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Chef Erin Wade on tackling harassment

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The Oakland-based chef tells Tina Nielsen helping front-of-house staff feel safe is all part of an inclusive and collaborative company culture

A former employment lawyer, Erin Wade opened her restaurant Homeroom in Oakland, California, in 2011. Her epiphany came when after a long ay at work she craved mac and cheese, which she could not find in any restaurant. Her solution? To open her own. Today Homeroom has two branches, one full-service with 14 versions of Mac and Cheese on the menu, and another for take-out only.

Recent news about sexual harassment in restaurants and the foodservice industry has focused on the kitchen, but Wade has focused on eradicating harassment of front of the house staff with Not on the Menu, an initiative she calls a color code of conduct that is now being adopted by other restaurants.

What made you open a restaurant?

Erin Wade (EW): Before ever becoming a lawyer I had worked in restaurants as a line cook. I had been passionate about food but working in kitchens was very low paid and people don’t treat you so well, so I left and became a lawyer. But I hated the job, so when I decided to start my own restaurant I was more excited about creating the kind of culture that I wish had existed in restaurants I worked in so I would have wanted to stay doing it.

What was the hardest thing about opening Homeroom?

EW: There was no financing available – there still isn’t today. I have perfect credit and I was an Ivy league educated lawyer and I couldn’t get a loan. Banks tell me restaurants are such high risk they won’t lend you money unless you have opened one already.

I had to take all my life savings and four credit cards that I maxed out. I built everything – chairs, tables, the bar – with friends. When Homeroom opened there was only two weeks of operating expenses in the bank, so if it had not been an immediate success it would have closed. Thank God people wanted mac and cheese…

How did Not on the Menu come about?

EW: It is a practice we adopted five years ago when we had an incident where a customer was inappropriate and touched a staff member. I got an outpouring from female staff complaining they were being harassed by customers. We had this really healthy company culture internally but had never contemplated that people would get harassed externally. I invited everyone who complained and to have a problem solving session. We came up with this system that we have used ever since then. We realized that at the time women were sometimes complaining to their manager but often if it was a male manager whatever the women were describing they may decide it was unthreatening. They would make a judgement call.

We have a positive culture and sensitive men working here so I thought if these men don’t go it no man will get it.

What was the solution?

EW: We had to create a system that didn’t include judgement calls, so we came up with what I call the color code of conduct. It categorises three different kinds of behavior into three different colors.

A yellow is a just a creepy vibe, where you get a bad feeling. An orange is a creepy vibe plus physical ambiguous language, commenting on what you wear for example. Someone could say that and it could be benign or it could be super gross depending on the way they look at you. Red is an overtly sexual comment – “you look sexy” – or touching.

All the staff member has to say is the color. They just say “I have an orange on table 2” – for a yellow or orange a manager takes over the table and in the case of a red a manager takes over the table and ejects the customer.

How does it work?

EW: At the time we had the issues, all the women who attended the meeting had a red and these days we have maybe one a year. This has helped curb harassment because of the way human behavior works. Very few people walk in and stick their hands up someone’s skirt. It is a gradual thing, they walk in make a low level comment to see how it is tolerated and they test the waters and then they escalate. So by having a system that changes the power dynamic at low levels of behavior when it is starting to get a little weird, it stops the bad thing from happening.

How do you know the system is not being abused?

EW: Other restaurants have asked, “what happens if a server uses this all the time so the manager has to take tables all the time?” Then you have a company culture problem. That is not a system problem. There is something off in the company culture.

Like any system there are ways it can be abused but if that is happening, just like any other systems you have, you might need to have a conversation with someone.

So, building a strong culture is at the core?

EW: Yes. The system works 100% of the time if you use it but the danger is people not using it because they have broken company cultures. We consider ourselves a feminist company and 95% of our leadership team are women and people of color and I think that helps too. We have untraditional power dynamics and women and people of color are the most likely to be harassed and abused so if they see people like that on our management team they feel comfortable talking to them and that is not true of most restaurants.

There are things that have helped that are part of our company culture that have made this successful but I think other companies should aim for those things as well.

There has so far been a focus on harassment in the kitchen, not front of the house. Why?

EW: I think it is a mistake. Don’t get me wrong, it is super gross when famous guys do stuff, but statistically really awful stuff is happens way more often to your average server by your average customer. It is a less sexy problem but a bigger problem.

Yes, there is a huge issue of internal sexual harassment that runs very deep in this industry, but your staff comes into contact with thousands of people every week and that is where numerically and statistically you are having way more harassment all the time. This is a really big step in the right direction; it doesn’t solve everything but it solves a lot.

How can your experience help others?

EW: Just teaching people about the system, it doesn’t take long to train people. We designed a poster and a ‘zine. Every restaurant has a wall of useless legal posters that they are required to have and we made a nice poster that is easy to read, has attractive pictures and make it simple to understand. The zine is intended to be a companion piece to help people understand. It has script in there for managers to use if they need to kick someone out, explain how the system works. It’s a way to make it more interesting because the issue is hard and we want to make it digestible.

Tina Nielsen