At a New Orleans bar where she once worked, a male customer gave Tyler Chauvin a tip by reaching into her shirt and shoving cash down her bra. She punched him in the face, and she was fired for it.

As a college student, Stephanie Hoskins left her first job as a waitress soon after her managers encouraged her to dress “cuter,” flirt with male customers and give them her phone number.

And when Barrie Schwartz told her boss at one restaurant early in her career that a co-worker constantly made degrading and vulgar comments, that boss, a woman, told her to get used to it, she recalls.

“People think it’s the norm,” Schwartz said. “They think it’s part of the culture of a tough business, and that you should take it if you’re going to be tough enough to last.”

Service industry culture and assumptions about it have been up for new scrutiny after allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment rocked one of the New Orleans' biggest restaurant companies.

Celebrity chef John Besh stepped down from his Besh Restaurant Group last week, following an Oct. 21 article from | The Times-Picayune that revealed sexual harassment complaints against Besh and accusations that his company fostered a hostile work environment for women.

The Besh incident has been eye-popping for its specifics and the chain of events that followed, sidelining a chef who has been held up as an ambassador of the modern New Orleans culinary scene.

But it’s not hard to find service industry veterans who say the nature of the allegations echoes their own experiences.

Conversations among restaurant workers are rife with tales of sexism and harassment from employers, co-workers or customers, and some statistics paint the hospitality industry as particularly susceptible to these issues.

A 2014 report from the employee advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that 37 percent of all sexual harassment complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission originated in the restaurant industry, which employs just 7 percent of American women.

While details of the  complaints vary, women in the industry and others who study the issue point to a blend of cultural and institutional factors behind the prevalence in this field of work.

“For so many wait staff, a substantial part of their salary is tips from customers, and unless they please them they do not get paid,” said Tulane University law professor Tania Tetlow. “Combine that with a kitchen culture that has historically been very macho and too often drug-fueled, and you can get an environment where sexual harassment is incredibly normalized.”

'Push the limits'

The 2014 report included a survey, conducted with Cornell University, of restaurant workers in cities around the country, including New Orleans. It found that a “majority of women and nearly half of men surveyed had experienced uncomfortable or unwanted sexual behaviors in their workplace.”

The service industry is different from more corporate-oriented careers or office jobs, which is one reason some people are drawn to it. The workplace may be less structured and more social. Many employees in the sector are young and single. Alcohol is intrinsic to many parts of the business. Long shifts, close quarters and late hours are commonplace, and so are after-work outings and drinking.

“We go out, we drink after work. There’s a certain camaraderie at a lot of places,” said one woman who has worked as both a cook and a waitress at New Orleans restaurants, and who asked not to be named. “Inhibitions are loosened; hooking up is common. It blurs boundaries. The norms and values of professionalism are different in this business. There’s more talk about personal life and more overlap of work and personal life.”

Service industry workers themselves may be more vulnerable to harassment and abuse because their positions are often seen as transient and readily replaceable, said Schwartz, who left the restaurant business and founded My House Social, a company that connects small food businesses with events planners.

“People don’t necessarily see it as their real job,” she said. “There’s a lot of turnover. It’s a lot of young people looking to make some cash. People can be seen as very disposable. Feeling like nobody has your back is a big thing, that if you complain to a manager the manager is just going to be friends with the boss or whoever might be the issue.”

Chauvin, who is now manager at the Mid-City lounge Treo, said there can be pressure for women to prove themselves in a rough and tumble field.

“For women, you want to fit in. You want to be the cool girl who rolls with it all and lets everything slide off you. Sometimes that can mean taking on more than you want to,” she said.

While working at one French Quarter restaurant, Chauvin said, she went out with a group of co-workers after hours for a birthday celebration. They were partying hard, drinking heavily. She let a drunk co-worker stay at her apartment, and made a space for him to sleep on her sofa. Later, she said, he came into her bedroom and raped her. She was 18. She didn’t report the incident but quit her job soon after it happened. In recounting her story, she did not name the restaurant but said it had since closed.

“You’re encouraged to drink, party and push the limits. But when something happens, it’s about how you were dressed, what you were doing, how much you were drinking,” she said.

She has worked in many different restaurants and bars since then, and Chauvin said she’s learned to dismiss the notion that the business requires a “thick skin” to make it. 

“It’s not time for us to toughen up. It’s time for people to wake up,” she said. “It’s not about special treatment; it’s about just being a human. I think everyone in this business needs a heavy dose of empathy.”

'Crossing the line' 

Service industry people often talk about “crossing the line,” that boundary between the nonchalance of a looser, open workplace and inappropriate or abusive behavior.

Emily Miller started working in restaurant kitchens and then front-of-the-house positions while studying for a master’s degree at the University of New Orleans. She had already worked in office jobs, and the difference in the restaurant environment was eye-opening.

“A lot of it is a very gray area,” Miller said. “The kitchen to me felt like a boys club. It’s a system based on military structure. That macho attitude carries over, and you hear a lot of locker room stuff. Depending on your take on it and your rapport with co-workers, that could be what makes work really fun or it could be sexual harassment.”

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Tetlow said laws against sexual harassment are not meant to prevent workplace relationships or punish errant remarks, but to protect against systematic intimidation, discrimination and abuse.

