Stories / Opinion, Impact

What Does it Mean to Be Safe in a Restaurant?

Why I had to radically reimagine restaurant culture for my staff and my guests

Caitlin Corcoran

February 07, 2019

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Caitlin Corcoran Photo by Zach Bauman
Photo: Zach Bauman

The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP) presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and Audi’s #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners, Women’s Leadership Program alumni, and thought leaders pushing for change. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development

Below, 2018 Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership fellow Caitlin Corcoran shares the difficult, and at times harrowing experiences that marked her early career in the food and beverage industry, and how surviving those challenges has made her an advocate and activist for creating a safer environment for staff and guests.

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It was a busy afternoon, and I was prepping the bar. I looked up over the pass and saw the man who had raped me a decade earlier. He had recently been released from prison—which I had worked hard to help send him to—and there he was, casually dining with his child and a friend, like he didn’t have a care in the world.

I immediately spiraled into a panic attack. It felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. Tears rushed to my eyes as I ran to dry storage to catch my breath, hoping he hadn’t seen me. My boss, the chef and owner of the restaurant, was in the back. I anxiously explained what was happening.

He looked at me out of the corner of his eye, never fully removing his gaze from the spreadsheets on the computer.   

“It’s okay,” he said. “Take five minutes to breathe.”

He did not confront my abuser. He did not reassure me.

I continued to work there for another year and a half. I was triggered every day, knowing my rapist could come back at any moment; after all, he was clearly welcome. I was able to push through, knowing that the day I opened my own restaurant was the day I would begin radically changing this culture.

Fast-forward a few years, and I own Ça Va, a grower Champagne bar and restaurant. As I started building this business, I began re-imagining hospitality. Why do people have to put up with being aggressively hit on while having a night out with friends? Why do we allow one member of a party to try to get another one wasted? And most importantly, how can restaurant staff intervene seamlessly?

My first intervention occurred quite naturally. One night at Ça Va, a drunk person—who had already been pushing boundaries with staff and guests—decided to sit down at a table of attractive women as he was stumbling out the door. I saw them recoil away from this unwanted visitor. They were visibly uncomfortable.  

I approached the table and asked, “Are either of you interested in giving him your number or getting drinks with him?”

They both emphatically stated, “No!”

Without hesitation, I turned to the man: “It’s probably time for you to leave. It seems like you had a really great night, let’s get you a taxi.”

“What the f*ck? Am I getting kicked out?” He responded.

I was calm, but steadfast. “Sir, if you don’t leave by the time I get to one, I’m calling security. Five, four, three…”—and he was off.

A new server I was training at the time was stunned. I explained that our “Champagne for the People” ethos extends beyond making wine accessible to the masses and encouraging marginalized people to feel welcome as a part of our community. It’s also about making sure people feel safe within our four walls. Creating a healthy environment is a logical extension of our hospitality—we can’t provide the true, warm, open experience we want for our guests unless every one of our staff members and guests is safe and respected.

Around this same time, a serial rapist was targeting entertainment districts in our city. A fellow bartender from my previous employer’s restaurant became one of the victims, and unfortunately, that establishment once again showed it does not support survivors or believe women. Rather than showing compassion, they asked her to avoid the neighborhood for a while.

I realized it was not enough just to intervene in a given moment at my establishment. I needed to go a step further and re-evaluate my business’s policies on safety for both staff and guests.

The spate of violent crimes caught the attention of a producer for Kansas City’s NPR affiliate, KCUR, prompting a show about the culture of sexual assault in entertainment districts. I was invited to be a guest, along with three others, including a trainer from the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA). On the show, I compared our policy on intervening in these situations to the way we approach drunk driving. If a guest gets too drunk, we call them a cab to get them home safely. If a person is on a first date and they start to feel unsafe, why wouldn’t we intervene? It’s an extension of hospitality. And if we’re hospitality professionals, then it is our job.

After this conversation, MOCSA created SAFE (Sexual Assault Free Environment), a training program for the hospitality industry to empower restaurant workers to become allies in the fight to change the culture around sexual assault. Ça Va was the first bar to complete the training, and the two other businesses in our restaurant group are currently going through it.

The training is structured as a facilitated conversation centered on common bar or restaurant scenarios. It begins by stating the facts surround sexual assault, and defining sexual assault and consent. The training also highlights warning signs for restaurant employees to be aware of. For example, is a guest repeatedly testing boundaries by making inappropriate comments or touching other guests or staff members without consent? Is a member of a party feeding someone drinks, or trying to strike up a conversation with someone that is too in their cups?

In addition to the training, MOCSA provided posters that Ça Va hung in our restaurants. They illustrate how everyone can be a victim of sexual assault, and explain that there are free resources out there for you. We want our guests to know that our staff is here to help them if they need to get out of a situation.

That encounter with the man who raped me was just one example of a traumatic, frightening moment at work. But the harsh reality is that I’ve experienced moments that left me feeling unsupported and unsafe at every job I’ve ever had.

After 18 years in the industry, I am now in a place of power, and I see it as my responsibility to create the culture that I have always wanted to work in. I am proud to own an establishment that strives to make everyone feel safe.

I believe that we’re not alone in this fight. I hope that other restaurant managers and owners start to reevaluate not just their HR policies, but also their trainings, so that their staff are equipped with the tools to successfully navigate challenging situations. This applies to combating sexual assault, as well as fighting racism, supporting non-binary staff and clients, and using inclusive language. By changing the restaurant culture, we have the power to change our local communities, and eventually, our country.

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Caitlin Corcoran, a 2018 James Beard Foundation Women in Entrepreneurial Leadership fellow, is general manager and co-owner at Ça Va, a grower Champagne bar that specializes in small producers. Learn more at cavakc.com.

The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi.