Celebrity chefs come unstuck at the pass
Fixing a restaurant’s culture includes changing who profits
A great article from Meghan McCarron of Eater Magazine about the fall out from the #MeToo movement in the food world. Celebrity chefs behaving badly. What’s the deal? Not much it would seem.
“Four months since the #MeToo movement roared to life, the airing of credible accusations of sexual misconduct has become both a vital reckoning and bleakly rhythmic routine of public life. The ever-present question is no longer just who’s next, but what’s next?
In the restaurant industry, where sexual harassment is endemic, a grim playbook has emerged: First, a prominent man is accused of misconduct. Then, the man becomes contrite. He apologizes. Mario Batali is “deeply sorry for any pain, humiliation, or discomfort I have caused,” while Ken Friedman wants to “apologize now publicly for my actions” and John Besh regrets “any harm this may have caused to my second family at the restaurant group.” Charlie Hallowell, meanwhile, “can see very clearly that I have participated in and allowed an uncomfortable workplace for women,” which makes him “deeply ashamed and saddened.”
These deeply ashamed men don’t stop at being deeply sorry, though. Batali announced plans “to step away from day-to-day operations”; Hallowell is also “stepping away from day-to-day operations,” according to the Chronicle. Besh has “has decided to step down from all aspects of operations and to provide his full focus on his family,” while Friedman’s company revealed that he was taking “an indefinite leave of absence.”
There’s a suggestion of banishment, of penance, in these statements. But “stepping away” is an oddly casual phrase, one used to describe picking up lunch (“stepping away from my desk”) or closing your computer (“stepping away from the internet”). These statements all imply a return, an inevitable U-turn, not permanent exile.
What stepping away does not mean so far is that these men — who are, again, deeply sorry for treating women in ways they describe as humiliating and wrong — will no longer profit from their businesses, or that they intend to leave their businesses for good. They may not be around day to day, but they remain owners of a business — or multiple, intersecting businesses — built around their personal brands.
But what if these men were to walk away? That phrase conjures real separation, a dramatic and irrevocable choice to leave valuable things behind. We may not expect powerful and famous men to lose, or surrender, capital when they’ve done something wrong, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t start: These credible claims of misconduct, at their most basic, allege that women were terrorized while men got rich. No apology will erase a majority share, and no HR consultant can undo ownership’s power and control. For this reckoning to truly change restaurant culture, these men should give up their ownership — their capital, in every respect — to more deserving parties, whether that’s their partners, employees, or the people they have hurt.
At least one man has walked away. On January 5, the San Francisco Chronicle published a reportabout a lawsuit filed against Four Barrel Coffee and its co-founder Jeremy Tooker. The suit, filed by eight employees, alleged that Four Barrel, a San Francisco roaster with a national reputation, had a toxic work environment, and included further allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
Four Barrel partners Jodi Geren and Tal Mor moved swiftly to distance Tooker from the company: In an open letter published January 6, they revealed that Tooker had stepped down as CEO in November. Two days later, they announced that they would rebrand Four Barrel as the Tide, and that they would transfer Tooker’s shares and ownership — which Tooker agreed to relinquish to his partners — to the company’s employees. As “peer-owners,” Geren and Mor would make an “increasing number” of shares available to employees until it became a fully employee-owned co-op.
Four Barrel co-owner Tal Mor told me over text message that Tooker transferred his shares — which comprise 50 percent of the company — as a gift, receiving no compensation for them (though Mor did not confirm who holds those shares currently). Mor says the rest of the divestment process, which he declined to discuss, is still underway. He also says that he and Geren intend to give their own shares to the future co-op, but right now their focus is on “stabilizing the company financially so these shares are meaningful.”
The fear that these shares might become worthless is not unfounded: Since the Chronicle’s investigation broke, numerous wholesale clients have dropped the roaster. Four Barrel is susceptible to a different kind of pressure than restaurants — the roaster’s customers are primarily in-the-know industry insiders, who use Four Barrel’s product to prop up their own shops’ and restaurants’ brands. The pressure on Four Barrel from its wholesale customers might partially explain the company’s public identity crisis: First it rushed to rebrand itself as the Tide, crossing “Four Barrel” off menus and scrubbing it from cafe windows; less than two weeks later, Mor told me via text they had decided to retain the Four Barrel name after all, following feedback from customers and staff.
