Abuse by restaurant managers common, say Philly employees after Vongerichten apology

At Drexel’s culinary conference in early March, a few off-the-cuff remarks from a famous restaurateur highlighted one potential reason why the boom in the Philly hotel scene has not resulted in a strong pipeline of sustainable careers and stable:

Many restaurant managers are abusive towards staff.

In a Billy Penn survey of hospitality workers, nearly 40% of respondents cited management issues as the reason for vacancies across the industry and high turnover.

Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who recently opened his first Philadelphia spot at the Four Seasons atop the Comcast Technology Center, inadvertently made the revelation at the Philly Chef Conference, which draws attendees from across the country and around the world.

The celebrity chef actually got involved by telling an anecdote in which he physically assaulted a dishwasher. When he ignored a reporter’s question about the seriousness of the incident, the participants were amazed, reported the Washington Post.

It wasn’t so much the confession to the act, which had already been described in more detail in Vongerichten’s 2019 book, but that the celebrity chef clearly didn’t feel upset by his actions.

A few days later, Vongerichten apologized. “I do not tolerate abuse of any kind, and if someone threatened or physically assaulted a coworker, I would fire them immediately,” he told The Post.

Interviews and surveys of restaurant workers conducted by Billy Penn over the past year suggest that Vongerichten’s attitude is not unusual – and that top industry officials routinely overlook well-being. physical lower level staff.

Judy Ni, an industry worker who has traveled extensively and now co-owns Baology in Center City, said that the idea of ​​restaurant managers being bullies is a “well-known secret.”

“It was not unusual… to experience a very male dominated culture and also a badass mentality,” Ni said. “You have a whole generation of chefs who firmly believe that was acceptable treatment. “

The 2020 conference hosted by Drexel’s School of Food and Hospitality Management was bigger than ever, attracting chefs, restaurateurs and food writers from across the country and Europe.

Now in its seventh year, the conference was full of panels and discussions addressing modern industry issues like #MeToo workplace protections, organizing efforts and campaigns to raise the minimum wage.

It was surrounded by these food insiders that Vongerichten rekindled outrage over pervasive inequalities in the workplace.

“The only way to get rid of him was to shake him up a bit,” the chef said of a dishwasher taking untimely lunch breaks. “So it was a bit of physical abuse, of course, for this dishwasher,” Vongerichten said. laughing.

In his memoir, Vongerichten uses more colorful details to describe this incident:

“He was unionized. He knew there was nothing I could do. And I knew it too ”, Vongerichten wrote that he wanted to fire the employee. Eventually, things got physical. “I hit him. I kicked him. I’m not proud of it, but I screwed it up. In the walk-in closet.

At the Philly conference on March 1, Vongerichten also compared his exploration of Thailand and Thai cuisine to Christopher Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of America, an archaic anecdote that has since been superseded by the idea that Columbus evokes colonization.

“I wrongly shed light on this incident on the panel – it does not reflect who I am today,” he said. Apologizing for Columbus’ remark, he added, “In trying to convey the awe and wonder I felt upon arriving in Thailand, I made a thoughtless and callous reference.”

While Vongerichten has changed, his enlightenment does not reflect an industry-wide awakening, according to responses from many restaurant workers interviewed by Billy Penn.

When asked why the restaurant industry is experiencing a high number of vacancies and rotations, here is a sample of the response from workers in Philly:

  • “Vacation and statutory holidays are usually canceled by senior management. BURNOUT, ”said an anonymous restaurant manager.
  • “Most executives don’t care about the physical and mental well-being of staff. They just want to see numbers. Underpaid and overwork. Everyone’s a replaceable type of mindset, ”said Maddy Flor, mid-level catering and events worker.
  • “[L]low wages, poor working conditions, lack of benefits and paid sick leave, sexual harassment from staff AND customers, ”said Victoria Bruton, who worked as a bartender for 10 years or more.
  • “The owners and managers don’t care about our well-being. We’re not human, just machines that pump money into ledgers, ”another bartender vet shared anonymously.
  • “Abuse by management,” said Courtney, who worked as a host and server for over 10 years.
  • “[D]illusions of superiority from top management, shouting, shouting and open hostility, ”said pastry chef and bakery owner Marqessa Gesualdi.

Workers in the hospitality industry have listed a host of other reasons why billions of dollars don’t create more sustainable jobs with reliable annual incomes. They cited things like limited professional mobility, drug and alcohol abuse, low barriers to entry that affect staff reliability, and the idea that hospitality work is a start-up job. , not a career.

Historically, restaurants lacked HR services. Much of the work is hourly and staff often lack medical coverage. Most front desk workers, such as bartenders and waiters, rely on tips to supplement a very low hourly wage of between $ 2 and $ 3.

Among all of this, however, management issues were most often shared as a large piece of the puzzle.

Of more than 100 responses in total, Baology owner Ni was one of six managers who cited poor management as the cause of high turnover. She said consumers and media must issue a # MeToo-esque call to action to change a toxic, male-dominated restaurant and hospitality culture.

“Look how long it took to hold Harvey Weinstein accountable,” Ni said. “Exactly the same is happening in the restaurant business. “

Seeking to identify how senior management could support and retain staff, last fall the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association hosted a roundtable that brought together nonprofits and hospitality executives. Attendees included Ben Shank, CEO of the Philadelphia Four Seasons, representatives from Aramark and Sodexo, and diversity officers from the Philadelphia Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

At Baology, part of the retention practices include avoidance tips – employees at the modern Taiwanese restaurant are paid a salary comparable to any other service job, Ni said. She also co-founded HospitalityTogether, a non-profit organization that emerged from the Full City Challenge pitch competition. It helps give first generation students a chance to thrive in the hospitality industry and beyond.

“Consumers should support companies that are doing it right because it helps the company support hiring and increasing wages,” Ni said. “If you want behavior to continue, then you reward it, whether it’s good or bad.”

About Vivian J. Smith

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