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Amid Social Justice Protests, Another Wave of Reckonings Hits the Restaurant Industry

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Amid Social Justice Protests, Another Wave of Reckonings Hits the Restaurant Industry

A restaurant interior

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In several cities, chefs are using social media to share worker stories of racism, sexism, and toxic workplaces

The Black Lives Matter movement has prompted all industries to take a hard look at their hiring practices, and the dynamics at play in their work environments. Since the protests against police brutality began at the end of May, leaders in media, tech, and other spaces have stepped down or been pushed out amid public revelations of recent or past racism and discriminatory practices. And perhaps not surprisingly for an industry known for racism, sexism, and homophobia, many of these public conversations are focusing on restaurants. In some cases, individual chefs have emerged as arbiters, using their personal social media platforms to ensure accusations are seen and heard.

In New Orleans, pop-up chef Melvin Stovall III pivoted his personal Instagram account in response to Blackout Tuesday, a social media action in early June that called for a pause on “normal” Instagram content to demonstrate support for Black Lives Matter. Many brands and small businesses took the bait — whether or not they had ever exhibited any practical support for Black lives — and Stovall invited followers to message him their experiences with performative businesses in his hometown. He then compiled anonymous testimonies of racial discrimination, including at restaurants, in Instagram stories and posts. Stovall said his goal for the Instagram was to make the experiences of Black employees visible, and to urge people to stop supporting businesses with racist track records. “I’m more passionate about this than I was cooking, and I love cooking,” Stovall said to New Orleans news site The Lens. “I do want to keep a platform almost as a checks-and-balances system against workplaces, or a watchdog, or an unofficial human resources department. Because we need it.”

Over a two-day period in June, Mei Mei owner Irene Li took on the role of watchdog in Boston, posting several accounts from employees that outlined racist micro-aggressions and toxic workplaces. After employees at Tatte Bakery & Cafe spoke out online about what they viewed as owner Tzurit Or’s performative response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Li invited followers to send her direct messages with their stories. Li’s Instagram stories amplified Tatte employees’ calls for change, with tangible results: Employees had started a Change.org petition that alleged “employees have seen or heard racially charged or insensitive behaviors or statements from those in leadership positions” and called for Tatte to diversify its executive team. Or subsequently responded to the petition with a letter posted to Instagram that acknowledged a need to “confront the microaggressions that occur in our everyday interactions” and promised to meet demands outlined in the petition.

“I’m not trying to start fights or rescue anyone,” Li wrote in a post on June 8, regarding why she decided to highlight others’ stories on her own social media. “But I know I have a platform, so who gives a fuck if it’s uncomfortable for me? Or if I’m scared because I don’t know how to do it or what will happen? Enough is enough.” In a story saved to Instagram, Li also offered to share press contacts to workers looking to speak directly to media.

But risks are real for chefs who set out to expose toxic behavior, even as they create change. On July 1, chef Maya Lovelace posted an open call for stories of harassment and other abuse at restaurants that she promised to share to her Instagram platform anonymously. “Portland is a small enough town, and a small enough restaurant industry that everybody knows everybody’s business,” Lovelace, who owns Southern restaurant Yonder, told Eater PDX. “Everyone knows who’s abusive. These are the conversations line cooks, dishwashers, servers are having after work at the bar.”

Over four days, Lovelace posted accounts from current and former restaurant employees calling out Portland restaurants for harassment, racism, misogyny, hostile working environments, and other transgressions. The accusations in Lovelace’s stories prompted some chefs and restaurant owners to post responses to their own Instagrams — Submarine Hospitality owner Joshua McFadden acknowledged his role as “part of an industry status quo that hasn’t provided the positive and inclusive working environment that it should.” One chef/owner, Aaron Adams, reported that he completely overhauled his restaurant’s organization after comments about aggressive manager behavior appeared on Lovelace’s Instagram; he stays the restaurant has completely done away with the traditional kitchen hierarchy.

The posts garnered massive attention in the Portland restaurant community, with conversations spilling out into chefs’ own personal Instagrams and in local media. Criticism was also levied at Lovelace for the culture in her own restaurant, including the treatment of the only Black employee at Yonder and a lack of acknowledgement of Black influence in Southern cooking. Other criticism came after she posted allegations about recipe theft against Gregory Gourdet, the city’s best known Black chef. Lovelace says she’s been reflecting on the criticisms, and told Eater PDX that she’s committed to “try to continue to do better.”

Ultimately, Lovelace decided she “shouldn’t be doing this alone” — referring to sharing the anonymous posts. On July 5, she announced she would no longer use her Instagram for that purpose, writing: “What started as an initial offer to use my privilege and platform to magnify marginalized and silenced folks in the PDX food scene has grown exponentially out of my control.”

This current moment harks back to the early stages of 2017’s #MeToo movement, where crowdsourced spreadsheets circulated among industries made “whisper networks” material. When journalists exposed sexual misconduct by prominent chefs and restaurateurs like Mario Batali, Ken Friedman, and John Besh, the entire industry began to reckon with the abuse — from sexual harassment to everyday instances of pervasive toxic workplace culture — that had been allowed to fester in kitchens and dining rooms for decades.

As the limited results of #MeToo showed, a handful of people with Instagram followings shouldn’t be responsible for ending abuse in restaurants. While they can certainly shed light on issues when those who experienced them lack the platform or ability to go public, many point out that sharing anonymous, unvetted accusations is potentially unfair to the accused. What’s more, as accusations proliferated and gained steam over the past few weeks, what started as a call to expose racism has in some places become a reason to air different kinds of legitimate grievances, like bullying and low wages. Other kinds of abuse must still be confronted, of course, but ideally in tandem with what inspired this re-reckoning in the first place — the pervasiveness of racial injustice within the restaurant industry — and by leaders and diners across the board.

If anything, this frenzied moment has started essential conversations, online and offline, and has also brought about a newish series of anonymous social media accounts detailing toxic restaurant behavior. In Portland and Philadelphia, the stories on these accounts keep coming, making it abundantly clear that the restaurant industry has so much more work to do.