A restaurant founded by John Besh and celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez in Baltimore closed in September, ahead of this week’s allegations of sexual harassment at Besh’s New Orleans restaurant company.
It's another blow to a culinary brand that's been badly tarnished by claims of sexual misconduct on the part of Besh and others who worked with him.
Those accusations have reverberated through a New Orleans restaurant community now taking stock of how widespread such behavior might be and what can be done to prevent it.
Johnny Sánchez Baltimore was part of Horseshoe Casino Baltimore. In a statement, the Baltimore casino confirmed it did not renew the restaurant’s contract and noted that it did not believe any of the allegations about Besh's company concerned that property. The Baltimore Sun first reported the closing.
A spokesperson for the Besh Restaurant Group said no changes are planned for the Johnny Sanchez restaurant on Poydras Street in New Orleans.
“Horseshoe Casino Baltimore’s licensing agreement to operate Johnny Sánchez expired in early September, before these allegations came to light,” the casino's statement said. “The casino opted not to renew the contract in order to pursue a new and exciting concept that will be announced in the very near future. To the best of our knowledge, none of the harassment allegations involve the Horseshoe-managed Johnny Sánchez restaurant.”
Those allegations were documented in a story published over the weekend by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune. In the story, writer Brett Anderson reported on allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment from the top down at the Besh Restaurant Group.
On Monday, the company announced that John Besh had stepped down and that former operations manager Shannon White is now the CEO.
Two days after a newspaper investigation revealed allegations of sexual misconduct and haras…
Horseshoe Casino Baltimore is part of Caesars Entertainment. Caesars also is the parent company for Harrah’s New Orleans Casino, which cut ties with Besh this week. Harrah’s had been home to Besh Steak, which operated under a licensing agreement with the Besh Restaurant Group.
The restaurants at both casinos remain open but will be revamped and rebranded.
As developments in the Besh group have made national headlines this week, phones have been ringing in the offices of human resources managers, consultants and attorneys.
“It’s definitely having a ripple effect,” said Patricia Panell, an attorney and co-founder of the New Orleans consulting firm Gotcha Covered HR.
Clients are calling for reassurance that their employee policies and codes of conduct are adequate or to see what more they should be doing, she said.
It’s a conversation that has been rising in urgency since allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein went public last month, and Panell said the local scandal has driven it home for more businesses here.
“We just did a presentation this week called 'What keeps you up at night,’ ” she said. “We had to deviate from the script because this is what’s keeping people up now.”
Mark Klyza, a partner at the Kullman law firm in New Orleans, which specializes in labor and employment law for management, said that since the Besh allegations surfaced some companies are taking a fresh look at their own operations.
“People are taking notice of this; they’ve started doing self-audits of their operations,” he said.
Some restaurants are underscoring the importance of harassment polices and workplace issues in the wake of the Besh allegations.
For instance, the restaurant company Dickie Brennan & Co. regularly sends its staff portions of its employee handbook throughout the year to keep different aspects of the company's policies at the top of everyone's mind. It was no coincidence that the section circulated this week deals with sexual harassment.
“We took it as a time to remind people about our policy on the books and that we do take it seriously and enforce it,” said Wesley Noble, a spokeswoman for the restaurant company. “We want everyone to know it’s not gray; it’s black and white.”
The same message resonated this week at the Ruby Slipper Café. From one backstreet breakfast café, the brand has expanded in recent years to nine regional locations with close to 400 employees.
Co-owner Jennifer Weishaupt said that as the company has grown it has kept developing policies on harassment and employee conduct and has created new avenues for employees to report complaints or give anonymous feedback. The Besh allegations give that effort a new perspective, she said.
“It’s a teaching opportunity for our managers, a chance to remind them why we focus on the things we do and why we put such an emphasis on our restaurants’ culture,” she said.
Sidney Lewis, labor and employment practice group leader for the New Orleans law firm Jones Walker, said the Besh situation has drawn more attention to these issues because of the chef’s high profile, the size of his company and the number of restaurants involved.
“You’ve got to have a culture where people know that if this is going on, they need to make a report and will face absolutely no retaliation for it. It’s making sure all employees understand this," he said.
Periodically, Lewis will visit a client’s workplace to deliver what he calls his “scared straight program” to company supervisors. It’s a presentation of recent labor law cases and their consequences, and Lewis said it earned its nickname from clients’ response.
“There may be a few wise guys cracking jokes at the beginning," he said, "but by the end they’re looking concerned, asking how long is the statute of limitations. Some of them sound like they want to go make some apologies.”
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