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When restaurants are toxic, everyone’s complicit

An open letter to restaurant owners, patrons, and all those who enjoy paying to have someone bring them their food.

An open letter to restaurant owners, patrons, and all those who enjoy paying to have someone bring them their food.

Illustration by Shaysa Sidebottom.

CW and note: This letter contains descriptions of sexual harassment, violence, and abuse. I do not speak for everyone in every restaurant, but to my experience in the Madison restaurant scene. I do not speak for my former co-workers and opinions around this subject will vary. I hope that by sharing my experience and offering a call to action that others will feel empowered to do so in ways that work for them.

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I move through my city and I don’t think I see it the way some people do. At least definitely not the rich people who live here do. I am sure of it. Or, I don’t see it the way academic people or the heady tech people do, or people who haven’t had to work in restaurants. I don’t see the glimmering lights or the romance of new couples holding hands as they walk to Graze. I don’t see the delightfulness in coupe glasses or the neatness of a folded napkin. I am never mad about the tiny speck I can’t identify on my plate. I don’t look at the Capitol after a very expensive meal on the Square and think, “Wow, I live here! This city is mine.” In fact, as time goes on, it becomes more and more apparent that this city is not for anyone who lives below a certain annual income level.

I started my nearly 14 years in the service industry at a hibachi restaurant when I was only 17 years old. I worked there every weekend through college, coming home from art school in Milwaukee, just to make an unreasonable amount of rent money very quickly. I smelled of grill smoke and turpentine the whole time. After college, I returned to Madison and worked at a pizza place, where I served and managed for a few years. I also managed a few years at a sushi restaurant. I hosted and served and did some very light management at Merchant for the better half of seven years. 

In 2018, I applied for and received a job outside of restaurant work: a UW-Madison marketing position. It was a blessing at the time, but despite that blessing, I kept hosting at Merchant, because, well, I liked hosting. I loved Merchant. I loved being in a restaurant. It was all I really knew.

When I started working in an academic setting I was on edge constantly. I had to be told to relax at one point, or that I could relax, because I was so concerned I was not making the most of my time. I would stress about getting to work late. When I was there and I didn’t have anything to do, I would panic. I had this mentality of there is always something to do. My boss, who may not remember, told me that sometimes there is nothing to do. I could use that time for professional development. A concept I had never heard of. I don’t work for UW-Madison any longer, but it took me a year to undo the conditioned behavior I had learned at restaurants. If you work in a restaurant where people care, then you are constantly moving, constantly doing something, and the risk of being yelled at is very high.

All that being said, let me tell you why I am poorly conditioned to respond in certain ways to work environments. Or rather, let me tell you what I saw when I was knee-deep in a two-hour wait list that ended with an adult White man yelling at me in front of his children because I didn’t have their table ready (not a one-time occurrence, at all). 

It isn’t private knowledge to restaurant workers that restaurants are very stressful and often toxic places to work. It might be private knowledge to the man who comes in with his three business partners and demands that we, the servers, know exactly what they want without them even telling us. But it isn’t private to us. What is also not private knowledge to us is that our restaurant owners—much like the rich patrons who ignore us when we ask, “how is everything?”—are culpable in the culture that is created. 

Many of the restaurant owners you know are the rich people who go out to eat in Madison. Many of them believe they are, you know, like their employees: working for the same reasons, passionate about culinary practices, and excited about food and alcohol. The difference is, a good chunk of restaurant owners go home at night to their families or out with their friends to eat. They take home a profit without ever being yelled at by an angry mother who says she spends thousands of dollars a year at your restaurant and it’s absurd you don’t have a table available for her to reserve one week before UW-Madison graduation.

That’s not to say there aren’t restaurant owners busting ass in this city. In fact, I know there are. I can think of a list off the top of my head of some amazing, hard working, wonderful, in-the-kitchen and on-the-floor owners who are doing their best to also make ends meet while doing something they are passionate about. I know that some owners, even very wealthy ones, do stay late and work very hard on their businesses. But I also know that those owners who work closely with their staff also get wrapped up in the culture of power plays, addiction, late nights, verbal abuse, and coercion. 

I’ve had restaurant owners punch walls in front of me, throw silverware, become uncontrollably angry, and even swear at me an inch from my face. I’ve seen owners call out employees at all staff meetings for petty mistakes, ask employees who they think should be fired, and show up drunk to the middle of a brunch shift just to disrupt it and put the staff on edge. I have seen managers do the same things, because when an owner does it, a manager can get away with it. Right? And when the managers become chummy with staff, then the staff can get away with it, too. Right? Then at the staff holiday party we will all get drunk together, maybe stay out late at someone’s house, reconcile for an evening, and bond over our shared hatred for the people profiting off of our work. Then in the morning it starts all over again.

