A new initiative with the express aim of combatting widespread bullying, discrimination, and harassment in the restaurant and bar industries has been announced today.
Hospitality Speaks — founded by the journalist Victoria Stewart and restaurant PR Hannah Norris — will launch at the end of March as an independent, nonprofit platform, which aims to set a new template and industry standard for conduct and ethics in bars and restaurants. Because, according to the founders, “neither the hospitality industry nor the public are aware of the extent of toxic behaviour.”
“Not enough action is being taken to prevent it or to make it easy to report, and there is currently no dedicated, safe place for hearing and sharing stories about it,” they say.
Hospitality Speaks will therefore seek to be that safe space, online — for “hospitality employees to share their anonymous stories of bullying, harassment and discrimination, and platform some of the issues.”
It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the initiative has been announced in the immediate aftermath of London’s first major reported instance of workplace sexual misconduct. On Sunday, the chef Dan Doherty was revealed to have been accused of harassment at his gastropub, the Royal Oak in Marylebone. His business partner said he was no longer working at the pub on Monday afternoon, his partners in America “severed ties,” and he stepped away from the BBC TV series in which he co-starred with ex-Great British Bake Off judge, Mary Berry. The timing of the launch is only partially coincidental.
The body will platform the issues by publishing them without the names of the author, the businesses in which they occurred, and the names of anyone accused. The website will be managed by Stewart and an editor who will be announced next month. On the site, there will be legal terms and conditions advising how to submit anonymous information.
What happens with those stories is very much dependent on what the stories are, Victoria Stewart told Eater in a call today. The nature of the forum will be “very much up to those who share the stories,” she said. “The point is: it happens, and this site will prove it.”
She added that ultimately it aims to “empower [the victims] to speak up if they want to.” She said that to combat one of the added complexities around this issue — namely, the idea that those who know something should make it be known — will be to avoid “sensationalising the issue.” What is important, Stewart said, is that victims understand that others are experiencing the same or similar abuses. That there are a different ways of speaking out and sharing a story, beyond making it public.
She added that she wants to encourage people to realise that they have a choice, and that by creating a community, to foster a sense of support. One of the problems, she says, is so “much of the problem rests on what doesn’t make it to top management.”
Stewart, though, is clear that she is “not a therapist” and neither is she a lawyer. However, Hospitality Speaks will be working with a network of experts in the helping and legal professions who specialise in those areas. Or, she adds, the portal “might [just] mean you talk to someone else.” It is the beginning of a dialogue. As well, it is an “opportunity to show people that there are other places [to work], when they might not realise that it’s obvious.”
What the initiative means by “safe space” is that currently there is no one body which convenes around issues of abuse in hospitality. And, when advised to ‘go and report it’ to, for example, the press, victims face the “full legal might of the wealthy.” In other words, it’s not easy to overcome the protection — financial and otherwise — of abusers.
There is a second element to the project that will seek to promote those who are doing good in the industry — operators who have a code of conduct, which subscribes to rules and which ultimately protects employees. Those “ethics” will be collated via a group of “People Pioneers” of which there will be between 20 and 30 nationally at the outset. (It will be added to each week moving forward.) Those which are endorsed by the site will have been verified by an as-yet-unspecified number of employees to ensure, as best it is possible, that actions correlate with stated missions.
Stewart, as a journalist, was compelled to launch Hospitality Speaks because of what she learnt when interviewing members of the industry. “I felt personally that knowing and understanding what I did from talking to people, I didn’t feel able to keep giving coverage to [certain] people or businesses. It felt to me like I’d be promoting their behaviour,” she says. She asked herself: “How can I create a list of places that I can write about?”
“We are bolstering the good stuff. Naturally by encouraging people to learn more, you are helping to create a better industry. By telling the stories of the people who are doing good things,” Stewart said. She points to the comparatively recent emphases placed on the importance of food production, and labelling. “That should extend to the staff. People have been saying it for a long time.” she says.
By promoting those who do good work, she says the hope is that what seems normal to some and radical to others, becomes commonplace across the sector. In short, Stewart adds, that by “nurturing, training, and listening” ultimately business owners will not only protect but also retain its staff.
It seems that this is an important bridge: though a dialogue of abuse in the industry has begun on the fringes, or in private, the conversation around staff acquisition and retention is much more mainstream, not least because of the fresh pressures that Brexit is going to place on the industry.
“No one is perfect,” she says. But “in every case [of the People Pioneers], they have higher than average level of retention. We are [also] trying to make people more aware of a link between staff shortage and culture at the restaurant.”
When asked where the majority of abuses have been identified — at leadership level or on the floor, among less senior staff, Stewart said she would reserve comment until the website launches.
Stewart says that she and her partners want to working with journalists to shake up the media narrative. She says that there is currently a disconnect between the perception of the industry from the outside — “not a good [place to work]” — and from the inside, where too much emphasis is placed on the cult of chefs in senior positions.
“There is much that goes into having a team of people,” she says, hoping that more of a spotlight will be placed on front-of-house, and even unheralded roles like the kitchen porter. She says that a wholesale shift in what is considered newsworthy for the consumer will go part of the way in championing those who are doing good work in the industry.
Hospitality Speaks will be funded by “different sponsors with different areas of expertise,” Stewart says. She adds that a “variety of information [from different parties] is useful to feed into this — from within and outside the industry.” Importantly, she stresses that no “Pioneer” will have any financial involvement. “One of the major ways people can get out of trouble is that they can pay their way out of it.
“That won’t be happening here.”
Check back for more when the site launches in March.