One year after Instagram flooded with callouts against racist, sexist, and toxic restaurant work cultures, what’s actually changed?
When the pandemic hit the United States in March 2020, acclaimed Chicago restaurant Fat Rice told workers it would be closed only temporarily. It laid off around 70 employees and in April pivoted to donating grocery boxes, eventually operating as Super Fat Rice Mart, a general store offering $100 meal kits. But employees were left guessing as to when Fat Rice would reopen, what that would look like, and whether they would have jobs when it did. By June, though, they had their answer: After a wave of accusations that owner Abe Conlon berated female employees, treated Black employees differently from white ones, and even made English the official language of the kitchen, Conlon announced that Fat Rice would close permanently.
The pandemic was already revealing the cracks in the restaurant industry, making employees question whether this sort of work was worth the health risk and reminding those outside the industry that restaurant workers on the front lines are rarely provided with paid sick leave or fair wages. But when protests about the murder of George Floyd began to spread across the country and public conversations turned to issues of white supremacy, police brutality, and racism, many restaurant workers were pushed to the edge. Last summer, workers took to social media to speak about racism and discrimination in the kitchen, low wages, hypocritical chefs and managers, and cultural appropriation. While the #MeToo movement shined a light on long-standing issues like sexism and abuse, the industry as a whole remained a toxic environment. Maybe this time, things would change.
Joey Pham, who is now a baker and spiritual coach at their own business Flavor Supreme, started working at Fat Rice in 2014 as a line cook and says they were eventually driven away by Conlon’s bullying. “I knew I was going to be driven to physical exhaustion because of the general nature of kitchen jobs, but I did not know I would be driven to an emotional and mental deficit, which is what led me to leave,” they said. Like at many restaurants, Conlon’s behavior initially seemed to his workers as par for the course in the restaurant industry. Former employee Taylor Rae Botticelli says they were initially attracted to Fat Rice in Chicago ironically because it had a reputation as being worker-focused, offering things like full health care to all employees. And while they heard from other workers, “Oh, this chef is a huge asshole. He screams at everybody. He makes people cry,” they said it was easy to brush it off as just what restaurant life is like.
According to Botticelli, Conlon initially maintained that Fat Rice would reopen. But in June, Pham began speaking out against Fat Rice on social media. “I found it odd that there was no acknowledgment of the uprising in a time where everyone was being called to respond, and instead, they were just continuing with business as usual, which was centered around capitalizing on cultures that are not theirs,” they told Eater. After Pham spoke out, more than 200 people wound up sharing stories with them and with the press. This outpouring ultimately led to former employees posting a letter on Fat Rice’s door about Conlon’s behavior and the restaurant’s overall toxicity. “So many people have reached out earnestly to try to help you,” said the letter, which accused Fat Rice of squandering the opportunity to be better.
Soon after that, Conlon announced that Fat Rice would be closing permanently, as would Super Fat Rice Mart, so that he and co-owner Adrienne Lo could take time and reflect on their actions. “I have participated in and upheld a system that needs to fall,” Conlon wrote in a statement at the time. “If Fat Rice needs to fall along with that system, I am ready for that.”
In 2018, food writer (and former Eater editor) Helen Rosner tweeted, “Restaurants close ALL THE TIME for astonishingly stupid reasons, so I really don’t see why it’s so appalling for them to close for actually really good reasons.” She posted it in the wake of reports about restaurateur Ken Friedman’s ongoing sexual harassment of employees, specifically at his restaurant the Spotted Pig (which did indeed shut down). The idea was that no meal is so good that it can be served in a breeding ground of abuse. It’s a seemingly straightforward solution: Keep the harmful people from profiting, and let the workers go somewhere with hopefully a better boss.
On the surface, this is the “good reason” behind why Fat Rice in Chicago closed. But some employees said that by closing, Conlon was skirting a bigger responsibility. “It felt like a cop-out,” Botticelli said. Speaking to Block Club Chicago, former employee Molly Pachay said, “An apology doesn’t mean anything if there’s no change. I need to see follow-through. I wanted to see what they’re going to do for this movement. I want to see that Abe is going to go to therapy and work on himself. I want to see them donate money. I want to see them donate their time to feeding protesters on the South and West sides.” Instead, Conlon walked away, and the employees were left to figure out the future on their own.
Many restaurants that stood accused of racism and toxic environments last summer vowed to be better. But there’s little consensus on what “better” even means or how to measure when a restaurant has succeeded.
