Canadian restaurant industry shaken, but not stirred, by spotlight on sexual harassment

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Recently, Canadian workplace culture was in the headlines again in yet another high profile exposé by the Toronto Star.

Only this time it wasn't a newsroom.

In chronicling the sexual harassment case of pastry chef Kate Burnham, however, the story nonetheless carried unsettlling whiffs of déja-vu. It painted yet another cultural landscape where top dogs -- mythologized, entitled yet obscured from public view -- wielded influence with free reign.

Burnham is suing her former employer, Weslodge, for an ongoing slate of sexual harassment incidents over a span of 16 months.

Like "host culture," the moniker born out of recent scandals at our nation's public broadcaster, the Weslodge fiasco ultimately created "kitchen culture," social media shorthand for a resto realm steeped in patriarchal foundations.

And like the CBC exposés, the Weslodge aftermath could be traced along certain well-trodden digital paths. There was a Twitterstorm. An industry hero and quickly patented villain. There was the meagre, PR response and lost sponsors. Even a feature on Canadaland.

However, social media fault lines are reductive. In this case, they almost shoot straight past the very heart of the issue, whose underlying social costs are systemic: political, economic and social.

Mythical kitchens amidst systemic harassment

In the Fall of 2014, a widely cited study reported that 90 per cent of female restaurant workers experience sexual harassment in the workplace. Yet recent headlines provide more evidence that harassment in restaurants is systemic and widespread. Chefs such as Andrea Carlson, the chef and owner of Burdock & Co, have revealed that the issue is far-flung.

Yet beyond some short-lived headlines, there's been little debate amongst every day eaters. Public apathy is startling when you consider that nearly one in four British Columbians are restaurant workers at some point during their life.

Paradoxically, as Canadians, we've hungered more and more for celebrity chefdom, sparking a spike in celeb cooks and food TV. The end result, it must be said, is rather convenient. We get to be spectators to a mythologized and glossy kitchen culture -- which bears little resemblance to the real life grind of those who cook to get by. Rock star chefs have always been the product of audiences, even used to justify kitchen sexism, rather than address its root cause.

Canadian restaurant kitchens may, indeed, be militaristic by nature, as pointed out in a CBC debate following the story. After all, French chef Éscoffier founded the resto team as a "brigade," and the military model still forms the backbone of Western kitchens today.

Yet even such origin stories ring hollow, when even the Canadian Armed Forces have in some ways been more progressive; they've been publicly addressing sexism, harassment and intimidation within their ranks for some time. The point is not whether such efforts are working or failing, it's that they've been acknowledged, and therefore debated, by average Canadians.

Meanwhile, the discussion on restaurant industry sexual harassment has barely begun.

Vancouver and B.C. industry carry high risk, social costs

Just as culinary brigades are rigid and hierarchical, the industry is wildly unstable.

Restaurant closure rates are highest in B.C., and on the rise in Canada over the past 10 years. This in a sector that is also third across Canada for bankruptcy, with insolvency rates sky-high at 8.3 per cent.

Such instability may be perpetually alluring to eaters and aspiring restauranteurs, but it carries very real social and economic costs for workers. Indeed, it's often entry-level employees -- including a massive new cohort dedicated to real culinary careers -- that seem to bear the brunt of this wild rocking ship.

It's a particularly significant factor to British Columbians, where nearly one in four people work in a restaurant at some point in their life.

Yet basic labour questions such as minimum wage, unionization and tipping -- hardly risqué in similar hospitality and cultural sectors -- remain controversial even when posed.

Tipped employees have a special lower minimum wage in most provinces. Yet as B.C. eyes a minimum wage increase, restaurants in Vancouver remain firmly opposed, even to the lower range. Tipping leads to serious economic instability, with an Economic Policy Institute study claiming that upwards of 40 per cent of (U.S.) restaurant employees live in poverty.

"The trouble with relying on tips to reach the level of a livable wage, of course, is that it doesn't always make it there," says Joshua Ostroff in the Huffington Post. Meanwhile, though "taboo" and underreported, certain forthright restos have tested no-tip policies, compensating servers with cognate hospitality jobs. Most, unsurprisingly, showed higher employee satisfaction and longer-term engagement.

When it comes to unionization, Vancouver's high percentage of resto workers are also out of luck. The province boasts the second lowest rate of unionized food service employees, at eight per cent, and multiple efforts have failed, prompting the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) to fight for a living wage for restaurant employees at Vancouver's City Council.

All this in spite of the fact that industry professionalization has surged, with more aspiring chefs and service staff entering the field with long-term aspirations. Armed with degrees yet devoid of experience, the desire to impress creates a recipe for being taken advantage of socially and economically.

Though restaurant risk is often equated with entrepeneurial independence, for workers at Vancouver restaurants, taxes and regulations ensure something of the opposite. A litany of taxes, permits and fees are crippling razor-thin margins in Vancouver, the second lowest in B.C., according to a recent Vancourier article. Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the BC Restaurant & Foodservices Association (BCFRA), was quoted in Business Vancouver as saying, "B.C. is the worst-performing [restaurant industry] in all of Canada." In a BCRFA report, HST was cited as a primary factor.

Instability has real consequences, which in reality are a blur of economic and social, long-term issue is due, at least in part, to the fact that the cultural mystique around restaurants is so strong and regulation is so tight.

It's a vicious circle that seems to benefit no one.

To be sure, stories like Weslodge have poked an age-old industry bubble, and that's momentous in itself.

Let's just keep our eyes open and remember that a culture shaken is not the same as one truly stirred.


Joshua Davidson works as a communications consultant in Montréal. He also teaches and recently launched Medium Rare: a podcast on issues at the intersection of media and food. Full disclosure: he has previously worked on a freelance basis for Food Secure Canada.

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