Sara Dye

In Need of Reform

In Eat, July/August 2020 by Jane PorterLeave a Comment

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The restaurant industry as a whole needs big structural change; in Raleigh, the conversations are happening and the work is getting started.

Early last month, Sara Dye, who once managed the bookstore located within Brewery Bhavana, shared a post about her former employer on her public Instagram page.

What followed was as if a snow globe containing Raleigh’s cherished downtown brewery and sister restaurant, Bida Manda, was shaken up until all of its pieces came loose. The snowflakes swirled and then settled. But the image of a seemingly socially conscious, nationally recognized company lauded for its food and beer, its alluring aesthetic, touching origin story and workforce of some 200 “bright” and “shining lights,” as employees were referred to in company social media posts, lies broken in pieces.

Dye’s June 6 post detailing a botched managerial response to her account of being groped by a drunk co-worker spurred a flurry of harassment and abuse allegations in and outside the workplace from current and former employees. These allegations implicated people in charge and included accounts of racist bullying, inappropriate comments and encounters, emotional manipulation and mishandled management of interpersonal conflicts. 

To outsiders, the allegations are shocking but to many entrenched in Raleigh’s bar and restaurant scene, they were something of an open secret. Worse, they’re also likely not personally unfamiliar. Commonly cited statistics from a survey of more than 600 restaurant workers from the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Center United put the number of workers who experience sexual violence on the job at 60 percent; some 80 percent reported experiencing sexual harassment from co-workers and 66 percent said they experienced sexual harassment from management. Two out of every five federal sexual harassment complaints arise from the food and beverage industry. 

“There was room for so much error,” says Dye in response to a question about systems in place at Brewery Bhavana that could have prevented, or effectively addressed, the issues that plagued the company. “In a place like that, and I assume it is similar in most restaurants because of all the interpersonal relationships, whether friendships or romantic … it makes it so difficult to untangle situations, to handle situations, when there should be a clear and direct course of action and there is not.”

The upheaval at Bhavana came on top of an already tough few months for the restaurant industry locally and nationally. Beginning in March, when the state closed restaurant dining rooms due to the coronavirus outbreak, thousands of hourly workers suddenly found themselves without jobs. Even as restaurants began reopening to diners again, many employees feared returning to work, getting sick and infecting compromised family members or not being able to take sick leave. Many don’t have health insurance. 

Max Trujillo

“There’s definitely a lot going on to reveal a poorly structured food and beverage industry,” says Max Trujillo, an industry veteran and co-host of the NC Food and Beverage podcast. Coronavirus shone a light on these issues, but the good news is, in Raleigh at least, there are businesses working to address some of the structural problems and inequities.

Last month, the restaurant group that owns Cary’s kō•än and so•ca in Cameron Village, renamed hospitality•NOW, reopened to diners. The group donated all of its Juneteenth opening day proceeds to the NAACP and Black Lives Matter Bailfund campaign. For all of its workers, the company instituted a minimum $15-per hour wage and guaranteed paid sick leave. It will soon offer health insurance. A new, 10 percent sustainable hospitality charge helps cover costs. Tips, which are still encouraged, will be redistributed among front- and back-of-house staff.

“The coronavirus maybe exposed a bunch of weakness and we feel that a lot of these issues and crises we are seeing now are connected,” says company owner Sean Degnan. “It forced us to stop and look in the mirror for a second.”

Degnan says he is confident the new pay structure will work for his restaurants, noting that hospitality•NOW joins “a club of places that are doing this, like all over Europe, and in better, higher-end restaurants here that plan on being around a long time.”

Sean Degnan
Sean Degnan

In Raleigh’s Gateway Plaza, Union Special—a bakery and cafe that has paid its hourly workers a minimum of $15 since it opened last summer—is proof that, while there are plenty of naysayers within the food and beverage industry, a living wage model for restaurants can work. In fact, owner Andrew Ullom says, it’s a model he truly believes can be made to work in any restaurant. 

