Exit Interviews “Just a Waitress”: On Abuse Faced by Women of Color in the Restaurant Industry
Abuse and harassment within the restaurant industry is very much intertwined with other forms of racial and economic oppression and violence.
This is Exit Interviews, a new column by Nadia Owusu on the experiences of women of color in the workplace.
On December 12, 2017, The New York Times reported that multiple women had accused the owner of the Spotted Pig of sexual misconduct. I texted my friend Melissa: “It’s happening.”
In the preceding months, we had watched the #MeToo movement, originally founded by Tarana Burke in 2007, be reignited. Powerful men like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer were being called to account for abuse of power, harassment, and sexual violence against women. Melissa and I had been wondering when this reckoning would come for the hospitality industry. As women who had worked for over a decade in New York bars, restaurants, and clubs—at over twenty different establishments, between us—we knew that these abuses were rampant, systemic, and perpetrated by owners, managers, colleagues, and customers alike. According to the Harvard Business Review , 90 percent of women and 70 percent of men who work in the US restaurant industry report experiencing sexual harassment; more sexual harassment claims are filed in the restaurant industry than in any other. This harassment and abuse is very much intertwined with other forms of racial and economic oppression and violence.
It had been almost a decade since Melissa and I waited tables together. Both of us are women of color—I am Black, she is Puerto Rican. When we met in our twenties, we were young and hungry, both literally and figuratively; neither of us had families able to offer any financial support. She was studying acting at a renowned studio in Manhattan, producing plays at black box theaters, writing short films, and auditioning for commercials and off-Broadway shows. I was studying urban policy and planning, working part-time for an international nongovernmental organization, and trying to write a novel. Rent, tuition, and utility bills were always due, and both of us tried to save money by not eating until we got to work. We piled our plates with whatever had been prepared for staff meals: chili, tacos, chicken curry with rice. At the end of the night, we begged the sous chefs for endive and blue cheese salad, fries, or sticky toffee pudding.
Today, Melissa is a working actress who has written films that have been screened at prestigious festivals. I am working in the field of urban policy, at a nonprofit aiming to close racial income gaps in American cities, and my novel—which eventually became a memoir —will be published in 2020. Melissa and I often talk about how much waitressing and bartending taught us: six ways to fold a napkin. How to eat a meal in four minutes, standing up. How to run up and down three flights of stairs, in four-inch platforms, carrying two trays of champagne glasses. How to upsell. How to keep calm amidst chaos. How to anticipate people’s needs. How to multitask. The flexible hours gave us time to study and to make art. The camaraderie we found and the friendships we forged continue to buoy us today. Many of my closest friends—the people I call my chosen family—I met working in hospitality.
But working in the hospitality industry taught us other things as well: how to convince a man to keep his hands to himself without jeopardizing our tips. How to tamp down our reactions to sexist and racist insults. How it could make it harder for us if we reported them. We saw our complaints and others minimized or swept under the rug, again and again. “I’ll have someone else wait on that table,” a manager told Melissa after a white man brunching with his buddies told her he had never slept with a Latina woman, and wanted her to be his first.
90 percent of women and 70 percent of men who work in the restaurant industry report experiencing sexual harassment.
Melissa and I learned to whisper and to listen to the whispers—particularly when we were seeking new employment—about which establishments to avoid. We knew about the restaurant where the chef-owner pulled his penis out on a regular basis and demanded that women admire it. We heard that the owner of another restaurant sent female employees text messages demanding nude photos and attempting to orchestrate threesomes. There was the lounge where a manager, on multiple occasions, called women into his office, locked the door, and stuck his tongue down their throats—a friend of mine considered suing, but balked at how much money and time it would cost her. And we heard about the third-floor VIP “rape room” at the Spotted Pig, where the restaurant’s owners and their wealthy friends held all-night drug- and booze-fueled parties—parties at which restaurant employees were often groped and forced to witness public sex acts.
One night, a white man reached up my skirt and grabbed my crotch as I learned over to pour him a glass of wine. Years later, this incident is what I would think of when the soon-to-be President of the United States was found to have been recorded saying, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything . . . Grab them by the pussy.” The man who grabbed me was on a date. Shocked speechless, at first, I walked away. But later, when his date was in the restroom, I told him that I did not appreciate being groped, and that if he did it again, I’d speak to a manager. He laughed, said it was an accident. He left me a 40 percent tip, a bribe for my silence.
When I was twenty-one and working at a themed chain restaurant in Times Square, a friend told me that I could make more money as a bottle service girl at the nightclub where she worked. I didn’t know what a bottle service girl was. “We work the VIP areas at nightclubs where people have to buy a four-hundred-dollar bottle of vodka just to sit down. We deliver their liquor, ice, glasses, and mixers. Then we add a 20 percent gratuity on their checks. That’s it!”