The act of dropping Four Barrel as a coffee supplier has also been, at times, a deliberately public performance by restaurants and cafes, one that serves to create maximum distance from allegations about Tooker’s behavior. When Boba Guys, a popular boba tea chain in San Francisco and New York, announced it was severing its relationship with Four Barrel, it framed the move as taking a stand in the larger cultural push for “radical accountability,” which is both laudable and, especially in a hyperconscientious market like San Francisco, strategic. Today, backlash from even a small group of engaged consumers can annihilate a company’s image — and when a roaster chosen in part for its ethical halo suddenly seems anything but, the fastest and safest way to handle these revelations is to drop them.
But some restaurants are sticking with Four Barrel in order to support its move toward a co-op model. Allison Hopelain, the co-owner of Camino and the Kebabery, who uses Four Barrel coffee at Camino, says the divestment is enough for her to want to work with the group. As the restaurant industry horror stories pile up, the question that returns to her mind is, “What are the consequences for these people? What does it look like on the other side, after these revelations come out?” Every restaurant group facing misconduct allegations intends to change its culture, but Hopelain says if at Four Barrel “employees get a voice in what that culture will be, that’s meaningful.”
David Wilcox, the chef and proprietor of the Los Angeles restaurant Journeyman, has also chosen to continue working with Four Barrel, and has urged other restaurant owners to do the same. “They’re making an effort to change the culture through transparency, and rather than turn my back and choose a company that maybe, who knows, has the same problems, I want to stick with them.” He has known and worked with Four Barrel’s Matthew Hein since 2009, and his conversations with him and other Four Barrel employees encourage Wilcox that the efforts to change are sincere.
Hopelain similarly frames her decision as supporting an attempt to make change, in an industry where she sees far too little. “If Jeremy [Tooker] was still in the business with them, we would have switched,” she says. “But when all this news is coming out about harassment, it’s time to start thinking about what we are going to do about it. It’s not going to stop.” She acknowledges choices about which restaurants to patronize, and even which purveyors to work with, are emotional: There are restaurants she loves but no longer dines at, or would dine at, because of the bad behavior on the part of owners who still reap financial rewards. She says it would be easy to dump Four Barrel, but also hard because of her relationship with the company.
Transforming Four Barrel into an employee-owned co-op would be a radical step, but also an incomplete one. A co-op can harass women, too — and at worst, diluting ownership could empower more bad actors with shares. The Chronicle’s reporting includes multiple female Four Barrel employees describing a widely tolerated sexist culture, which included retaliation for speaking up. Former employee Molly Haight told the paper that Tooker was the head of the company’s “dysfunctional family,” but other male managers allegedly engaged in bad behavior. The lawsuit against Four Barrel alleged that Geren and Mor responded to complaints about Tooker sexually assaulting employees at a company party by urging the women to not “create drama.” (The suit was since settled out of court.)
So which employees will receive shares in, and control of, the planned co-op? How long will it take Geren and Mor to divest? Will the new owners include men who, enabled by upper management, treated female employees poorly? What, if any, financial reparations will be available to women who left the company due to harassment, or were fired? What about any employees who have left since, or were laid off following the drop in business, as an Instagram post by Jasper Wilde says seven wholesale employees were? It’s possible all of these issues will be addressed as the ownership structure transforms — but it’s a lot of questions to answer. The company’s official statement says that Mor and Geren intend to hire a consultant to aid in building “a collaborative, equal, and inclusive business.”
Over text, Mor emphasized the “uncharted territory” of this divestment move, and said that in addition to working out the logistics of employee ownership, they were developing “new processes and systems.” But he declined to specify whether those applied specifically to issues of sexism or harassment in the workplace. “We’d be glad to provide more information after these pieces are in place,” he said.
Later, Wendy Tanaka, of the crisis PR firm Sitrick and Company, sent along a statement from Four Barrel which noted the company is now covering all co-pays for employees seeking counseling, and elaborated on the challenges presented by going co-op: “Until Four Barrel is stabilized and debt-free, our opportunities for equity sharing and other progressive business models are limited at best.” Four Barrel declined to comment further.