“There are ways restaurants can operate that just need to be implemented so they can work more efficiently,” says Ullom. Paying workers a fair wage, he says, makes them more likely to stick around for the long haul, reducing turnover and the time and expenses involved in constantly hiring and training new staff. 

“Maybe the future of restaurant dining will change, and I hope it does, because it creates disparities,” says Ullom. “It pays to pay people an extra dollar or two so that they can work one job, be able to sleep at night and you can have a small business that works for the community you serve. The one we serve includes the people who show up every day to work in hourly positions.”

David Meeker, co-owner of Trophy Brewing and the bottle shop State of Beer, says his company plans to increase the minimum wage for its hourly workers (with the exception of tipped servers) too, from $11 to $13 an hour, and will implement a sick leave policy as soon as the businesses reopen to the public. 

David Meeker
David Meeker

“We realized who is most essential right now and that’s our dishwasher, generally the lowest paid person in our restaurants,” Meeker says. “We’re interested in moving away from a tips [system], where everyone gets paid more per hour. We haven’t seen a system that works yet, but think there might be one that comes out of this, so we’re going to pay attention. And if there’s something that works, we’re going to take a serious look at it.” 

Of course, as what happened at Brewery Bhavana has shown, it’s not just low pay and no benefits or protections that leave restaurant industry workers vulnerable and open to exploitation. Restaurants, bars and small businesses in general need systems in place to ensure their workers are safe from harassment, abuse and other misconduct on the job, but for small businesses with limited means, that’s easier said than done. There’s also not a consensus on what these measures should look like. 

Dye says looking back at the employee handbook from Brewery Bhavana, there were instructions on what to do when problems arose but no clear guidance on how such problems would be addressed beyond talking it over with the “president” of the company, Van Nolintha, who was also a co-owner, manager and the source of at least some of the issues within the business. There were attempts at designating a human resources consultant, both third party and from within the company, Dye says, but that didn’t prove to be a workable solution either. 

“If someone goes to [the HR specialist] with a complaint, or a conflict or in the event that something happened, if they’re a third party and not employed by the company, then all they will do is take the issue to the owner,” Dye says. “So what is really resulting there?”

One thing restaurant workers and owners seem to agree on is that transparency and communication are key to preventing abuse on the job, as well as to addressing issues as they arise. And, if your voice isn’t being heard at work, workers shouldn’t be afraid to take their grievances public, as Dye did.

“Speak up,” says Trujillo. “We have our individual voices, on social media, in publications, on podcasts, friends we can talk to. So many times the ones harassed feel ashamed, like it’s their fault when it is clearly not. Clear communication, transparency … what’s happening [within a business] needs to be out there at all times.”

Union Special’s Ullom says he takes this approach at his business from the very beginning.

“In our interview process we make a point to say specifically, ‘If you do something to make someone else uncomfortable, you are fired immediately,’” he says. “There is zero tolerance for that and the fact that we talk about it immediately helps.” 

Andrew Ullom
Andrew Ullom

Ullom says he has only had to fire two employees. He had a conversation with his entire staff afterwards to address the reasons why. They’re the kinds of conversations, he says, that the restaurant industry needs to be having on a larger scale, especially now, especially here in Raleigh.

“We need to keep this conversation open and not let sexual assault go by the wayside, not let racial inequity go by the wayside,” Ullom says. “This has brought up hard memories and unless we deal with this now, nothing gets better. We’re social distancing, but this is a great time to talk about it, to start understanding there are a lot of people going through this, from a lot of different backgrounds. It’s time to pay attention.”

Dye, whose Instagram words caused some of the first cracks in a carefully cultivated façade, has remained a part of the dialogue. She left Brewery Bhavana at the end of 2018 but says she remains close to former co-workers.

“It’s so tough,” she says. “I look back often and wonder if things could have played out differently. Had there been a system in place, what would have happened? Would I still work there, would I not? I’ve had so many conversations since this all came to light about what bars and restaurants can do better. About how they can provide safe spaces for their employees.”

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