Co-authored by Samantha Mason and Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.
Restaurant managers and owners may turn a blind eye to inappropriate behavior, fearing that they may lose guests’ patronage. Suzie (name changed for anonymity), a former Toronto restaurant employee of many years, explains that employees are expected to allow guests to sexually harass them, almost to the point of assault. When the managers are informed, they tend to shrug it off, insisting that the guest deserves to be able to do so since they are spending upwards of $1,000 each night they dine with the restaurant.
Lack of support for employee well-being is seen within management, where staff are frequently subjected to emotional abuse by owners, upper management, and other staff members.
Less explicit issues also plague fine dining restaurants due to the time it takes to train service and kitchen staff on proprietary restaurant knowledge. Servers and kitchen staff are expected to work late and even work sick. Currently, the wage for servers is only $12.20 an hour, and with no sick days, many rely on tips to pay bills. A former hospitality insider recalls that it was common for employees to come into work sick during the winter months, because there were no paid sick days. “Someone would usually bring a communal bottle of DayQuil and we would do shots of it behind the bar during service.”
The financial strain and unreasonable expectations extend beyond front-of-house staff, into the kitchen. Chefs suffer verbal abuse from other staff and superiors, all while being expected to work 12-hour shifts, six or seven days a week, for a national average salary of approximately $40,000 a year. A former fine dining executive chef explains that while the industry from the ’90s until now has changed in some ways, it has remained relatively consistent in others. All the staff, especially kitchen staff, were getting away with verbal harassment because there was no way to prove what they said. Even to this day, racial and gender bias remains an issue. Most people who work in kitchens are white, heterosexual men, and staff who are women and/or members of the LGBTQ+ community who are in a position of authority often face ample verbal assaults and inappropriate comments from staff all around.
When asked how her mental health was affected when she became an executive chef, she explained that the higher you rise in the industry, the more pressure you are under to come up with new ingenious dishes and to get that Michelin star. Even recently, there have been cases where some of the world’s top chefs take their own lives because of the inability to deal with the pressure and lack of access to resources for help. Add into this mix the very real substance abuse in the industry, and it is a recipe for disaster.
Another fine dining employee reflected on how management treated staff with abuse, saying that the staff came and left like a revolving door. They recall one server leaving because the manager cracked a joke about how she deserved to cry in the back, and that the abuse from a guest was warranted. Another time, managers were skimming tips off the top of servers’ cashouts at the end of the night, and when it was brought to the attention of the owners, their response was that “they should have taken more.”
There are common phrases between kitchen and front-of-house staff, such as “we all take turns crying in the walk-in fridge” or “bet you really earned that tip,” accompanied by a wink. Sadly, these phrases oftentimes ring true. When asked why Suzie finally made the choice to leave the industry at the beginning of the pandemic, she replied that the most shocking experience she ever had was when she told one of her managers that another employee was sexually harassing her during service, and they fired her, and kept him. Three years later, she walked into another restaurant with the same company—and he was still there. When COVID hit, it was finally her way out. She was able to get some support from the government and focus on her education. “[Leaving] was worth it, because at least I felt like I got my dignity back.”
Copyright Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.