In her cover story on sexual harassment in the food-service industry, Bryce Covert writes that “Sexual harassment is a fact of life for far too many women across the economy, with about 60 percent saying they’ve experienced it. But the food-service industry is in a category all its own. In interviews with The Nation, many industry veterans struggled with how to describe the harassment or even where to begin, given how pervasive it was. (Several of the women whose stories are recounted below are referred to by first name only, due to privacy concerns.) Asking them to talk about it was like asking a fish to describe water. For the people who serve us dinner and drinks, it’s all but a way of life.” Three of the women who spoke with Covert recount their experiences below.
Anna Donnell, 29,
worked as a server in restaurants in Mississippi and Illinois for six years.
I was a theater major. When I got out of school, I didn’t have any money, and [restaurant work] was something that I could easily start doing. The energy and excitement of working in a restaurant is like no other job that I’ve ever had. I would never have imagined growing up that if I got a job in a restaurant, I would get to…learn all of the things I’ve learned about the world. Learning about wine means learning about places…. When you work with conscientious restaurants, it means you’re learning about farms…. So much of our economy is based on the factory-farming system….
“Whoever your team is for the night, it’s kind of like you guys against the world. There’s a bond that forms; you pour your whole self into a job like that. Honestly, I think working in a restaurant is one of the best jobs in the world. But that sense of freedom does carry over into harassment, sometimes, or abuse. [At a restaurant in Mississippi], there was this guy…. He was a high-roller type, spent a lot of money in the restaurant. He got really drunk one night…. He became interested in me that evening and was talking to me a lot, and at first…you’re like, ‘Oh, well, we’re just chatting and I’m working’—you always have to please.
“He wanted me to leave with him and I didn’t want to, and he waited on the porch of our restaurant for me. I had to hide in the kitchen with other people until he left. In the moment, I didn’t feel the ability or agency…to outright refuse him, to be like, ‘No, you need to leave right now.’
“I only really started to identify times when I’d felt harassed later, because you push them away when you work in the restaurant industry. When I was a food runner [in Chicago], I was carrying plates of food worth $50, $75 a plate, I was explaining dishes that were made every night, I was in menu meetings every day…. It was a fun job, but a hard job. I walk in on this particular day in the middle of busy service, and in front of the entire kitchen, [the head chef] says, ‘Yo, Anna, you fucked anybody in here?’ I remember being embarrassed, being angry and hurt. [But] you’re so busy, you stuff it under and keep moving…. I remember [I took] the kind of attitude that I feel like a lot of us as women working in the industry had to adopt: ‘They’re going to do this to us, and we gotta work.’ I remember I said something back like, ‘Ha, not yet,’ because you had to be tough and you had to play back, instead of saying, ‘Hey, that’s an inappropriate question to ask me as my boss.’ He was the golden boy of this restaurant group. I thought he was untouchable.