In June 2020, employees of Tatte Bakery, a small bakery chain that opened in Boston in 2007 but now also has locations in Washington, D.C., published a Change.org petition demanding that Tatte put its money where its mouth was when it came to diversity. “We have seen Tatte’s supposed stance on Instagram as a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement but unfortunately, we have yet to see tangible actions made by the corporation,” the petition said, detailing how there were no people of color in the bakery’s executive team and how Tatte leadership didn’t address instances of “racially charged or insensitive behaviors or statements from those in leadership positions at Tatte.” The petition made three demands: match employee donations to Black Lives Matter, diversify the executive team, and donate leftover food to protesters. Though he was not part of writing the petition, Matthew Waxman, who is now the Bread Team supervisor at Tatte Bakery, says he signed it, saying, “I want Tatte’s actions to be consistent with the values that they publicly express.”
Former employee Tamaryn Watzman said she was drawn to the “family feeling” Tatte espoused. But soon she began noticing things — employees who deserved raises or recognition but weren’t getting them, a disconnect between the higher-ups and the rest of the staff, and the managers’ commitment to a certain white, Instagram-y aesthetic over all else. Which, in the wake of the George Floyd killing, felt dissonant with the company’s public calls to support Black Lives Matter. Waxman also recalled witnessing numerous explicit instances of racism, including a white manager making fun of people who couldn’t speak English well. Another former employee brought up founder Tzurit Or’s decision to board up the windows of the store in reaction to Black Lives Matter protests despite claiming support for the protests. “The reaction of our supposed ‘leader’ to the Black Lives Matter movement and its work is disturbing, and blatantly racist and anti-Black,” the former employee said in a resignation letter.
In a joint statement to Eater, Or and CEO Chuck Chapman said the petition gave them “the opportunity to reflect, learn, and grow based on the feedback we received.” According to their statement, Tatte launched a diversity training program, formalized processes for reporting concerns to HR, promoted and hired people of color to leadership roles, and “prioritized wage and benefit improvements” to hourly workers — almost everything workers asked for. As a cafe and bakery, Tatte could pivot a bit more easily during the pandemic, offering pickup for online orders in March and then reopening some locations as early as May 2020. Which meant that, when they implemented these changes, they could see whether or not they were working.
Waxman said he’s been impressed with the changes, and while day-to-day things feel the same, there are better institutional guards in place to protect against toxic and racist behavior. “From my perspective as a worker, it’s like they did everything that they could do within the constraints of the system that we live in,” Waxman said. “Short of dismantling capitalism, I mean.”
Submarine Hospitality, the restaurant group behind Ava Gene’s and Tusk in Portland, Oregon, has not been able to see if its myriad changes actually work, as its restaurants have not yet reopened for dine-in service. But the changes appear plentiful, and it’s hopeful. The group, which was founded by Luke Dirks and Joshua McFadden, was accused in July 2020 of fostering a toxic work environment across its restaurants. Accusations, which spawned on social media in response to chef Maya Lovelace’s open call for stories of toxicity in the Portland restaurant scene, included pay disparity, protecting white male employees after numerous HR reports, and McFadden being a “racist, transphobic, misogynistic piece of trash.” At the time, McFadden said in a statement to Eater, “I take full responsibility for Submarine’s past and its future. As such, the restaurants have been closed for a period of time and I am putting the work in, in person, with the team to start to chart a path forward.” And on July 13, Dirks stepped down.
Those left at Submarine Hospitality, including McFadden, saw the shutdown and the public call-out as an opportunity to change. On its website, the group exhaustively outlines everything it’s doing to be better, in the sort of progressive-ish, jargon-y language that signals it either knows what it’s talking about or knows how to sound like it does. It acknowledges that the restaurant industry is “full of disparity and inequality, inequity and patriarchy.” It dives in to pledge that it has completely restructured into a “mission-led organization rather than a vision-driven company” and that “no longer is there any one person in complete control of decisions that affect everyone.” It has hired Justin Garcidiaz, previously a bartender and restaurant manager for Submarine, into the role of HR and cultural advocate “to hold management accountable when it comes to following through on these changes.” It says it is committed to providing better benefits and pay for employees, hiring a more diverse workforce, and “addressing the problem of tipping.” And, rather than just change some internal processes, it says it will be overhauling the ownership structure of the company, with some of the senior executives becoming equity-share ownership partners.
In an interview with multiple directors at Submarine, they acknowledged that the issues that arose last summer, while shocking to the public, were unfortunately de rigueur in the restaurant industry, which is perhaps why there wasn’t an urgency to address them until allegations were made public. But COVID-19 also provided them with an opportunity. “I don’t think any restaurant is going to thank COVID for the past year,” said Shelbey Campbell Lett, Submarine’s director of design and development. “But we never would have been able to take the time to do this and focus solely on how to change such fundamental things about our company without it.” Submarine Hospitality also currently has just 14 employees — the vast majority were laid off at the beginning of the pandemic — which Alex Basler, director of finance and benefits, said made it easier for everyone to engage in conversation about what to do to rebuild a new work culture.
