The Entrenched Effects of Misconduct in the Restaurant Industry

What the continued controversy over Ken Friedman—and the unsuccessful rehabilitation of the Spotted Pig—says about power and responsibility in the world of food service

The Spotted Pig restaurant in New York's West Village
The Spotted Pig restaurant in New York's West Village, the only restaurant Ken Friedman still owns (David Howells / Getty)

In December 2017, The New York Times reported allegations of sexual harassment against the prominent restaurateur Ken Friedman, the proprietor of the famed West Village outpost the Spotted Pig. The report outlined, in stunning detail, a series of abusive and predatory behaviors that multiple female restaurant employees said Friedman had subjected them to: physical assaults, public groping, and forced kissing, as well as requests for suggestive photos and group sex.

Nine months later, the Spotted Pig is once again a center of controversy within the restaurant industry. After offering in June to assist in reshaping the future of the Spotted Pig, the chefs Gabrielle Hamilton and Ashley Merriman have announced that they will no longer be working with Friedman. In an email sent to the restaurant’s staff last week, Hamilton wrote that the two chefs “have come to the final impasse of our ability to move forward as operators of the Spotted Pig.” Both women cited Friedman’s refusal to cede control to them as the primary reason for their inability to continue shepherding the Spotted Pig toward a healthier future. Given the nature of the accusations against Friedman, his obstinance is as unsurprising as it is disappointing.

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 thatFriedman 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.”

What transpired after the lukewarm apology? The day of the Times report, the restaurateur’s company announced that “Friedman had decided to take an indefinite leave of absence from the management of the restaurants, effectively immediately.” Soon, the chef April Bloomfield, his longtime business partner (whom many of the women speaking to the Times accused of ignoring Friedman’s behavior), began the process of disentangling herself from the embattled restaurateur. “It is over,” she wrote in a now-deleted statement posted to Twitter; she eventually dissolved their business relationship. The fate of the Spotted Pig remained uncertain.

Just six months after the allegations against Friedman were reported, though, it seemed he had an opportunity for redemption. When the James Beard Award–winning chef Gabrielle Hamilton and her wife, Ashley Merriman, the co-chef of the East Village restaurant Prune, announced they would partner with Friedman, it seemed that they were willing to take a chance on their longtime friend even in the midst of controversy. In an interview with Eater, Merriman outlined the pair’s reasoning for stepping in: She repeatedly stressed the way she and Hamilton ran Prune, which she believed could “help clean up a mess and help a group of people who are really hurting and having a bad time.” The initial announcement was shocking because of the reputational risk it entailed for Hamilton and Merriman, but as some noted, it wasn’t surprising that the task of fixing a powerful man’s mistakes would fall to two women.

At the time, Merriman also stated that part of the pair’s goal was to navigate what the future could look like for Friedman:

I’ll just say I really don’t believe in capital punishment. I’m morally opposed to it with every fiber of my being. I’m also totally opposed to Ken’s frankly disgusting behavior in equal measure. I’m opposed to both those things, and I guess there’s a big question missing for me in this #MeToo movement: What does the possibility of redemption look like? Is it possible? I don’t know the answer to that, and I don’t think anyone does.

In an earlier statement, Hamilton had referred to the Spotted Pig as “the ground zero of man-made disaster” within the restaurant industry. Merriman and Hamilton had seemingly hoped to revamp the restaurant from within, and to care for its employees with a sensitivity that Friedman lacked, setting an example for their entire industry in the process. (In August, the Times reported that the New York attorney general’s office had begun investigating allegations of sexual harassment and workplace discrimination at the Spotted Pig using the same state law with which it is pursuing its investigation of the Weinstein Company.)

Now Hamilton and Merriman’s rescue plans appear to have been thwarted by Friedman’s insistence on holding onto the same influence that enabled misbehavior in the first place. Merriman was candid about Friedman’s role in the stalled rehabilitation plan: “The deal that we can’t make with Ken is based on principle and ideology. We wanted to be the final decision-makers at the restaurant—the Buck-Stops-Here-type owners for the good / the bad / the ugly and everything that comes between in a restaurant. We can’t come to an agreement with Ken about such a structure.”

Following Hamilton and Merriman’s departure from the Spotted Pig, the only one of Friedman’s restaurants that he still owns, the future is once again most uncertain for the staff who cannot rely on prior investments or celebrity friendships to navigate financial hurdles and professional setbacks. Even after two women offered to shoulder the burden of rehabilitating the restaurant’s image and internal structure, one man’s stubborn attachment to his own power appears to remain an obstacle.

The Spotted Pig is reportedly still a popular dining destination, and Friedman will likely continue to rake in profits even as he bungles the new chances afforded to him. The restaurant could have been an example of the transformation that can arise when men like Friedman cede control to women capable of reimagining hierarchies and creating more protections for workers. For service-industry employees, those whom Friedman has allegedly intimidated and harassed and forced out of work, second chances are harder to come by. That shouldn’t be so easy for him to digest.