I have seen the problem. I have been the problem. I have loved the problem. Sitting at the bar with all-you-can-drink whiskey, a free cocktail, and waiting until everyone gets off work. I’ve taken home tap beer in to-go cups, agreed not to say we stayed late at the restaurant drinking, and I’ve been solicited for oral sex by a drunk co-manager while locked in their car. I’ve had a co-worker sit too close to me at the bar and place my hand on his erect penis, where no one could see. I was once cornered in the office at one restaurant by a coworker who was off-shift and drunk. He grabbed my face and kissed me, suggesting we close the door. I had once been offered by another male coworker to join him in the back hallway after a shift. I snuck out the back door instead. I recall a time when I was serving with two other servers who were in a personal conflict. They were arguing loudly while running plates of hot food and one of them turned to the other and said, “why don’t you go kill yourself,” in the middle of a busy dinner shift. I am certain, with great heartache, that someone I have worked with can pull a hurtful memory of me from their mind and feel just as terrible as I do recalling my own memories.

The one of two times I broke my no-coworker rule and dated a chef, he ended up being fired for threatening to kill the head chef and then proceeded to show up at the restaurant uninvited. He would threaten to hurt himself and me. When things got THAT serious, as if the other things that happened to me were not serious, I had support from my managers. To be honest, there is a lot more. A lot that I never reported, because it was easier not to. You can imagine how horrible it is to hear that a person in a powerful position, such as owning a restaurant, has been abusive to people in their immediate circles. It feels as though we hear it time and time again. 

I write this having recently heard another case of abuse from a restaurant owner. Merchant co-founder Patrick Sweeney currently faces criminal charges in a domestic abuse and stalking case and is “stepping down” from his restaurant group, Rule No. One Hospitality. I don’t feel at liberty to speak specifically to on-going legal issues or Sweeney’s behavior, or to offer you, my beloved reader, more than is necessary. What I will say is that it isn’t just this one person who owns a restaurant who has caused harm. There are more that we know about and don’t know about yet. It isn’t just restaurant owners. It’s management, too. A 2018 Capital Times story in which I’m quoted documented a range of abuse and harassment in Madison’s celebrated restaurant industry.

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I shake as I write this because the body keeps the score. It doesn’t forget unwelcomed hands, verbal threats, the sound of a plate smashing on the ground, or the sound of an adult man screaming from the kitchen. The body also knows that it doesn’t stop until someone makes it stop. That unless the abuser is held accountable, they will keep coming back for more. 

The body remembers all of its previously experienced harm as it reads the familiar name of a restaurant owner, who you have heard plenty of horror stories about over the years, is being charged with a felony. It remembers seeing him very drunk and aggressive at the restaurant he owns. It remembers harmful encounters that friends have had with him. 

If you’ve been in a relationship with someone who was constantly manipulating situations to have the upper hand, you get it. You understand the fear of reading a familiar name in the news, the allegations of violence and harassment, and it makes you worry for everyone involved. The fear is a physical response as much as it is emotional. What people are capable of when they have power, especially in a setting like restaurants, is extraordinary. 

The truth is, and no matter how many times this particular restaurant owner tries to write it over, this kind of harm from this kind of person is not new news. People caught abusing privilege and power often dismiss other people’s concerns and seek to defend their own behavior. They claim their accusers don’t know what they’re talking about. The erasure and lack of validation for the experiences of the individuals harmed is tell-tale predatory and manipulator behavior. They portray as weak or unqualified those who’ve failed to comply and kneel before their aggression. 

Restaurant workers have begun to talk more openly online about restaurant owners who’ve been aggressive with their management or staff. That’s one of the complex beauties of social media: those harmed can speak their truth in a semi-protected way. They are able to call on their community for assistance and security. The restaurant owners called out for their behavior, and their enablers, can deny it all they want and blame their personal demons. No matter, the harm is done. 

In the Madison restaurant scene, enablers run alongside abusers. Those left to pick up the pieces of their colleagues’ violent mistakes will find some way to wisely write it off as being a private matter or due to personal reasons. In a trickle-down effect, we have all suffered the effects of these behaviors time and time again. Whenever a restaurant owner does something horrific, their behaviors affect the entire staff of the restaurants that they own as well as the lives of their friends and family. In turn, it has also triggered many former employees. Certainly we can never know what happens in a person’s private relationship or the decisions they decide to make outside of their place of business. What we can say for sure is that, as Jenny Holzer has said, the abuse of power comes as no surprise.

