In the wake of reports of sexual misconduct in the restaurant industry, a local group has been formed to address the complaints. Medusa, started by Turkey & The Wolf server and bartender Caroline Richter, held its inaugural meeting last month at the Irish Channel restaurant. The group will hold monthly meetings, and members will work to create safer working environments and offer training to restaurants. The next meeting is 9 p.m. Dec. 19 at Coquette. Richter spoke with Gambit about the group's goals.
What sparked the idea for Medusa?
Richter: One of the reasons I felt so driven to do this is that I got into the service industry at a late age. I didn't start working in restaurants until after college, so it was really a huge shock to me — coming into an industry and being treated in a way that I was very uncomfortable with. Having everyone around me respond, "Well, that's just what this industry is. If you don't like it, then don't work here." It seemed ... like something everyone accepted.
Some of the restaurants I worked at were really bad about it. My experience was that the human resources department in restaurants were much more there to protect the employer than to protect the employee. I never felt like I had a support system there. To me, the way assault and harassment are handled in restaurants is very similar to the way they're handled in colleges, more so than any other white-collar industry. The higher-ups at these huge corporate restaurants don't want you to report it because they're scared of losing funding.
When I moved here, I felt like if I spoke out or if I said anything I was never going to be able to get a job anywhere else. I think retaliation is the main thing keeping people from speaking up ... if you speak out about this issue, you're a whistleblower and no one will want to hire you. It is an industry that is very much based on camaraderie, and that affects everything from how we interact in the restaurant to how the hiring process works. You look at really successful restaurants and bars and it's sort of common knowledge that you're not going to get a job there based on your resume, but you'll get a job if you're friends with someone who knows the owner.
I started Medusa two weeks before (The Times-Picayune's) John Besh article (detailing sexual harassment allegations against the chef) came out, and that blew everything out of the water. I had just hit a breaking point. I couldn't just sit back and do nothing.
What are the group's goals?
R: Our goal is to have two main branches. One will focus on educating restaurant staff and specifically managers and owners and provide a support system for them. That is going to be a guild of sorts, where restaurants would pay a small fee and receive our training and support and services. The other will be a community branch where we will have monthly meetings and try to make sure there is a supportive community that's active, so people have a place where they can open up about their experiences.
I think it's almost harder for (smaller restaurants), because you don't have anonymity. You can't have your boss address the entire restaurant about an issue and not have everyone know who spoke up.
Also, this is an ongoing conversation; hopefully as things start to change in the industry (we can) take the things that are happening and apply them to what we're teaching in restaurants.
How would you like to see things change in the restaurant industry?
R: It seems like a lot of industry leaders are interested in seeing change. ... I've seen it already. It made me so happy to hear at our first meeting that someone went into their (restaurant) and called out someone in their kitchen for making a rape joke. It's those small incremental changes that I think will change the whole culture.