Submarine teamed up with Apron Equity, an equity and inclusion consulting firm focused on the hospitality industry, to create a survey for employees, asking about everything from daily schedules to witnessing harassment. The results of the survey were used to craft new employee training, which includes such topics as racism and bystander preparedness. But overall, the goal was to create a more collaborative culture in which the focus isn’t on a single creative person’s vision at the expense of everyone lower down but on the wellness of the whole team. On Submarine’s website, it says “our operations, culinary, and creative teams work together daily to ensure that major decisions work for everyone. There are a lot more meetings, but a lot less uncertainty.” Which, according to Garcidiaz, is a prime example of accountability. “It’s not enough for us to go out and make an apology tour as a company,” he says. “What’s most important is that we’re taking the time to actually build out systems and a culture that addresses those past problems.”
Part of that is not just changing the training and the culture but the actual structure of the restaurant. Not only will some senior executives become equity-share owners, but Submarine, in a statement, said it’s “hoping to implement and work on the details of creating a true profit-sharing model for all of our employees.” The goal ensures that any subsequent directors and owners keep the same mission and all this work isn’t undone the second an executive wants to take things in a new direction.
While Submarine Hospitality has positioned itself to be a leader in equity in the hospitality industry, none of this has been officially implemented yet, so it’s impossible to know what the practical difference will be between a senior executive and an equity-share ownership partner or whether being a “mission-led organization” will meaningfully impact a waiter’s life. And a collaborative decision-making system looks a lot different when you have hundreds of employees instead of 14. Which leads some to be skeptical.
“[Everyone] I know who has worked for Submarine that has seen that website is just like, ‘This is a literal joke,’” said a former Submarine Hospitality employee who wished to remain anonymous. While the people now at the top of Submarine may not have been executives before, the former employee says they are “the same exact people that have been there since the beginning” and feels that, essentially, this is all for show, especially given McFadden’s continued involvement with the company. “The power structure exists, and it’s not going to change.”
Portland Monthly also rescinded some early praise of Submarine’s new plan. After publishing a gushing story about McFadden and everything Submarine has been implementing, editor-in-chief Marty Patail took the story down. He replaced it with a statement, apologizing for “giving air to mere promises of change” without proof that change has actually happened. “Six months to a year from now, a story centered on the voices of employees and observers, instead of those of the company’s leadership, will be better able to evaluate how those changes had been implemented,” he wrote. “But now is far too soon for that.”
It’s difficult to say what the summer of restaurant reckonings has actually accomplished. “It takes more than a few months, or even a few years, to hold someone accountable for their harm and allow them the opportunity to understand how their actions impact others,” Pham said. “I am imagining what it would look like if Fat Rice had reopened, and it makes me think of this quote: ‘You cannot heal in the same environment that made you sick.’”
There is largely a consensus on what a better, more sustainable restaurant industry would look like — equal, living wages, including a dismantling of the tipped pay system, health care, reliable schedules so workers can actually have a work-life balance, and zero tolerance for bullying or abuse. No more excuses for sexist or racist chefs who happen to have a brilliant mind for food, and no more throwing workers under the bus in the name of customer-is-always-right hospitality.
Whether that must come through better HR departments, collective ownership or unionization, or something else, creating a better restaurant industry will ultimately require a massive restructuring of how it has been run. And the looming question around all these attempts at rebuilding the industry is whether we can trust the people who built this to be the ones to dismantle it, while at the same time not making it the job of marginalized people to fix a system that disproportionately oppresses them.
But there is still no consensus on how to bring that about. Closing a restaurant might free workers from a stressful and abusive job, but it means workers are out of a job, and it risks letting abusive owners off the hook. While restaurants like Tatte have shown they can improve, it is often still at the whims of an individual owner to decide to change. And it seems like unless they were directly and publicly accused, many restaurants are operating the same as they always have. Which, now that they’re hiring again, has led workers to question whether they even want to return to the restaurant industry if returning means the same low wages, lack of benefits, and unsafe working conditions that are still widely the norm.
A year after these calls for justice, there is proof that change is possible. But it took a pandemic, a national call for racial equity, and hundreds of restaurant workers speaking out about the abuses they have faced just for a handful of restaurants to even attempt to address these issues. If that’s what needs to happen for some restaurants to give workers diversity, equity, and inclusion training and slightly higher wages, what will it take for systemic, lasting change to happen?
Nicole Miles is an illustrator from the Bahamas currently living in the UK.