The accounts of Friedman’s behavior were striking not just in their severity but in their breadth. According to the women who spoke with the Times, Friedman not only perpetrated the misconduct himself, he also cultivated an environment in which high-paying and celebrity guests were given carte blanche. That reportedly included access to women’s bodies, even when those women—staff or otherwise—did not explicitly consent to the advances. In one particularly damning anecdote from the Times story, a former manager recalled intervening during a party in 2008 when she saw the celebrity chef Mario Batali drunkenly “groping and kissing a woman who appeared to be unconscious.” In the same report, a female server shared that the staff referred to Batali, who stepped away from his own restaurant empire after a series of serious misconduct allegations, as “the Red Menace.”
Following these revelations, the Spotted Pig became not just the site of Friedman’s misdeeds, but also a symbol of a much larger problem within the restaurant industry. When powerful men elide boundaries—and restraint—with regard to both food and sex, women in the service industry are made especially vulnerable. A December 2017 BuzzFeed News study of harassment claims across multiple industries found that food-service employees were by far the most likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace. According to a January report by the Harvard Business Review, “The typical frontline restaurant employee is young, female, and working for a male manager: 71 percent of restaurant servers nationwide are women,” who make an average salary of just over $15,000.
Tip-based wages leave employees—especially women, who report the majority of incidents—vulnerable to the whims of both management and customers alike. Pushing back against harassment, even by simply reporting it, often means risking retaliation that can include lower tips or industry-wide blackballing. “And those who do the harassment know that,” Sahar Aziz, a Rutgers University law professor who took part in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, told BuzzFeed News. Many restaurant employees lack the status, prestige, and financial safety nets of Hollywood figures whose stories capture public attention. Spotted Pig employees, for example, told the Times that “Friedman had frequent consensual sexual relationships with employees; openly hired, promoted, or fired people based on their physical attractiveness; was often intoxicated at work; and pressured staff members to drink and take drugs with him and guests.”
So when men like Friedman and Batali issue apologies for anodyne wrongdoing, their words ring hollow. Even in acknowledging that they have humiliated the women working for them, these men skirt any real atonement for the deep abuses of power of which they’re accused. Though conflating the two has been a frequent rhetorical choice, appetites for food and sex are not the same. “We built these restaurants so that our guests could have fun and indulge, but I took that too far in my own behavior,” Batali said to Eater, in his statement about the allegations against him. Friedman, who is married to a former host of the Spotted Pig, told the Times that his personal and professional lives were entwined with those of his restaurant and staff. Some of the incidents “were not as described,” he said, but he would nevertheless “apologize now publicly for [his] actions.”