Philadelphia’s top restaurants responded with silence when asked whether they are looking at how to make it easier for their staff to report problems. Of 18 restaurateurs and owners asked whether they had HR policies in place, only seven responded. Several restaurateurs who have HR policies in place to address issues such as sexual harassment, such as Michael Schulson of Double Knot and Michael Solomonov of Zahav, declined to discuss them.

An offer of help

The Coalition for Restaurant Safety and Health, Hewka’s organization, is made up of the Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health, and Women Organized Against Rape, which last year launched the Safe Bars Philly program to help bar staff intervene in dangerous situations.

Last year founder Hewka and other group members began working on a training program to help restaurant owners and employees address sexual harassment. Hewka and her colleagues are developing a curriculum and holding sessions with restaurant workers. The coalition created a website with resources for businesses and employees, saferestaurantsphilly.org, as well as a hotline, 267-571-6720.

“People need to look at their reporting systems, and they need to offer multiple channels,” she said.

The project aims to help owners who want to improve their HR policies, as well as educate employees in how to better understand harassment. Hewka and her colleagues want to help restaurants create HR policies that are friendly to all employees, rather than those that prioritize the best interests of the business or minimize its legal liability. Hewka hopes that with help from grant money and volunteers, they can offer the free training to every restaurant in the city.

“The bottom line is, employers need to know what’s happening in their kitchens,” Hewka said. “And a lot of smaller employers may not have thought these things through. But they need to.”