Gender and Race in the Restaurant Biz

My Food Systems and Society cohort is slogging through the first stages of writing our thesis projects. One of my colleagues, Nancy, is looking at discrimination and harassment in the restaurant business. I mentioned that I had some experience in that field, long ago, and she asked for details. In order to put it into a citable format, I’m posting it here. Go get ’em, Nancy!

I worked in two restaurants as a young woman. I was hired at Big B’s Pizza of Golden Valley (the suburb of Minneapolis in which I grew up) in 1984, when I was fifteen; I was thrilled to graduate from babysitting for $1.25 an hour to making real money ($3.18, if I remember correctly). I was not allowed to serve beer until I turned sixteen, so other waitresses had to deliver my mugs of Leinenkugels (the Wisconsin version of Rainier). The place was owned by a classic Greatest Generation couple, Jerry and Elaine, who dressed up and went dancing at the Medina Ballroom every Saturday night. In fact, Elaine was always dressed up. I drove her crazy because the hem on my uniform, a red pinafore apron and brown wrap-around skirt, had come undone and I was constantly re-taping it instead of sewing. Sewing?

Sadly, there is no photo-documentation of me in my uniform, but it was not unlike this one on the left

Sadly, there is no photo-documentation of me in my uniform, but it was not unlike this one on the left

Because Jerry and Elaine ran a tight ship and were nearly always present, there were not a lot of co-worker “shenanigans” at Big B’s. The cooks were more like big brothers than predators. The closing cook often insisted on driving me home, even though I was prepared to walk.

However, there was certainly a gender barrier between the waitresses (“girls”) and the cooks (men). Big B’s was rather small, so there were no hosts, expediters, dishwashers, or prep cooks; regular staff did all those things. They were nearly all Caucasian. One of the waitresses wanted to cook, and she was eventually allowed to, but it took some convincing and it was quite a novelty. A girl cook! I was sort of envious but, at the same time, she gave up the ability to collect tips. So I was happy to keep my pinafore.

My second waitressing job, at the Boundary Waters, began in the fall of 1988. I had transferred to the University of Minnesota after a year at a different school, but was living with my parents in the suburbs. This was a much classier joint, the loss-leader restaurant of the most prestigious department store of a major shopping center. (Perhaps you don’t know but the first enclosed mall, Southdale, appeared in Minnesota in 1956. This was a sister location.) The restaurant had green velvet wallpaper and wainscoting, a bar area with tile floors, and brass fixtures and white tablecloths. The waitstaff wore bow ties and short green aprons over black pants and white shirts. Some of the waitresses had been there twenty years.

I had to start as a busser but was quickly promoted to waitress. You could make some real money there on Friday and Saturday nights, but the rest of the time it was shoppers stopping in for lunch or coffee, or, as a woman named Anne did at least three times a week, about six glasses of red wine over four hours while reading trashy novels.

There was a somewhat fluid gender division—both men and women were bussers; some women were bartenders; one man was a host; all the managers were women—but the race division was distinct. People of color were exclusively in the kitchen, and the more color you had the more lowly your job. All the dishwashers were African American. In fact, there was a white woman with developmental disabilities who was a busser, which is considered a harder and more prestigious job than dishwasher.

What was also distinct in the kitchen was the casual, culturally accepted sexual harassment. Once I was promoted to waitress, I had a closer relationship with the cooks—they were making or breaking my meals and, thereby, my tips. The kitchen manager, Jeff, was a nice guy who focused on making sure everything ran smoothly in the kitchen. His assistant manager, Randy, was another story.

The thing to keep in mind about kitchen-culture is that it’s extremely friendly, jocular, and fast-moving. When it’s the dinner rush, you all have to act as one to get tickets entered correctly, to get salads and soups out in time so the entrees don’t precede them, to communicate special instructions, to make sure the forks get washed before we run out, and to get the food out the door and onto the tables as soon as it’s ready. There’s no time for groping during dinner rush. It’s the beginnings and ends of shifts that you have to watch out for.

Every time I clocked in, Randy was waiting for me for his “hug.” I don’t remember how this started, but I was required to accept his embrace, which lasted at least 30 seconds, with him running his hand down my back (or lower) and making soft groans. Even when he started dating Kellie, an assistant floor manager, I had to endure this hug with every shift—sometimes in front of her! It totally grossed me out, but I was twenty years old and didn’t know how to make it stop. No one in the kitchen seemed concerned about it, including Jeff. I’m not sure if our main manager, Karen, knew about it but I’m guessing she didn’t.

Randy would ask me gross questions from his side of the line, or engage in a sexually explicit “conversation” with another cook, while I was waiting for my food to come up. He would make tongue-faces at me. He would whip his towel at my ass as I passed through the kitchen with a full tray in my hands. I made very sure to not get stuck in the walk-in cooler with Randy. It never occurred to me to talk to Karen about it, and since there were numerous witnesses in the kitchen, male and female, and no one ever said anything, I just figured it was something I had to endure.

Is it any wonder I really enjoyed the feminism classes I was taking at the university?! Too bad I only took those lessons to heart intellectually.

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2 thoughts on “Gender and Race in the Restaurant Biz

  1. Nancy says:

    Thanks for sharing Kristy, musings and revelations of restaurant life never get old.

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