When Tari Shear got her start in the restaurant industry as a hostess, she says enduring sexual harassment was one of the “expectations” of her job.
Forced to put up with unwanted advances by customers and coworkers alike, Shear said she could be sent home if she didn’t dress to the provocative tastes of her supervisors.
She’s since moved to an office job, but said she still hears horror stories from frontline restaurant workers subjected to sexual remarks, inappropriate touching and harsh scrutiny of their physical appearance.
“It silences people. It makes you tolerate things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to,” said Shear, who still has many friends in the service industry. “There has to be a real change in culture.”
This week’s bombshell misconduct allegations against an Ontario winemaker have many culinary workers calling for change, saying a much broader sexism pervades the food and wine world.
Renewed scrutiny emerged after Norman Hardie apologized “to all those who felt marginalized, demeaned or objectified while working for or alongside me.”
The Globe and Mail first reported numerous allegations of sexual misconduct against the Prince Edward County winemaker earlier this week, including unwanted sexual contact and inappropriate remarks.
Hardie’s statement admitted some of the allegations were true, but denied other parts of the report.
Various players big and small appeared eager to take a stand on the issue Friday, with Ontario’s liquor control board, Quebec’s liquor commission and various restaurants across the country announcing they had dropped Hardie’s beverages.
The scandal has amplified a conversation about harassment in Canada’s dining scene, but David McMillan, co-owner of Montreal’s Joe Beef, said some influential voices have been notably absent.
“I’m stunned, stunned to see the silence of some people,” said McMillan. “Where are my peers and colleagues?”
With a largely young and economically vulnerable workforce, McMillan said the cutthroat culinary world makes it hard for victims of harassment to speak out without fear of retribution.
Backed by a team of strong women, he said he tries to create a safe work environment for female staff members, but there’s one element he can’t control – the customers.
“I see more inappropriate behaviour towards my staff from diners than I do internally at any restaurant,” said McMillan, adding that any guest who mistreats a female employee will be asked to apologize or be shown the door.
Hemant Bhagwani, owner of the Kolkata Club in Mississauga, Ont., said change has to start at the top of the food chain, which is why he was the first employee at the British Raj-style eatery to be trained about sexual harassment in the workplace.
“We just talk about the problems, I don’t think anybody talks about the solution,” said Bhagwani, who founded the Amaya franchise of Indian eateries.
“I have to step up myself. I think it’s our responsibility, also, people who have done well in this city.”
Many restaurants are stricken by a “bro culture” that abets sexist banter among male coworkers, often at the expense of their female colleagues, said Bhagwani.
Restaurateur Stacey Patterson said she helped launch Open Kitchen Toronto, a dining series showcasing female chefs, to foster camaraderie among women in a male-dominated field. A portion of the proceeds from a fundraiser Monday will go towards a female culinary scholarship at Toronto’s George Brown College, she said.
The gender imbalance is even more pronounced in the food manufacturing industry, adds Amy Proulx. When she got her start two decades ago, she said the number of female workers on the factory floor was exceeded by the pages of pin-up girls on her male colleagues’ lockers.
Proulx said her then-boss repeatedly walked in on her while she was changing, one of many “red flags” that prompted her to quit. “It happened 20 years ago, and I still shake,” she says. “It’s like a ghost or a shadow that hangs over me.”
Now a food technology professor at Niagara College, Proulx said she sees versions of her “bright-eyed” younger self in her female students, which is why she shares the experience in her classes.
“Food is one of those driving passions for many people, and it’s why so many people are attracted to the industry,” she said. “You can’t be taking advantage of people’s ambitions and manipulating them in ways that demean people.”