January 3, 2018

“A Bartender Put A Roofie In My Drink:” Stories Of Sexual Harassment In Washington’s Restaurant Industry

By Ingalisa Schrobsdorff

Working in the restaurant industry has a dark side: propositions, groping, a roofie slipped into a drink, outright assault.

The restaurant industry has the highest rates of sexual harassment of any industry in the nation. While many who have experienced it felt it was just the nature of the industry, that may change as awareness ––and consequences–– are shaking up everything from Hollywood to the world of classical music.

With eateries thriving in the Washington region, we wanted to know the local effect of sexual harassment and assault in the restaurant industry. We posted a survey, seeking diners, servers, cooks, bartenders and “back of house” workers with stories to share. While most respondents chose to remain anonymous or be identified by their first names only, their stories are powerful.

“I believe that a bartender in D.C. put a roofie in my drink to get me off of the bar on a busy night. I was with friends and remember turning around and seeing another drink at the bar, asking, ‘Did I order this?’ and him saying, ‘That one’s on me’ with a wink. I ended up slumped over the bar stool and had to be carried into a taxi to sleep on my friend’s couch with little memory of the previous night. When I went back to get my purse the next day, the other bartenders claimed they looked at the tape and didn’t see anything suspicious. I don’t know if it was actually him or someone else with the intention of harming me but I am thankful for good friends who recognized that had I been alone in that state, anything could have happened.” – Carrie

“Almost a decade ago I was driving my boss home and he groped me several times. I knew his wife, babysat his kids. I went immediately back to the bar and told a coworker. He said “oh” and still works there obviously. Before that car ride, my boss had asked me to be his personal assistant and help manage the place. I quit the next day. I later found out he told people I quit because another bartender was harassing me. I started distrusting people. But I also grew stronger and told myself that nobody would devalue my worth like that ever again.” – Anonymous

“I worked in the restaurant industry for 11 years, starting as a server and ending as a general manager. I was propositioned by customers, molested by co-workers, harassed by supervisors, and once even fired for being pregnant. I’ve sat in offices with a male management team and had my looks and their suppositions regarding my sex life discussed in detail. I’ve been sent to handle difficult or displeased male clients and vendors and prompted to ‘use my charms’ to protect and promote the business in these situations. As a top level manager I had my qualifications called into question based on gender, tolerated inappropriate sexual speech and innuendo, and on many occasions been uneasy in the company of male peers (and even subordinates) in the deserted restaurant after closing. I’ve had my shoulders rubbed and knees and legs touched, without my permission, by men I would never even call friends, even as a married woman. I’ve left the restaurant industry permanently but am having terrible trouble finding a job in another field with similar pay or level of responsibility. It’s been a steep price in lost income for our family, but I will not work in restaurants any more.” – Anonymous

“I’m a man in my mid-20s and my other young male coworkers and I were repeatedly sexually harassed by an older male coworker. Sexual comments, “jokes,” and propositions for dates were frequent from this individual even though he knew we were not gay and not interested. Management was aware of the problem but downplayed the severity of this male waiter’s behavior. This man had worked at this restaurant for over 20 years, longer than any of the management at the time. Because of his tenure they were reluctant to seriously discipline him or fire him, despite numerous complaints from employees and customers.” – Christopher, Baltimore, Md.

Servers are regularly told to “dress sexier” or “use their charms” on male patrons. Many feel the reliance on tips is a big part of the problem for servers and bartenders. Some advocates are fighting to have minimum wage laws apply to tipped workers.

We heard from people who have stayed in the field and tolerated the harassment; others have left the food industry for good, but feel frustrated they are shut out of opportunities in a field they otherwise love.

Fill out our survey to share your story (you can remain anonymous). And listen to Wednesday’s live discussion on sexual harassment in our local restaurant industry.