Sexual harassment runs rampant in food service, local employees say

Cailey Mcginn
News Writer
[email protected]
Content Warning: This article deals with sexual harassment.

Illustration by Sophie Sabourin

For decades women and men have fought a battle for dignity and respect in their place of work, and the food service industry is no exception. The food service industry in Asheville has a reputation and culture that can lead to sexual harassment,” according to Asheville local Jenna Hudson.
 Nearly 37 percent of all sexual harassment charges filed by women with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission come from the hospitality sector, according to the Mountain Xpress.  
Hudson has worked in the food-service industry for many years. She said the harassment in Asheville restaurants is out of control. 
“I cannot wear pigtails at work anymore because anytime I do I get a comment on how they are useful in the bedroom,” she said. 
Hudson is a 20-year-old, single mother who began working in the food service industry to help support herself and her son. She said anyone who works in a restaurant should be able to make a living without harassment. 
Hudson said t the overtly sexual comments made to her should be taken seriously and there should be consequences put in place. 
“We should be able to tell people when they say something inappropriate without losing our jobs or getting in trouble or losing our tips. I’m done with having to laugh it off awkwardly,” Hudson said. Hudson left food service at the beginning of the year.
 Asheville is experiencing a huge boom in tourism and the population, and with this boom, many new restaurants have thrived, according to city records.  Tourism in Asheville rakes in one billion dollars a year, simultaneously, 1out of 7 jobs are in the food industry in Buncombe County, according to WLOS 13. Workers, such as Hudson, say this opens up more opportunities for harassment. 
Claire Long has lived in Asheville since 1995 and has worked in the restaurant business in Asheville for 15 years. The 50-year-old was sexually harassed by the owner of a restaurant she worked at. 
Long said the owner had previously been sued twice for sexual harassment by former employees. He won both suits. 
“He would meet me at the time clock when I came in, give me a hug, grab my rear, with two hands, jiggle it and say ‘You have such a beautiful face,’’ Long said. 
She described an out of control kitchen without boundaries. She said she was not the only one and they had to warn new hires of what was coming. 
“That was the reality, that was a business that had been in Asheville for years, and everybody knew,” Long said.
She said as a server, you had to get your towels from the kitchen. When asking the kitchen for towels, the kitchen staff would fold the towels into the shape of male genitalia on multiple occasions. 
“They would put them on the surface in which you pulled your plates off. You had to, under the lights, where everyone could see you, grab a penis-shaped towel,”  Long said. 
Long was unable to continue working at this restaurant due to the harassment. When Long picked up her final check she had her daughter in the car. When she came back into the car her daughter asked her if her boss groped her. Long told her daughter “Yes, yes he did.” 
The dynamic between front-of-house and back-of-house workers can be complicated, according to Madison Clark. 
“Chefs will make sexually motivated comments to their fellow chefs and servers and the hosts if they find their way into the kitchen. It’s an environment where hierarchy is everything,” Clark said.
Madison Clark is a student at UNC Asheville. She said the ‘culture’ stems from a lack of accountability. Clark has been exposed to the food industry her whole life due to her parents being chefs. In her own experience, she has never been harassed by her co-workers. That said, she and her parents both understand the culture surrounding sexual harassment in restaurants. 
Clark said change needs to happen from the inside. She said common practices and protocols are not effective for sexual harassment in restaurants. 
“A change in the conversation needs to happen. Sexual harassment seminars don’t work and the only way to get this to stop is to be more hard-hitting in punishment,” Clark said. She said this can be achieved by termination or demotion.
  The Asheville community is capable of rallying around this issue as proven by the protests surrounding Waking Life Espresso in2015. The protests were in response to the owners posting sexual and degrading things about women online. One of the owners made a post saying  “Men’s problem is finding attractive, valuable women who will submit,” according to the Asheville Citizen-Times. In the Asheville community, there was a public outcry to these comments. People came together to raise money for Our Voice, a rape crisis organization. 
If you or someone you know is being sexually harassed in your place of work contact Asheville Sustainable Restaurant Workforce ASRW’s mission is to improve the economic environment and human rights of restaurant workers in Ashevillethrough awareness, advocacy,and action. You can also call Our VOICE a 24-hour crisis line: 828-255-7576 or text VOICE to 85511.