When asked if he had any deadlines in mind for Four Barrel, Wilcox said the most important thing was continuing to have clear communication from the company, rather than a set timetable. “If they’re making changes and it works out, great. If it doesn’t work out and people end up leaving, then you cross that bridge when you get there.”
In Four Barrel’s case, Tooker gave up his shares. In neighboring Oakland, some employees are attempting to force Charlie Hallowell out of his restaurant group, saying that they see divestment as a necessary step in healing their restaurant’s culture. Despite, as Hallowell’s representative says, the newfound “concerted effort” to find a new CEO to “professionalize” the culture, the litany of measures undertaken since Hallowell’s leave has not satisfied at least some of the group’s employees. Three managers at Hallowell’s pizza restaurant Boot & Shoe service resigned after Hallowell failed to divest by a Saturday deadline; three more plan to leave, and more employees called in sick to join a picket outside the restaurant Saturday night.
In an open letter in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boot & Shoe managers write, “Actively working to keep the business open while you are still a profit owner implicitly condones your behavior, trivializes the allegations brought against you, and betrays our obligation to protect the financial and psychic well-being of our staff.” In response, Hallowell’s rep said that there have been discussions with employees “to see if we can move beyond the ultimatum phase.” He also provided a copy of a letter signed by 31 employees (some only by their first name) from all three restaurants saying they support Hallowell “as he seeks to change himself” and pushes for “restorative justice.” The same rep also notes that, “Charlie would like to return to the business he built and loves, but knows much work needs to be done first.”
Changing the culture of a business, whether through traditional methods like outside consultants or radical ones like restorative justice, is famously one of the most difficult things to do. Hallowell may love the businesses he owns — and the majority of his employees may indeed want to save them. Restaurants are far more than business ventures: They are home, they are community, they are family. But families have a dark side.
Hallowell built a business where, according to the women who spoke to the Chronicle, he interrupted a discussion of a woman’s promotion to tell her “he really wanted to have sex” with her, regularly described food in sexual terms, and suggested female employees could cheer up by giving their husbands “more blow jobs.” Why is it so much easier to discuss his return than to ask what, exactly, he loved about these restaurants? Or why he should continue to profit? Even if Hallowell is no longer taking a salary or an ownership stake, as his representative says, a lot of money is being spent to save a business where he is the majority owner, so after the work has been done, he can still return.
If a man does agree to divest, or his partners force the issue, where should the money go? Four Barrel’s co-op model is one option. Faster might be to start with the women co-owners who, at several of these groups, have taken on leadership roles in the company at a time of crisis. If a major, beloved restaurant group truly intends to change its culture, shouldn’t that involve generating more wealth for women, too?
Although B&B has promoted two women, Lidia Bastianich and Nancy Silverton, into prominent leadership roles, Batali’s ownership stakes in the restaurants are currently unchanged; the company declined to provide any detail about what those stakes are, or about Silverton’s or Bastianich’s. Besh still retains his ownership stake at BRG and has final say on “major business decisions,” according to the Times, even as partners Shannon White and Kelly Fields step up in Besh’s absence. Transferring ownership to these women would send a clear signal there is deeper change at work — and without such clear signals, there’s a real danger these women could sink time, effort, and money into saving a company fatally weighted down at the top.
Even this solution does not address much of the damage done. Reporting on these men’s misconduct includes allegations of retaliatory firing and industry blacklisting — and these are just the women who were able, or willing, to speak to the press. That level of harm, and the difficulty in rectifying it, cannot be weighed against any monetary value. But one of the darkest dimensions of this problem is the fact that the men accused of this harm also continue to reap profits, while these women, who took a massive risk to speak about their experiences, also suffered financial and professional loss.
A business owner profiting from the business he helped found is how capitalism works. But restaurants do not occupy the cultural spotlight because they’re so marvelously profitable (the overwhelming preponderance are not). Chefs and restaurateurs sell themselves as visionaries and radicals, artists and rock stars. If these men want to seize the mantle of cultural change, there’s no better place to start than refusing to profit from a cultural monster they helped create.
Real change is hard, and painful, and time-consuming. That pain should start at the top. Otherwise, it’s difficult to know if real change is being made, or if the owner is just waiting for the dust to settle, so things can go back to the way they were — all the while continuing to put money in the bank.”
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent.
Editors: Erin DeJesus and Matt Buchanan