Trista Baker, founder of the Restaurant Culture Association, with RCA media director Christina Daniel Credit: Olivia Obineme

When #MeToo hit the restaurant industry, absolutely no one who had ever worked in a restaurant or a bar was surprised. It’s a perfect environment for sexual harassment and abuse to flourish: long hours, late nights, close quarters, lots of alcohol, and a culture that celebrates rowdiness in the kitchen and demands that front-of-the-house staff smooth over bad behavior with a smile, all in the name of hospitality. Most restaurants don’t have the resources to maintain a human resources staff—or the inclination. It wasn’t surprising that well-known chefs and owners like Mario Batali and Ken Friedman and, here in Chicago, Cosmo Goss were forced out of their restaurants after sexual harassment scandals. What was surprising was that there weren’t more.

“In this industry, we’re probably 40 years behind,” says Adrienne Stoner, who worked as a bartender for 17 years before moving on to a corporate job at a distillery. “We’re living in the 80s out here.”

Trista Baker has been working in restaurants for more than a decade, since she was in high school. She loves her industry and the people in it. But since she began volunteering as a counselor for survivors of sexual violence at Resilience (formerly Rape Victim Advocates) two years ago, she began to realize that things had to change. “I saw so many good people with nothing but the best intentions doing subtle things that were perpetuating harm and creating environments where harm could be present,” she says. “It’s a lack of awareness. I thought, there’s got to be something that can happen. So I started asking myself all the questions, and asking everyone else all the questions like, What do we do? How do we fix this? What are the problems that need to be addressed?”

She’d observed that the restaurants that did have HR policies had usually cut and pasted them from a corporate employment manual without bothering to acknowledge that standards of professionalism are looser in a restaurant than in an office. These codes also didn’t bother to define terms like “sexual harassment.” Instead, some places adopted zero-tolerance policies: one incident and the perpetrator was fired. Baker didn’t like this, either.

“Put yourself in the shoes of someone that is being harassed at work,” she says. “Now you have the burden of knowing that if you report it, a person’s going to lose a job.” And that person may continue the same behavior at their next job.

A better solution, Baker decided, was demystifying sexual harassment and its consequences: establishing clear definitions of unacceptable behavior and letting every employee know exactly what would happen as a result. An allegation shouldn’t be a cause for panic. Instead, she says, managers and owners should view it as an opportunity.

“Someone trusted you,” she says. “That’s an amazing sign. Now you’re in a position to do something to propel work culture in a positive direction.”

In order to help restaurant owners and managers do this, Baker has started her own organization, the Restaurant Culture Association. Originally the idea was that she and a group of volunteers would do employee training, but then she realized what a sacrifice it would be for a restaurant to shut down for even a few hours. So she shifted to helping restaurant owners and managers write their own policies instead. These policies, she hopes, will come from each restaurant’s own particular needs and suit its culture. She has a lawyer on board to make sure that those policies are legal.

The process involves a lot of discussion in order to make sure everyone understands specific terms in the same way. “I’ve tried to develop facilitated conversation about sexual harassment,” she says. “Like literally defining things for people and encouraging them to talk, not about their experiences—that would be gross—but to talk about the concept.”

Baker emphasizes that she doesn’t want to take the fun out of kitchen culture. That would destroy it. Better policy, she believes, would only improve it, by making people feel more comfortable at work. More importantly, they would be more inclined to stay in their jobs. High staff turnover, Baker notes, can make a restaurant “bleed money.” She hopes that will be incentive enough for restaurants to want to make the effort to change.

Baker will introduce the RCA to the community at large on Monday, August 12, with a panel discussion at Dorian’s in Wicker Park that will include chefs, servers, and bartenders from a range of bars and restaurants in the city. Stoner will be one of them.

In her years in the industry, Stoner has seen how toxic behavior can infest an entire organization. “It should be OK to easily say, ‘I’m not OK with this, you’re making me uncomfortable,'” she says. “Not everyone thinks they can say that. It’s going to be uncomfortable.” But she thinks that ultimately the RCA will be helpful for the industry as a whole.

Zack Eastman, the co-owner of Dorian’s, agrees. “You need to have an educational arm or else issues are going to continue to be systemic. I like the approach of talking to bar owners and bar managers and having educational and assisting materials to suggest ways to work with employees and do better. As a guy, a white dude, I don’t understand a lot of stuff. Sometimes I need help from people who have been through it, to show us all a better way of doing things.”

Baker is working to incorporate the RCA as a 501(c)(3). She’s also looking for other volunteers to help with training. But her ultimate goal is much bigger: “I would love for the RCA to become an organic thing in the industry,” she says. “I want it to belong to everyone. And if someone has a better answer, I’ll let them take over.”  v