I am a 21-year-old woman, and I have worked as a hostess in four very different restaurants that all had one thing in common: sexual harassment.
I was 16 when I landed my first hosting job, at an Orange County restaurant located at the end of a pier. My uniform there was a red and white pinstriped dress and hat that made me look like a 1940s nurse. I started that job not knowing I’d occasionally be treated by our male patrons as an object, rather than someone just trying to do their job.
We had one regular who took pictures of us every time he came to eat. On his next visit he’d bring us a copy of the photo and explain that he kept another one for his “secret pleasure stash” at home. I felt wildly uncomfortable each time he snapped a picture of me with his disposable camera, but I would smile anyway, because he was a guest and I was a new employee at my first job. My fellow hostesses did the same, laughing off his strange behavior, while my managers treated him as a running joke and expected me to greet him warmly each time he dined. He spent so much money at our simple diner, they explained, they didn’t want to lose him.
Many of our male customers seemed to have a fetish for the goofy ’40s outfits we wore. I clutched a pink bottle of pepper spray each night as I walked down the pier after my shift. I always worried, as did my parents, that one of those men would see me vulnerable and alone as I scaled the stairs of the dark parking garage. I’d only worked there three months when a regular tried to get into my car with me one night. I yelled at him and he left willingly, but seemed confused at my reaction. It was my first glimpse into the scary world of being a woman working in restaurants, but it was only the beginning of my journey, a journey where I would be sexually harassed by countless men, including customers and coworkers, and where I would learn hard lessons of how I was expected to work with them.
The hosting position in particular is often a looks-based role, especially in Las Vegas. At my second hosting job, I wore almost nothing: a kilt and a bra. That place served wings and a lot of beer and hired only girls. They barely interviewed me about my work experience. They simply had me put on the uniform and strut around the room until they made their decision. That restaurant would send us home if we didn’t wear enough eyeshadow or had a big lunch.
My third restaurant was located in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip and had an hour-long wait every night. I’d often leave work at 6 a.m., and I worked hard to please my boss, a celebrity chef. At the restaurant where I now work, my dress is lacy and sheer, and my heels high. It’s a swanky place inside the fanciest hotel in Vegas, but some nights I deal with the same treatment as that diner.
In the giant casino where I work, not one of the 10 restaurants employs a male host.
As a hostess, it’s my job to greet each guest who walks through our door and answer any questions they have about the menu, the wait or directions to a different place to eat. At some restaurants I scribbled names on a piece of paper to track which table I would seat next; at others I had a computer system with online reservations and an interactive map of the floor. As hostesses, we run the restaurant, answering phones, taking to-go orders and determining the pace of how guests are seated and served. We are the first face a patron sees and the one they say goodbye to, the visual introduction to their dining experience.
This unique culture that focuses so much on looks can help customers and coworkers justify sexual harassment toward employees. Maybe in my kilt and bra I seemed more “deserving” of being harassed, but I never asked for it. Female employees are simply put in a positions where it is easier to be hit on. While I wear a short lace dress with a slip underneath that only covers my breasts and behind, the men’s uniform includes pants, a vest, a long sleeve shirt and tie. In the giant casino where I work, not one of the 10 restaurants employs a male host.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received more than 85,000 charges of sexual harassment from 2005 through 2015, roughly half of which specified the industry where the harassment occurred. Among the 41,000 that did, more than 14 percent came from workers in the accommodations and food sector, the most of any industry. The EEOC also noted that women filed most of these claims. A 2014 report from the Restaurant Opportunities Center, found that “[t]he highly sexualized environment in which restaurant workers labor impacts every major workplace relationship, with restaurant workers reporting high levels of harassing behaviors from restaurant management (66%), co-workers (80%), and customers (78%).”
We can use “pinstripe man” as an example of a certain type of restaurant customer who constantly returns to flirt with female employees. Who knows if he is actually hungry, but he never misses a chance to blow a kiss, try to touch us or maybe even ask for our phone number. He converses until we are extremely uncomfortable, and then he moves on to the next woman. The “pinstripe man” at my second job would dangle $100 in front of my face and ask for a hug. He was about three times my age and wore his dirty construction uniform each time he came to visit. He wouldn’t tip me if I refused his hugs. It made me cringe to think of pressing my half naked body against him just to pay my bills. His hugs smelled like sweat and dirt, but I only made $9 an hour.
The big issue with “pinstripe man” is he is a regular. If you lose his business, you lose a lot of money, and you may lose the business of his friends and colleagues. Maybe if you turn him down, he’ll complain to your managers that you are “rude” or “snarky.” Maybe he will even call up one of your corporate executives to tattle on you. Maybe he’ll stop tipping, and since your job is tip based, you will lose a big source of income. Maybe your rejections of him will cost you your job.
At my third job, “pinstripe man” was the manager of a famous professional boxer. He showed me picture albums of him with different celebrities he knew, told me he could make me a model and slipped me his phone number every time he came to dine. He screamed at me when I denied his passes and called me “ungrateful.” I complained to my managers on multiple occasions, and they witnessed his harassment as he summoned me to his table, but his giant bar tabs were more important than my feelings. His status trumped mine, even though I was their employee.
A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review found that restaurant managers don’t perceive known sexual harassment by customers as much of a problem. For me, it’s been a factor of the job that I’ve come to accept. I don’t like it, and I wish it would stop, but it seems as if it never changes from one hosting gig to another. As restaurant workers, our main purpose is to make the guests happy, and it can be difficult to draw the line at where we should stop trying. Restaurant culture praises the customer as “always right.” We often don’t report the harassment, because we know nothing will be done about it.
Sometimes your coworkers will help you in these situations. The men I currently work with will intervene when specific customers come to eat. But sometimes coworkers are the ones causing the problem. At every restaurant where I’ve worked, the hostess is a young female working for an older male manager. At my first job a coworker stopped talking to me completely, because I refused to kiss him at work. About three years ago, some of the cooks at my job had a reputation for trying to touch our butts and breasts, like a game they played. The hostesses complained to management but, without evidence, nothing was done. Discouraged, a majority of the hostesses kept quiet after that. This was years before the #MeToo movement swept the country, and I was significantly more afraid of reporting sexual harassment than I am now, worried I’d be labeled a “tattletale” for standing up for myself.
Maybe if this happened today, things would be different, but then, just a few years ago, we swallowed the treatment, and did everything we could to avoid these cooks, though it was nearly impossible. When I couldn’t take the harassment anymore, one day I called the HR department in tears. The representative on the phone’s answer: “Maybe it’s time for a new job?”
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