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

Nov 20, 2018
Originally published on November 20, 2018 7:38 am

Since the #MeToo movement began, myriad business leaders — from media and tech to finance — have resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment, leaving bad morale and problem workplace cultures in their wake.

That happened to the Besh Restaurant Group a year ago, after the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a shattering expose about its founding owner, John Besh. It detailed allegations made by 25 female employees describing a harrowing workplace in which Besh belittled and fondled workers, or tried to coerce them to have sex.

Dominique Ranieri, a former server who accused Besh of inappropriate behavior, says sexual harassment ran rampant in the company's culture. She says she was subjected to "groping, sexual advances — verbally, physically — constant commentary."

That story became a watershed moment for the restaurant industry. Two weeks earlier, similar allegations against Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein had emerged, kick-starting the #MeToo movement. That spotlight then turned on Besh — a local hero and television celebrity who helped champion Creole cuisine on the national stage. At the time, his group included 17 restaurants and 1,200 employees.

Since then, Shannon White, the 33-year-old former server who replaced Besh as CEO has been trying to turn the restaurant chain around. She, like other leaders in the wake of #MeToo, found herself struggling with keeping the business and its employees together while trying to dramatically change the workplace culture.

(NPR has also faced its own sexual harassment problems. It fired top news executives last year.)

When the crisis hit, White's personal life was also in transition. She and her fiancé had just moved to a new house and White had just given birth to her first child three months earlier. She was also hobbling around on a broken foot, and adjusting to a new role as chief operations officer of the restaurant group.

"Finding out that people didn't feel safe coming forward, it's like a kick in the stomach," White says. As she read the story over and over, she told herself: "We have to do something. Right now."

Overnight, Besh's national fame had become a liability. Staff defected. Seven restaurants eventually closed or were spun off. (This month it opened its first new restaurant, Warbucks, since the scandal.) The company, which now has 800 workers, rebranded itself BRG to erase his name.

"You have employees and you have guests and your orders, but you can't push pause and say, 'We're going to redo this,' " White says. "What can we do to start to make change while the wheels are already in motion?"

Over several months, the company allowed NPR to sit in on meetings, interview employees, and watch as they grappled with how to effect that change.

Free-flowing alcohol and late-night work make restaurants a notorious hotbed for sexual harassment — especially so near the glow of Bourbon Street. But White says that soon after Besh left, she realized addressing the problem would mean cultivating trust, respect, better lines of communication, and more avenues for promotion.

"It's eye-opening; people think it's all about sexual harassment, and I'm like, 'It's so much bigger than that,' " she says.

White's path to CEO was unconventional. She left college before getting her degree, then joined one of Besh's restaurants as a server, then manager. Eventually she was promoted to chief operations officer.

In her persona and leadership style, White strikes a sharp contrast with Besh. Where he devoted much of his time to television appearances and cookbook promotion, White says she focuses on the details of operating the company.

"I think what I'm doing is very different; it's just a different role," she says. She keeps her hands in everything and is focused on persuading everyone who works for her to make the changes she wants to see.

Those who've worked with White say her temperament is exactly what the company needs — diplomatic, unflappable, and focused on consensus.

"She was one of the few women in a management position," says Maggie Moore, a former assistant to John Besh. "I really respected her. Shannon had a presence that when she was in the room, you were listening to her."

Moore says by contrast, Besh did not heed others; his power went unchecked. She says he propositioned her for sex during a work trip in 2015: "Point blank asked me to come back to his hotel room, and I said no, and he got upset," she says. "After that, he never treated me the same way."

Through a representative, John Besh declined an interview, citing the advice of attorneys.

Immediately after allegations like Moore's and others went public, White had to pick up the pieces — investigating claims, counseling staff, and trying to calm roiling workplace morale.

White also needed to ferret out and fire the bad apples. An anonymous tip line the company set up led to investigations that ended with the dismissal of four managers and a dozen other workers. White says many others left over time.

"A lot of people aren't going to make it through this, and as a culture starts to shift you see very clearly it brings to light the people that aren't willing to shift with it," she says.

Some rule changes were obvious, like ending employee alcohol discounts, which White says helped fuel misbehavior. But many policy changes couldn't be as cut and dried. White recalls how in the initial weeks of the scandal, she proposed banning dating among workers. Some workers objected.

Human Resources Director Dawn Hazen also pushed back, arguing the policy was unrealistic and would lead workers to hide their relationships, which in turn could lead to conflicts of interest. Hazen was the company's first HR director, hired just two weeks before the scandal broke.

As with its policy on interoffice dating, White and Hazen say soliciting input from employees helps set realistic rules and get buy-in from workers.

Sometimes, policies evolved over time.

In August, for example, White and Hazen consulted restaurant managers about a potential update to the employee handbook. In it, they consider including a policy saying customers may not touch staff. Some of the managers point out such a rule might be hard to enforce, pointing out that some regulars are friendly and might hug staff when they come in. But they also acknowledge that in other situations, hugs are sometimes unwelcome.

"It has to be that gut feeling," one manager tells White, arguing the policy should leave the call up to the manager.

By late October, that policy had morphed and had become incorporated into the new-employee orientation led by Hazen.

She explains the new policies to the 50 new bartenders, cooks and servers gathered for training as the company prepares to open its first new restaurant since the scandal. Hazen acknowledges it's hard to work in the close quarters of kitchens, and suggests they warn co-workers before passing by.

"Say, 'Coming behind,' or something like that, to give them a chance to get out of the way," she tells them.

On the other hand, if it's a customer being inappropriate, tell your manager, who will decide how to handle that customer, Hazen says.

Rita Bernhardt, the 28-year-old chef de cuisine at the group's restaurant Domenica, says such open discussion has made a difference as a worker. In the past, she says, personnel decisions were left to a manager's discretion. But now, Bernhardt is required to report any problems immediately. White and Hazen have been very responsive, telling her, "We're going to solve this right now," she says.

It's still too early to gauge the effect of all these changes. But some say the problems haven't gone away.

"In the year since that story came out, I've spent a lot of time listening to restaurant workers — mostly women — tell me about the problems they faced with harassment, and those phone calls aren't stopping, really," says Brett Anderson, the reporter who broke the Times-Picayune story. That includes some workers who say little has changed within the Besh restaurants.

Besh's continued ownership remains controversial.

"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," Anderson says.

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

"The goal in the past was always to give ownership to the chefs over time, [and] I'd like to see that speed up," White says, so she can set a vision for the company without Besh around.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.