You might be at this point of my letter and are wondering why I am writing this. Why is this letter for you? Because we know that restaurant owners get away with mistreating their employees and this has to stop. Not just a few people who’ve been outed publicly, but other people who own restaurants and disregard basic human decency in the running of their business. For everyone who’s faced some degree of accountability, there is another person in another restaurant in this city doing very similar things. At the end of that violence is someone who is not sure how to get out. Perhaps this someone thinks this behavior is normal, because they’ve been conditioned to think so. I certainly thought it was normal for my male coworkers to solicit me for sexual favors, normal to be pitted against my female coworkers, normal to drink as heavily as we all did, normal to ignore the signs of mental illness, and to compete for shifts and the general affections of managers and owners just to survive the work week. I think of two chefs I have worked with who are no longer with us because of the heaviness of the world, personal struggles, and the burden of the work we would do. Perhaps because of the unaddressed stigmas of mental illness and addiction. 

So, reader, I am asking you to participate in undoing this service industry culture which you, despite being unaware, are fully responsible for participating in.

How do we do it? First, we demand that abusive and harmful restaurant owners divest from their roles and make no profit from anything they’ve previously been a part of. We must afford their business partners the opportunity to do what is right for their community: hold their colleagues accountable for the harm they have caused. We follow up with co-owners and managers and we ask for documentation. It’s important that we do this, because there is word that it has been promised before and it has never been delivered. In fact we’ve seen it here in Madison before. Not only in restaurants, but in other small businesses and in the DIY music scene. Harmful community members claim they’re working on something and six months later they’re back with a new project. That’s not, in my opinion, how accountability and growth beyond harm works. If we need to press things further, we ask that any business partners culpable in enabling someone who has caused great harm also be held accountable and also divest from the businesses they profit from. Here is the thing about this big wonderful, booming city of Madison that you live in: there are harmful people behind many businesses you give your money to. It is when you find out about their harm that you can hold them accountable.

What about the employees? As someone who was present the year that Merchant opted to ban durags and other specific apparel, a blatantly racist act owners and managers used to “improve” the crowd at late-night parties, I one hundred percent believe you need to leave the employees alone. Employees are there for their livelihoods. They are not decision makers. Employees of harmful business owners need your absolute grace, and your cash tips if feasible. This pandemic has been especially hard for the restaurant industry. Harassing employees does nothing toward aiding in accountability and doesn’t even touch non-present owners. Yes, a lot of restaurant owners don’t even see their staff day-to-day. If you have or know of a job you can extend to employees of a business whose ownership is causing great harm, extend that position. If you can tip extra, tip extra. If you can, keep pressing and disrupting the work flow of the owners. I beg my entire community to hear me when I say: employees need you to care about them. You need to care about how you approach conflict. These individuals are dealing with enough.

If you’ve read this far, I give you my greatest thanks for your patience, for your eyes, for your mind, and for the support I hope you will give everyone who has been affected for years by abusive ownership. Harm can sometimes be overstated. In this case, I fully believe those individuals who have been harmed by restaurant owners and management in Madison over the last decade or more, and I believe there is no overstatement here. However, so-called “cancel culture” is quickly going out of style, it is not the answer, and it is not going to prevent wealthy people in power positions from abusing their power. It isn’t going to bring us together, either. What will help is accountability, transparency, and mutual aid. 

We cannot let one man burn his house down with everyone he claims to care about inside of it. We must get everyone out of that house and, as hard as it may be, get that man out of that house, too. Because this restaurant owner is a human who has experienced personal loss, addiction, grief, and in order for him to stop the cycle of harm he must be given the tools to do so. He must be shown that he cannot buy his privileges and freedoms. His position has been a privilege he has abused. That’s why it is pertinent that we, the community, demand that his friends and his business partners stop enabling him and hold him responsible for his actions.

My anger is real. I can feel it so heavily within me. Within my shaking hands, my hot face, and my swiftly-approaching headache. But still, I look back at my years serving and managing and I relish in some beautiful moments. Some truly deep and beautiful friendships that I have had. Drinking tea in the office at 9 a.m. with my beloved GM or closing a really late weekend shift with my fellow managers and heading to Paul’s Club. A chef who I loved dearly and spent many wonderful months seeing, sneaking through back halls just for him to give me back the earrings I left at his house, because the owner said we couldn’t see each other. Or sitting on the Merchant patio after work, laughing over drinks with my fellow servers. All cigarettes and lake breeze cooling through the night. Showing up to a shift and seeing my sweet friend running food and my amazing floor manager polishing silverware, even though she was busy managing. Or my favorite chef, who always did favors for me as I did for him, smiling at me from behind the line. A time that is so far gone now. A time that I wish I could still be in, for better or for worse, with the people who also understood fully what I was going through. 

There is something so special about working at a restaurant. I wish that I still saw the charm in the edge of a knife on a napkin on a wooden table in the banquette of a restaurant where white string lights hang in the window, or the smell of herbs and oils frying,  or the sound of bartenders shaking their cocktails. I wish so deeply that I wasn’t heartbroken and longing all at once. If two things can be true at once, many things can be true all the time. The question is, how are you going to hold them all?

With all my love,

Alejandra Perez

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