The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I’m a female chef. Here’s how my restaurant dealt with harassment from customers.

STOCK IMAGE: Typical kitchen of a restaurant shot in operation, toned image (iStock)

Erin Wade is a chef, restaurateur and co-author of “The Mac + Cheese Cookbook.”

As a female chef, I am disheartened to open the paper and see the latest news of male chefs behaving badly. Mario Batali , John Besh , Ken Friedman . . . every day it seems to be someone new. Although it is encouraging to see men finally being called out for inappropriate behavior, it’s less so that the focus is still, frankly, on men . How did they react? What will happen to their empires? What’s needed is a conversation about women — not as victims, but as revolutionaries. I am an overtly feminist restaurateur, and harassment still happened at my restaurant. This is my story, my solution and my call to action.

I am co-founder and chief executive of a mac-and-cheese restaurant in Oakland, Calif., called Homeroom. Homeroom’s stated mission is to be the best part of people’s day for both guests and staff, and we are committed to building a restaurant culture that is inclusive, diverse and counter to many damaging industry norms. I thought we were doing an excellent job until three years ago, when I received a flood of emails from staff labeled “harassment” and requesting a meeting with me. I was terrified.

On Friday, October 27, José Andrés and Alice Waters, the world-renowned chefs and food activists, sat down for a joint interview with The Washington Post’s Food Anchor Mary Beth Albright. Waters, the founder of the iconic California restaurant, Chez Panisse, and an early advocate of the organic and farm-to-table food movement, discussed her new memoir, “Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook.” She also spoke about her decades of advocacy for local, sustainable agriculture and her ongoing work with the Edible Schoolyard Project, which aims to promote an edible education curriculum. She was joined on stage by Andrés, the chef/owner of the 26-restaurant ThinkFoodGroup. Andrés spoke about his work on food and hunger issues as well as his recent disaster relief efforts in Puerto Rico with World Central Kitchen. (Video: Washington Post Live)

The catalyst was a customer — ­ a father of four who had put his hand up the shirt of a busser clearing his family’s table. The busser was so stunned she didn’t report it, but the event sparked a flood of reactions from staff members who’d had similar experiences. At our meeting, women shared stories about harassment from customers and said that when they tried to report it to male managers, they were often ignored because the incidents seemed unthreatening through a male lens.

I went home and started bawling. I couldn’t believe this was happening right under my nose. We reconvened for a problem-solving session: We knew that we had to create something that didn’t rely on men making judgment calls on women’s stories, because it was clear that system was failing all of us.

We decided on a color-coded system in which different types of customer behavior are categorized as yellow, orange or red. Yellow refers to a creepy vibe or unsavory look. Orange means comments with sexual undertones, such as certain compliments on a worker’s appearance. Red signals overtly sexual comments or touching, or repeated incidents in the orange category after being told the comments were unwelcome.

When a staff member has a harassment problem, they report the color — “I have an orange at table five” — and the manager is required to take a specific action. If red is reported, the customer is ejected from the restaurant. Orange means the manager takes over the table. With a yellow, the manager must take over the table if the staff member chooses. In all cases, the manager’s response is automatic, no questions asked. (At the time of our meeting, all our shift managers were men, though their supervisors were women; something else we’ve achieved since then is diversifying each layer of management.)

In the years since implementation, customer harassment has ceased to be a problem. Reds are nearly nonexistent, as most sketchy customers seem to be derailed at yellow or orange. We found that most customers test the waters before escalating and that women have a canny sixth sense for unwanted attention. When reds do occur, our employees are empowered to act decisively.

The color system is elegant because it prevents women from having to relive damaging stories and relieves managers of having to make difficult judgment calls about situations that might not seem threatening based on their own experiences. The system acknowledges the differences in the ways men and women experience the world, while creating a safe workplace.

The kind of behavior now being widely exposed has gone on for as long as business has existed. For just as long, many women have been toiling to change the culture. Theirs are the stories we rarely hear, and it is time they are spoken. Instead of discussing the misbehavior of men, let’s start exposing the great work of women around the country to create more inclusive places for us all to work.

This is just one story from one restaurant — but I know there are others. The revolution we need is not just ousting powerful men behaving badly, but also elevating the status of women behaving well.

Women of America’s businesses — please share your suggestions for solving the problems plaguing your workplace. This moment is ours — let’s take hold of it and make the world listen.

Read more:

16 leaders on their one best idea for ending sexual harassment

Experts gave their best ideas for ending harassment. Here are yours.

Donna Lenhoff: The #MeToo movement will be in vain if we don’t make these changes

Mary Shannon Little: It’s not just Fox: What every working woman knows about sexual harassment

Karissa Fenwick: I was sexually harassed. Question my story.