Work After #MeToo: A Restaurant Company Tries To Change Its Culture : The Salt It's been a year since sexual harassment allegations toppled celebrity chef John Besh. His restaurant group, now led by a woman, has been trying to change a toxic workplace one policy at a time.
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Work After #MeToo: A Restaurant Company Tries To Change Its Culture

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Work After #MeToo: A Restaurant Company Tries To Change Its Culture

Work After #MeToo: A Restaurant Company Tries To Change Its Culture

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now we have the story of what happened to a business after it was forced to change its leadership. John Besh was arguably the best known chef in New Orleans. And he was also the owner of a New Orleans restaurant group. Then he was accused of sexual harassment. He's hardly the only top executive to go during the #MeToo movement. Many entertainment and finance and media companies, including NPR, have dismissed executives. NPR's Yuki Noguchi followed up on what happened at those New Orleans restaurants.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: A year ago, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a shattering expose on celebrity chef John Besh. It detailed 25 allegations that depicted a harrowing workplace in which Besh belittled and fondled workers or tried to coerce them to have sex. Dominique Ranieri, a former server and one of Besh's accusers, says she was terminated after her allegations appeared in the story. She says such behavior permeated Besh's restaurants.

DOMINIQUE RANIERI: Groping, sexual advances - verbally, physically - constant commentary. The commentary was - oh, God.

NOGUCHI: That story became a watershed moment for the restaurant industry. Two weeks prior, similar allegations against Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein had emerged, kickstarting the #MeToo movement. That spotlight then turned on Besh, a local hero who helped champion Creole cuisine on the national stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN BESH: Hello, I'm Chef John Besh, and welcome to New Orleans.

NOGUCHI: Cleaning up the mess fell to Shannon White. She was 32 and chief of operations when she replaced Besh as CEO. We first met at a bustling lunch spot serving Southern biscuits and shrimp and grits - one of 11 remaining restaurants in the group White is trying to revamp.

SHANNON WHITE: Finding out that people didn't feel safe coming forward, it's like a kick in the stomach. And we have to do something, like, right now.

NOGUCHI: Overnight, Besh's national fame turned into a liability. It left a scar on the restaurant group and its 1,200 employees at the time. Staff defected. Seven restaurants eventually closed or spun off. The company rebranded itself to BRG to erase his name.

WHITE: It was hard, you know? You have guests calling and being hateful on the phone and seeing all the stuff in the media.

NOGUCHI: Free-flowing alcohol and late night work make restaurants a notorious hotbed for sexual harassment, especially so near the glow of Bourbon Street. White says she's felt both public and internal pressure to change her company's culture.

WHITE: And you have employees and you have guests and you have orders. But you can't push pause and say, all right. We're going to redo this, you know, at all. What can we do to start to make change while the wheels are already in motion?

NOGUCHI: She had to keep the restaurants running and at the same time, dramatically change the culture. The company allowed me in to see how they tried to do that. Over several months, they let me sit in on meetings and talk to employees. I watched as they grappled with how to build a new culture.

WHITE: It's eye-opening. You know, people think it's all about sexual harassment. I'm like, it's so much bigger than that.

NOGUCHI: She says it's tied up with trust, communication, power dynamics and respect. But initially, White needed to fare it out and fire the bad apples. The company set up an anonymous tip line that led to investigations. Eventually, four managers and a dozen other workers were dismissed. Many others left over time.

WHITE: A lot of people aren't going to make it through this. And as, like, a culture starts to shift, you see very clearly, it brings to light the people that aren't willing to shift with it.

NOGUCHI: One early change included ending employee alcohol discounts, which White says helped fuel misbehavior. But many new rules couldn't be as cut and dry. White recalls how in the initial weeks of the scandal, she proposed banning dating among workers. Some workers pushed back. The company hired Dawn Hazen as its first human resources director. She also pushed back.

DAWN HAZEN: It's not realistic.

WHITE: It's not realistic.

HAZEN: Yeah.

WHITE: And we're setting ourselves up for failure.

NOGUCHI: Instead, they now require workers to disclose relationships to avoid potential conflicts of interest. As in that case, White and Hazen say soliciting input helps set realistic rules and get buy-in from workers. And sometimes, policies evolved over time. Take its policy on touching. In August, I watched the back-and-forth as White and Hazen met to discuss updates to the employee handbook with restaurant managers. White poses the question, should the language bar customers from touching staff? That prompts the managers to debate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We have regulars that come in that are just going to - they're going to hug you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, absolutely.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You know? And they're like family. They're like family at the restaurant, but...

NOGUCHI: But in another context, he says, hugs are unwelcome.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It just has to be that gut feeling. I mean, we...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, you have to be able to read it.

NOGUCHI: Two months after that meeting in late October, Hazen leads employee orientation for 50 new bartenders, cooks and servers. The company's preparing to open its first new restaurant since the scandal.

HAZEN: OK. Is everybody seated and ready?

NOGUCHI: Here, touching comes up again with greater nuance.

HAZEN: I know in the restaurants, they're very close quarters.

NOGUCHI: Hazen suggests warning co-workers before squeezing by.

HAZEN: Say, coming behind, or something like that to give them a chance to get out of the way.

NOGUCHI: And if it's a customer being inappropriate, tell your manager, she tells them. Rita Bernhardt says such open discussion makes a difference.

RITA BERNHARDT: Service.

NOGUCHI: Bernhardt is chef de cuisine at Domenica, one of the group's Italian restaurants. In the past, she says personnel decisions were left to a manager's discretion. But now Bernhardt is required to report any problems immediately. She says White and Hazen are very responsive.

BERNHARDT: We're going to solve this right now. We're going to fix this. Let's follow through. I think that's kind of, like, the biggest shift that I've seen.

NOGUCHI: It's still too early to say what the effect of all these changes might mean. But some say the problems haven't gone away. Brett Anderson is the reporter who broke The Times-Picayune story.

BRETT ANDERSON: In the year since that story came out, you know, I spent a lot of time listening to restaurant workers - mostly women - tell me about the problems they faced with harassment. And, you know, those phone calls aren't stopping, really.

NOGUCHI: Including, he says, some workers who say little has changed within the Besh restaurants. Through a representative, Besh declined an interview for this story. Anderson says his continued ownership remains controversial.

ANDERSON: I know that it matters to some employees and I know it matters to some customers that he is still an owner of the company.

NOGUCHI: Even White admits that in subtle ways, Besh's ownership still weighs on the company.

WHITE: The goal in the past was always to give ownership to the chefs over time. I'd like to see that speed up.

NOGUCHI: Now, she says, she wants to set a vision without Besh around.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "SAMADHI")

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