At the time, my college tuition was covered by a partial academic scholarship and my share of my late father’s life insurance. But the insurance money was dwindling, and my expenses were growing. My apartment lease was up, and my roommates and I did not want to renew due to the steep rent hike our landlord was imposing. I needed a security deposit for a new place. When my friend told me that, some nights, she made over a thousand dollars, I was shocked—at the time, I made twelve dollars an hour as a hostess.
“There’s an open call for new girls on Tuesday,” she said. “Wear something a bit slutty.”
That Tuesday, I put on a black spandex minidress from American Apparel, strappy black stiletto sandals, and lots of eyeliner and mascara. At the club, the main floor was set up as though for an audition: a room full of waiting, hopeful, young women; a panel of men behind a long wooden table. The woman who signed me in took a Polaroid photo and told me to staple it to my resume. “Personally,” one of the men on the panel said when it was my turn, “I like exotic women. We should have a mix—something for all tastes. You’re the Black girl I’d pick.”
For two years, three or four nights a week, from seven in the evening until four in the morning, I served bottles of overpriced liquor to famous rappers and men who worked at hedge funds. The money was good, and I liked the women I worked with. At the time, I didn’t mind the tiny, tight outfits—they were what I would have worn to any club. But a few months in, a white male manager told me that if I wanted a coveted Saturday night shift, I could “fuck him for it.”
I didn’t want to. I also didn’t want to lose my job. For the first time in my adult life, I was able to put a little away in savings. I was writing more than I had in a long time: poems, short stories. Under less financial strain, my grades were climbing. Rather than telling my manager to fuck off, I said no thanks, laughed, and lied, “I have a boyfriend.”
“Well, it’s an open offer,” he said. I didn’t get a Saturday shift until after he’d left the club.
I’ve spoken with many women who are still working in the industry, some of whom have built careers and have no plans to quit. They shared stories about how they lost or walked away from opportunities because of harassment and abuse, often choosing not to call it out. Their reasons for this were many and complicated.
Working in the hospitality industry taught us how to tamp down our reactions to sexist and racist insults. How it could make it harder for us if we reported them.
One friend, a Black woman named Chantel, told me she once worked at a restaurant with a racist owner who lived in the UK. When he visited the restaurant, Chantel and one other Black waitress were ordered off the floor by their manager, a white woman. Two blonde waitresses were dispatched to the hostess stand to greet the owner, who liked tall blondes. Chantel was furious about this treatment, the blatant racism, and the white manager’s unwillingness to name it.
“But I was a single mom then,” Chantel told me. “I had a two-year-old to take care of. It was just me and my daughter. And at my previous job, the manager kept pressuring me to have drinks with him after work.”
This story perfectly illustrates the specific, compounded ways in which Black women are harmed by racism, classism, and misogyny in the hospitality industry—and why so many abuses against women of all races, but particularly Black women and other women of color, go unaddressed. Black women who are financially insecure might feel they have to put up with abuse because good opportunities are scarce. Chantel felt she had to choose between sexual harassment at her old job and racism at a newer one—she could not imagine she would find a well-paying job free of both. “When you are a Black woman in the restaurant industry, especially a dark-skinned Black woman, you can forget about being treated right,” she told me. “Maybe if you’re a model or something, but not if you’re more regular-looking.”
Class, race, and gender biases likely play into the contempt some conservative media personalities have expressed regarding Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who used to work as a bartender in New York. Earlier this year, broadcaster and television personality Piers Morgan responded to a tweet from Ocasio-Cortez criticizing Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner for being unqualified to represent the United States at the G-20 summit. Morgan tweeted, “Could be worse . . . Ivanka could have been a bar-tender 18 months ago [sic].” Conservative political commentator Tomi Lahren those sentiments echoed when she tweeted a photograph of herself dressed up as Ocasio-Cortez for Halloween: “I decided to dress up as the person who scares me most. The Democratic Dimwit Darling, socialist-loving, freedom-hating, former bartender herself . . . ”
The classist implication in these tweets is that working as a bartender is something shameful; that people who work in hospitality are unintelligent, undeserving of respect. And because Representative Ocasio-Cortez is Latina, one might also infer racism in Morgan and Lahren’s words. Conservative commentators often speak about the honor of the white working class, the respect they deserve. But when it comes to Black and brown working-class people, apparently no such respect is due.
Men hold the majority of higher-paying and management roles in American restaurants . Many of the people who work for them are young women who make far less money and who, in many cases, are living on the edge of, or in, poverty. In many restaurants, bars, and clubs, there is a sense that workers are expendable, easily replaced. These power dynamics lead to a culture of fear and silence in the face of abuse. A former manager at the Spotted Pig told The New York Times that the owner, Ken Friedman, who forcibly kissed her in a car, often bragged about blacklisting people. Rather than complain and risk being blacklisted at other restaurants, many women will continue to endure assault and harassment, or they will quit.
Chantel felt she had to choose between sexual harassment at her old job and racism at a newer one—she could not imagine she would find a well-paying job free of both.
