Turning the tables: stories from Halifax's restaurant industry | The Coast Halifax

Turning the tables: stories from Halifax's restaurant industry

The whisper network is speaking up about the mistreatment, disrespect and sexual misconduct service employees endure on the job

Unwelcome advances. Belittling language. Grabbing, touching and sexual assault. The restaurant industry’s reputation for the mistreatment and harassment of its employees precedes it on both a grand scale and here at home. This week, servers, bakers and baristas share their stories.

As told to Melissa Buote and Allison Saunders.

Editor’s note: This piece contains details about sexual assault and harassment, which some readers may find graphic or disturbing.

“I blamed myself for being ‘too revealing’”

My situation was when I was 20, working for a restaurant that also caters. I was a night shift baker. We worked in a small kitchen with no air conditioning or windows in the summer so it was hot. My fellow baker snuck liquor into his water bottle and got drunk with the dishwasher. Because it was hot we had all stripped down our whites to tanks/tees/et cetera. This baker repeatedly grabbed my backside.

I reported it to the manager a few days later and he shrugged it off. I blamed myself for being “too revealing” or for maybe misinterpreting what happened, like “it was a small kitchen” or “maybe he just bumped into me” et cetera. Nothing was done. I couldn’t fight it. I left. He stayed.

“I was fired over the phone without explanation”

In 2014, at 18, I moved to Halifax and I got hired at a cafe. It was one of my first full-time jobs and the owner seemed like a really nice guy. I was young, and I’d been conditioned to brush off or ignore harassment. I’m also fat, so my stories of harassment or sexual misconduct are often ignored, “Are you sure?,” “Maybe he was just being friendly,” “Isn’t it nice to get attention?”

My boss would hug me a lot without asking, he would touch my arms or my back while we were speaking or he was walking by while I was working. It always felt like a bit too much.

After a staff event, a bunch of us went back to his house to warm up and celebrate. He offered/insisted on giving me alcohol even though I was underage. I took it and sat on the couch with a blanket. He eventually came and squeezed himself between me and another employee, putting the blanket over himself as well, on a very small couch and placed his hand on my thigh. He left it there for a long time, at least 10 or more minutes. He then started a conversation with me and a young male employee about how I should watch out as a young woman in case the young male employee “tries to get me” and made sexual insinuations about us. I was very uncomfortable, but also a little tipsy/inexperienced so I felt like “Maybe this is normal?”

I tried to brush it off and keep going, but the work environment was volatile for other reasons and progressively got worse. He constantly favoured male employees and made offhand sexist comments. After making a few complaints/asking too many questions I was fired over the phone without explanation.

I realized I’d been sexually harassed only after a few months of not being employed there anymore, but was so angry I hadn’t realized sooner. We’re conditioned as women to take to the discomfort in jobs, to deal with being touched when we don’t want to be or have sexual or inappropriate comments directed at us. I would stand up for myself now, but at 18, I didn’t even know it was an option.

I don’t know a woman, non-binary person or queer person without a story like mine or worse. We deserve better.

I would often say nothing. I’m very guilty about the way that I handled all of these interactions. I really, really needed the money.

“My boss was sexually harassing me.”

I worked in a restaurant in Halifax and had to leave because my boss was sexually harassing me. This was years ago. While I was working there it was bought and the new owner changed the format a bit. He worked there in the kitchen and he asked me to date him repeatedly and invited me to go to his beach house with him.

I was 17 at the time and he was middle-aged. When I told him I was only 17 he jokingly said “20!” back at me. When I told him again that no, I was 17, he again jokingly replied that I was 20. He would also stand in front of me while I was carrying loads of heavy trays and touch my back or waist, running his hands up and down. I tried to tell the manager, but he said the owner was just a touchy-feely guy and “like that with everyone,” so I quit.

“I was raped by a sous chef.”

This first time I experienced any abuse in the food industry I was just out of high school. I had to walk through the kitchen to clock in and out. There would often be comments and catcalls, and at the time that felt normal. I never thought I was going to end up getting raped in my
workplace. My last year working there I was raped. I was followed up to the storage area and locker room above the kitchen. I was raped by a sous chef. I went back to work feeling like it was my fault.

“I was reminded that I was easily replaceable.”