“The crux of sexual harassment is that it’s unwelcome,” she said. “The law is about repeated and severe acts of unwelcome conduct. It’s not true that if you say the wrong thing one time, someone can come get you for it. It’s people who know what they’re doing and keep at it, or when it’s a quid pro quo.

Women comprise just over half of the service industry workforce in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But in interviews for this story, some women said they feel like outsiders within the sector, describing an everyday culture at some restaurants that marginalizes their work.

They expressed frustration with advancement opportunities, fear of retaliation for speaking up and little faith in avenues within some restaurants to report problems or have their voices heard. One revelation from the Besh Restaurant Group scandal was that the company, with some 1,200 employees and a dozen restaurants, only recently created a human resources department. 

Katie Juban cooked in restaurants in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., for close to 20 years before moving to Puerto Rico in 2016. (She has since evacuated from the hurricane-ravaged island.) She had a stint at Domenica, the upscale Italian eatery from the Besh Restaurant Group, and said the characterization of harassment in the workplace reported in the story reflected her own experience. It was also par for the course at less acclaimed eateries where she has worked.

“The image of the chef has been glamorized and fetishized, but what didn’t change was the gender disparity at the top, in leadership, and the attitude that you see so often that this is an OK way to treat other people,” Juban said. “Dudes in kitchens often have this thing. It’s jokes; it’s the way they talk. When it’s constant and tolerated, it encourages those who would take it further.”

A lack of accountability helps perpetuate the issues, she believes, and she blames a propensity of “bro culture guys” to overlook or even reward aggressive behavior toward co-workers.

“In the kitchen, as a woman, when you see something happen, there’s not always someone there you can talk to,” Juban said. “So you talk about it with your women friends in the business afterward, and the conversation usually ends with saying, 'Well, I guess we’re going to find another job or deal with it.' ”

Tipping points

The tipping system is an ingrained part of American restaurant culture, but it has been up for debate on a number of fronts. One problem is its potential to encourage sexism in the workplace.

“You get it from both sides,” said one New Orleans woman who asked not to be identified because she still works in a restaurant. “You’re dealing with people you work with, and you’re depending on people to tip you to make a living. I’ve been polite about things I probably wouldn’t be so polite about if it happened on the street. You’re thinking, 'I don’t want to offend this person because I need them to tip me.' ”

According to the National Restaurant Association, one in three American women gets her first job in a restaurant, and more than 60 percent of women have worked in a restaurant at some time in their lives.

To Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of the Restaurant Opportunities Center United, that gives the conditions women experience in these workplaces greater magnitude.

“This is where it starts,” Jayaraman said. “I’ve heard from women across the country who tell me, 'I’m a doctor or a teacher, I’ve been sexually harassed later on, but I didn’t report it because it wasn’t as bad as I experienced in restaurants early in my career.' This industry sets the standard for what women think is normal and what they’re going to complain about.”

She believes the wage issue is the key to a compromised power dynamic in restaurants that enables abuse.

“The most important part of this is the absurd wage structure,” said Jayaraman, whose group has advocated for replacing the tip-wage system with a higher minimum wage.

Some states, including California, where Jayaraman is based, have adopted higher minimum wages. A recent Harvard Business School study found that change contributed to more restaurant closures, but Jayaraman believes the policy can pay dividends in gender equity and fair treatment.

“Women who work in the restaurant industry in California go home knowing that even if they don’t want to put up with the craziness of some customers, they’ll still have a paycheck,” she said. “In Louisiana, which is the bottom of the barrel with the $2.13 (hourly wage for tipped employees), they don’t have that.”

Cultural shift change?

The Besh scandal arrives as sexual harassment allegations have come out against big names in other industries, and the issue is now reverberating around the restaurant world in particular.

Last week, the executive chef of the prominent Chicago restaurant group One Off Hospitality was fired for failing to take action after a “personal photo” of a female employee was shared among his staff, according to Chicago media reports. A manager at one of the restaurants was also fired in connection with the incident.

“The old mantra is that it’s ‘just kitchen culture,’ that it's ‘just the way it is.’ It is actively counterproductive to perpetuate that,” a spokeswoman for the restaurant company told the Chicago Tribune. “This is a societal issue, and as you see examples of people stepping up in other industries, it makes one optimistic that this pervasive culture can be changed.”

Anthony Bourdain, who parlayed the image of a “bad boy chef” from his sometimes raunchy memoir “Kitchen Confidential” into a television career, took to Twitter after the Besh news broke to deride the industry’s “institutionalized meathead culture.”

“I’ve had to ask myself, and I have been for some time, ‘To what extent in that book did I provide validation to meatheads?’ ” he told Slate in a subsequent interview.

Tetlow, the Tulane professor, believes the new attention to issues of sexism and harassment in the service industry has the potential to be a “cultural-shifting moment.”

“Culture change is hard. It takes soul searching on the part of everyone, not just the bosses,” she said. “If part of this is a culture where customers feel free to harass wait staff, restaurants can rethink some of those vulnerabilities. They can rethink how much they’re willing to rein in their customers, and say, 'We’re not going to ask people to put up with this as a condition of work.' New Orleanians can rethink the way they act and if they’re part of it.”

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.