Then there is the power imbalance between staff and the people who are “always right”: the customers. All hospitality workers have customer horror stories: the fist-pounding over a too-rare steak, the “Do you know who I am?”, the crotch-grabbing. A Chanel-and-pearls-wearing white woman once called me a “fucking idiot” because we were out of mahi-mahi. A white man, when I took too long to deliver his cocktail, left me a fifty-cent tip on a two-hundred-dollar check, claiming he deserved better service because he “worked hard all day,” whereas I was “just a waitress.”
And of course, it isn’t only white people who are abusive to those who work in the service industry. I can’t imagine that all the people who shout at hospitality staff, who touch them without consent, behave that way in other environments. Perhaps some of them do, but I believe that in the hospitality industry, the mix of power over people’s pay, the influence of alcohol, and class, race, and gender biases all combine to encourage anger, aggression, entitlement, and abuse. One report found that sexual harassment is more common in states with tip systems than in states with a livable minimum wage for hospitality staff, probably because customers whose tips make up a larger share of a server’s income have even greater power.
Hospitality is about welcoming people, treating them well, caring for them. It requires you to open yourself up to strangers. You are expected to smile, to emit warmth, to make people feel special. “Make them love you,” one manager said at the end of each pre-shift briefing. “Make them want to come back again and again,” another manager told us. This giving of self can be fulfilling; being of genuine service reminded me of the ways in which all people are connected. Making people happy felt good. But being open, giving of yourself, also leaves you vulnerable. I cried many times over harassment or the cruelty of customers.
Hospitality is a relationship between host and guest. It is also a business, a transaction. In some establishments, it is believed that one side of that transaction is physical titillation. Some clubs only hire models. Some job postings express expectations explicitly: Seeking attractive hostesses. Seeking elegant cocktail waitresses. One restaurant was known not to hire Black women as waitresses, only as baristas. Other establishments tell employees how to do their hair and makeup; how to dress: We like girls with a funky fashion sense. Look expensive. Red lips are encouraged. When I worked in clubs, I knew that I had to stay thin, wear revealing clothing, and spend money on haircuts, blow-outs, and manicures.
There are standards of beauty that are enforced strictly by some with power in the industry, even if they are not always spoken aloud. But beauty standards in America are steeped in racism. Black women and other women of color in the hospitality industry are often subjected to humiliating scrutiny of their bodies and looks, and sometimes relegated to lower-paying jobs. When that white man told me, “You’re the Black girl I’d pick,” he was trying to flirt—and also, perhaps, expressing his colorism. My skin is light to medium brown, depending on the season. I often wear my hair long and straight. One might say that, to him, I was a token hire: a Black woman who had been deemed acceptably attractive by a white man.
One Black woman told me, “I had a manager who was always commenting on my ass, saying it was juicy now, but I’d better not gain any weight, or it would hit the floor . . . He’d do it in front of everyone. I just had to take it as a joke, because I didn’t want to fight with him. I was the only Black girl behind the bar. They already gave me the worst shifts.”
For being considered “beautiful,” women can be given jobs, better shifts, and bigger tips. If they fear—as some women of color do—that they are not considered beautiful enough by the people whose opinion on that front can affect their livelihoods, they might work hard to please in other ways, including by being “easygoing.” From that foundation, it is a slippery slope to sexual misconduct.
Black women and other women of color in the hospitality industry are often subjected to humiliating scrutiny of their bodies and looks, and sometimes relegated to lower-paying jobs.
Hearing my friends’ stories, revisiting my own, stringing them together, reminded me of just how pervasive the abuses in the hospitality industry were and are. It also reminded me how many talented, generous, brilliant women I was lucky to work alongside.
We covered each other’s tables while dealing with emergencies. We covered each other’s shifts when we were ill. At seven in the morning, before we opened for breakfast, we made each other delicately decorated lattes. At four in the morning, after too many post-shift drinks, we shared cabs home. We slept over at each other’s houses, made each other pancakes in the morning. We spent Thanksgivings and Christmases together, emptying already meagre checking accounts to share prix fixes. Through breakups, divorces, births, deaths, evictions, and health crises, we supported each other. Relied on each other.
And we did what we could to protect each other from harassment and assault. We comforted each other after insults and humiliations and abuses. We whispered warnings and heeded them. We asked ourselves, “What can we do to stop this?”
Some of the women I worked with and spoke to for this essay are now restaurant and bar owners and managers themselves. They want to do their part to change the industry they love.
At the last restaurant I worked at, owned by a Black woman and a white man, staff were treated with respect. When a waitress told the male owner about a customer harassing her, he sent a manager over to speak to the customer and tell him his behavior was unacceptable. When I graduated from my Master’s program and found a job in my chosen field, the owners thanked me for my years of service, told me how much they valued the investment of time and self I’d given their business.
On weekends, you can still find me at that restaurant, having dinner or a glass of wine at the bar, chatting with the bartenders and maître d’ with whom I worked almost a decade ago. Many of the people I knew then are still there, doing their jobs. It turns out that when people are valued, treated well, seen and cared for, they want to stay. They come back, again and again.