It’s been 20 years since I worked in the restaurant business, so I hope things have gotten better, but in my day it was just the price you had to pay to work as a server. Inappropriate comments and touching from the customers was part of working in this tavern. When I spoke up, I was told to put up. I was reminded that I was easily replaceable, and a good regular customer was not. Women were referred to as “food wenches” or “food dollies” by management. There was no doubt that we were second-class citizens.
The worst offender in my 13 years working as a server in Halifax created a very hostile work environment for the women who worked in his restaurants. There was groping, inappropriate comments. It was common knowledge that the only way to get the good shifts was to have sex with him. He preyed on the most vulnerable staff members, offering cash for sexual favours. Whenever someone was down on their luck, he would swoop in and try to take advantage.
There were so many instances of sexual harassment when I worked in restaurants that it just felt like part of the job. One of the crappy things you had to deal with to make a living. It was a long time ago. Maybe some of these men have learned to improve their treatment of women since. When you know better, you can do better. I really hope so, but I’m not all that confident there has been much progress.

“I will never forget him saying I had a nice face and body and the customers
come in to flirt with you.”

“Mario Batali had nothing on them.”

It was a long time ago, the early 1990s, so things were definitely different in the industry, but the owner of this now-closed restaurant—a man who still works in the industry—was a horrible man to work for.

He would scream at us. The kitchen staff were able to do—I mean, Mario Batali had nothing on them. Inappropriate comments were just how they all spoke. He was having an affair on his wife with one of our waitresses. So whenever she was there he left everyone else alone more or less. And he would wander up and down the restaurant smoking in the non-smoking section, screaming at us, into the telephone and the customers. He was quite a piece of work. Still is, I guess. I haven’t seen him in years but I doubt a leopard could change his spots that much.

I feel like I’ve blocked out a lot of it, but it was nothing for him to call you a “stupid bitch.” His language was always colourful to say the least. Some of the stuff he would say would curl your hair. You didn’t know when he would scream or throw stuff at you. And the kitchen staff threw stuff at servers all the time. It was all men in the kitchen, so basically there was no discipline whatsoever. They could say or do whatever they wanted. I don’t remember the cook’s name, but he used to say that he couldn’t see our faces but he could identify us by our boobs.

“I was told there was not enough evidence to pursue charges.”

I was assaulted by a former restaurant owner in a bar owned by one of his friends, during the time he owned and operated his restaurant. I reported it to police, they investigated and I was told there was not enough evidence to pursue charges. I spoke to several other women, who worked at his friends’ bars, who had similar incidents with him, begging them to report their assaults to the police. The women declined because they “did not want to lose their jobs.”

“When I’m being friendly to you, it’s because it’s my JOB.”

Just like many servers, I’m constantly harassed verbally. Sometimes things out of hand with comments like, “How do I get lucky with a girl like you?” I’ve even received “How do I get a piece of THAT” when I was walking back into the kitchen at work. I have been hugged for way too long, hands on the small of my back and a couple times their hands move down to my butt. Sometimes I would be literally trapped, and have to pry their arms off of me. It’s so uncomfortable, and I have to walk away and shake it off because I have to keep doing my job.

The worst situation to happen this year was this past Christmas season. I was serving a party that had an open bar, so it was already out of control. It was near the end of the night, and everything had gone so smoothly other than a couple drunks that had to be cut off. I was walking past a younger woman, she stopped, grabbed both my breasts and squeezed and held them. I was literally shocked. She let go and was laughing, everyone around her was laughing like it was some huge joke. The man she was with apologized on her behalf, and quickly walked away. You could tell he was embarrassed. But I was the one who was embarrassed. Everyone was kind of like, “Oh my god that was so funny, I can’t believe she did that!” And basically just pushed it aside because a woman had done it. Imagine if a man had grabbed me like that and people saw?

It’s exhausting sometimes, being in this industry. People think you owe them so much for some reason. When I’m being friendly to you, it’s because it’s my JOB. I want to work towards a tip, no shame in that. I pride myself on being a cheery, approachable person. But far too many people take advantage of that.

 I worked at a bakery after school. It was common for the owner to call young high
school girls cunts. When I brought it up to him he played it off as no big deal.

“The right way to get a woman in line is to hit her.”

I personally didn’t have any issues with any kitchens until my last job at a restaurant. The owner, on my first shift within the first conversation with me, had said something—and I’m paraphrasing as it was six months ago—about how “The right way to get a woman in line is to hit her.”

