On the Table: In the wake of #metoo, creating safe spaces in Detroit’s restaurant industry


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Photo courtesy of Nik Cole

Editor’s Note: Tostada Magazine believes in the power of storytelling to uplift communities and celebrate culture. That is why Tostada is collaborating with FoodLab Detroit and The Work Department for the “On The Table” nine-month industry forum series that examines “critical dialogue” around how to improve the labor that’s powering, growing, transporting, preparing, cooking, and serving food in Detroit. During this series, FoodLab and The Work Department is organizing round table discussions that explore subjects ranging from the lack of leadership roles for women in restaurants to sharing in the prosperity with restaurant staff, to addressing mental illness in the food industry. Tostada is documenting these conversations in a multi-part storytelling series to give voice to the restaurants and food-makers that are tackling these issues to create a more equitable and sustainable restaurant culture in Detroit.

Part 1: Sexual Harassment

Nik Cole knew what she was getting herself into when she took a poolside serving job at a casino resort on the Las Vegas Strip. She knew about the uniform, a bathing suit and sarong wrap. She knew her customers were there to spend copious amounts of money and drink copious amounts of booze.

She knew what that entailed as a server, and that was fine. She could turn on the charm and used her feminine appeal to bring in the tips.

“I knew why I was there,” says Cole, 39, a native Detroiter, of her experience working the Vegas hospitality scene for three years.

What she wasn’t there for was harassment. But on top of having to remember her regulars’ drink orders and the long hours, she had to navigate how to stave off the sexual innuendo that also came with the job.

Now as an entrepreneur running a two-woman catering business with plans to open a bodega in Detroit’s North End neighborhood, it’s her opportunity to do things differently.

“I want to create a culture, space in my business where people want to work,” says Cole.

It’s these insights about sexual harassment in the hospitality industry that led Cole to join in on a recent panel discussion along with four other women-led food businesses on a subject that has captured national attention in recent years.

It wasn’t so much an opportunity to swap war stories about what goes on behind closed doors in restaurants and bars, as it was what organizers hope is a conversation that can lead to change.

The #MeToo movement taking shape across a multitude of industries has led to more focus on bad behavior and chefs who had abused their leadership positions. In the restaurant world, an estimated 90 percent of women — and 70 percent of men — have reported being sexually harassed in the workplace across the United States.

It takes all forms, from the open sailor talk in the back of the house and bosses looking the other way when their employees try to report unwanted attention, to the customers (like Cole’s) who feel empowered to comment on workers’ appearances or make unwelcomed advances to servers when they’re trying to do their jobs.

That this and other problems that afflicted restaurants is taking place in Detroit is no coincidence, says FoodLab executive director Devita Davison.

“The restaurant industry in Detroit is booming. Every time you look at (local food media), we hear about a new restaurant opening in the city,” she says.

If issues like sexual harassment, fair wages, and mental health are addressed now while the Motor City’s restaurant scene is still in its infancy, Davison and others involved in the good food movement believe that Detroit could serve as a model for how to right the wrongs that have plagued restaurants for ages.

It’s a battle taking shape all over the country.

Oakland-based Restaurant Opportunities Centers United has partnered up with several Hollywood heavyweights, including Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Amy Poehler to push for fair wages (and eliminate the often exploitative nature of tipping) and to bring attention to sexual harassment and gender inequality. And waves of investigative journalists have taken down celebrated chefs, like John Besh, Mario Batali, and others through expansive exposés that shed light on their problematic behavior.

The inspiration for these Detroit talks came at the start of 2019, months after FoodLab contributed to last summer’s pop-up Dream Cafe, described as an experiment designed to imagine an industry that centered around and empowered the cooks, servers, and farmers of color who are often otherwise marginalized.

“We wanted to spend 2019 going really, really deep and having this conversation in driving the narrative around how workers in Detroit are being treated in our culinary industry,” Davison says.

And so in January, a group of women in the industry gathered at Lady of the House to strategize over which conversations should be had through the course of the year.

The result is a series of discussions called “On the Table,” which started taking place monthly at Flowers of Vietnam. All of the information collected at the work sessions will be used to influence, not just how FoodLab approaches its work, but the very businesses that want to create models that respect their employees, the farmers where they source their ingredients, and that still turn a profit. The first session on professionalism took place in March, followed by last month’s sexual harassment panel.

For Cole, that could inform how she conceptualizes her forthcoming bodega Thank You Mart. She not only intends on offering employees fair wages and benefits, but also a space where workers do not feel intimidated — either physically or implicitly — by the threat of harassment.

“I’ve worked at a bunch of restaurants in the city, there’s a high turn over rate, low wages, the jobs come a dime a dozen,” she says. “Instead of reporting bad behavior, people just go somewhere else. I’m creating an environment where people feel safe and valued.”

(Cover photo by V.W. Photography)

This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.

Serena Maria Daniels

Author: Serena Maria Daniels

Serena Maria Daniels is an award-winning journalist based in Detroit. She specializes in reporting on issues that intersect food, identity, and culture.

Find her one Twitter and Instagram @serenamaria36!

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