Multiple times he would make sexually inappropriate comments about and to the servers. None of them spoke out about it and I never really could tell if it bothered them or not. There were also many times when he would get incredibly mad and he was very aggressive when he got mad. I remember specifically after one shift as I was leaving he started screaming at the server who was closing, so loud I could still hear him outside.

“It needs a woman’s touch.”

This was my only experience in the industry, which makes it even sadder. When I was working as a host we were in charge of making sure the front of the restaurant looked impeccable. I did things like bathroom checks every half-hour and I was in charge of taking coats. We were told we had to butter everyone up—if they made a joke, we laughed, basically we were feeding their egos all the time.

The restaurant manager would always say things like, “Can you do something with the coat closet? It needs a women’s a touch.” Or he would comment if I was wearing more makeup than usual, “That’s a good look” or “We should do this more often.” Lots of inappropriate things he would never say to the male host.

One night, a big VIP guy came in, some rich well-known person, and I was helping him hang his coat. I was laughing and chatting with him, doing what I was supposed to. Then my manager comes over—anytime a VIP came in he would come schmooze—and while me and the VIP were in the middle of a conversation, he interrupts. The guy says something to me, I honestly can’t even remember what, and he starts laughing, my manager starts laughing and I laugh. The guy walks away and my manager turns to me and says, “What are you laughing at?,” slaps my cheek and says, “Close that mouth.”

I stood there frozen. The other male host behind the bar just stared. My manager looked a little stunned himself, turned back to me and jokingly did a more fatherly tap on my cheek twice. I’m there thinking, what was I supposed to do? I would have been chastised if I hadn’t laughed! Afterwards, the other host was like, “That was messed up” and I was like, “Was it? It was, right?”

I was just floored. I went into the bathroom, composed myself and was like, I’m quitting. And a week later I quit. I gave my two weeks, wrote a formal resignation and when I gave it to him he said, “Don’t bother, you’re done now. This as your last day.” I knew I was the only one scheduled to come in early the next day, so I said, “You don’t need me tomorrow morning?” And he goes, “Tomorrow morning will be your last day.”

These are the types of things we’re trained to instantly rationalize. We think, “Well, it’s not as bad as this” and “Was that even that bad?” But, if it’s bad enough that you don’t feel good about—it’s bad enough.

When I was 19 I worked at a cafe in a mall where the owner would ‘accidentally’ pour hot liquids on me and, in front of customers, ask if I liked pain. It was nuts. He was a piece of shit.

“The owners were more interested in keeping their delivery driver.”

Idid not experience abuse in restaurants but at the restaurant, I worked at I intervened for many of the female wait staff. I talked to all the women who I worked with and mostly what came back was that they had all experienced it worse elsewhere or otherwise didn’t really feel like it was worth talking about in the grand scheme of things. However, I can attest to my own observations. I talked to the owners several times about harassment, but one situation in particular stands out to me that showed that the owners were more interested in keeping their delivery driver than preventing that delivery driver from creeping on their lone waitress one night.

He was behind the counter—delivery drivers never went back there when I worked there—putting his arm around her shoulder and waist while she looked visibly nervous. I yelled at him to lay off her if he wasn’t dating her—patriarchal, I know but in the moment that’s all I could think of—and he hurried out of the restaurant. I told one of the owners about it and she replied that he was the only delivery driver who still took orders from them. I told her and the waitress that if he put his hands on her and she didn’t want him to, she could call the cops on him.

That place (and many other places I’m sure) hired plenty of vulnerable young women who barely spoke English and certainly didn’t know their workplace rights. In one sense, I wish I had more to add but in the other sense, I’m glad for the women I worked with that they did not feel as though they were treated particularly poorly in a workplace harassment sense.

“I still worry that he did it to many other women”

About 10 years ago one of my bosses would sneak around touching me and knowing where the cameras were placed he made sure to do it in the right locations. It was terrible and I still worry that he did it to many other women.

When I took him outside for a walk before a shift to basically break off the unwanted touches, he claimed that just because I have a boyfriend I shouldn’t be afraid to explore. I definitely quit because of the physical harassment and I was just so clueless about trying to report it. I made a really hard time for myself going without a job after that—I could even blame that experience for why I quit NSCC.