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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

As the Pandemic Grinds On, San Antonio Restaurant Workers Use Social Media to Raise Concerns About Working Conditions

Posted By on Wed, Jul 15, 2020 at 9:01 AM

click to enlarge Furloughed Sanchos staffer Ione Rousseau, who asked that her face be obscured, said she’s unsure whether to pursue a lawsuit over workplace grievances. - NINA RANGEL
  • Nina Rangel
  • Furloughed Sanchos staffer Ione Rousseau, who asked that her face be obscured, said she’s unsure whether to pursue a lawsuit over workplace grievances.
Britton Zachry’s love for baking began at age 14. As a post-high school San Antonio transplant, she gravitated to the meticulously created pastries at Bakery Lorraine and eventually took a job as a server at the critically lauded chain’s Rim location.

She said she never considered that her time with the business, known for its Instagram-worthy sweets, would have a lasting, harmful impact on her love for food service.

In an interview, Zachry told the Current about a 2019 incident in which a guest groped her backside as she cleared a table in the bakery’s dining room. When she relayed the incident to a male co-worker who noticed she was distraught, his response was, “Look at what you’re wearing. You’re practically naked.”

Zachry — who was in high-waisted denim shorts and a T-shirt when the incident occurred — said she reported both the incident and her coworker’s response to her general manager. She quit months later when the same coworker was promoted to shift lead.

“Something that surprised me is how much each of these instances made me feel literally worthless,” Zachry said. “Not only as an employee, but as a person. As far as emotional trauma goes, that was worse than the sexual assault. … I don’t want to have to get used to people simply not caring.”

Zachry is one of an increasing number of San Antonio food service workers who have taken to social media in recent weeks to raise concerns about their treatment at local restaurants. Their grievances run from sexual harassment and assault to unfair working conditions and theft of intellectual property. In response, at least one local restaurant disabled the ability to comment on its Instagram account.

Bakery Lorraine officials told the Current they took steps to address each allegation raised online and to offer support to those who raised concerns about its working conditions. But Zachry said the damage is already done.

“I have seen a lot of frustration,” said Houston attorney Bob Debes, who’s spent the past 30 years representing clients in suits over discrimination, sexual harassment and unpaid wages.

Debes’ office has experienced a steep upswing in calls from food service workers since the initial COVID-19 shutdown. He added that he’s not surprised by the recent outpouring of social media complaints. The flood of employee grievances comes as the Texas restaurant industry enacts deep staff cuts and furloughs in reaction to the pandemic.

“There’s so much fear and anxiety associated with being let go in the first place, then you consider being let go in this environment, when things are quite uncertain,” Debes said. “It does put a tremendous amount of pressure on employees and ends up causing them to talk more freely about grievances they might have had before.”

The target of social media complaints from San Antonio workers include not just Bakery Lorraine but other high-profile restaurants, such as groundbreaking plant-based eatery Green Vegetarian Cuisine and popular downtown-area dining and drinking spot Sanchos Cantina y Cocina.

And there are others.

As a woman who spent 16 years working in the food and beverage industry, I have seen many workers express concerns about how seriously managers take complaints of sexual misconduct and other workplace issues. In 2017, when the #MeToo movement gained momentum, many of my peers held out hope that widespread change would come to our industry as well.

However, Debes and others say issues of employee mistreatment are still with us.

COVID-19 Corner Cutting?

As Texas struggles to contain runaway COVID-19 infections, workplace safety has taken on a new meaning in the restaurant industry. Local eateries are trying to figure out new safety policies to keep customers safe. Still, some in the business say restaurant owners aren’t doing enough to protect their own employees.

Rae Trishé, a 10-year industry vet and a former employee of Sanchos Cantina y Cocina, first took to Facebook in June about her concerns with the downtown-area Mexican restaurant and live music venue.

In a lengthy post, she voiced concerns that the restaurant’s COVID-19 safety guidelines were unclear, adding that owners Samuel Asvestas and Robert Barnett hadn’t been involved enough in the process. The eatery’s guidelines regarding guest capacity and social distancing parameters were ambiguous at best, she also complained.

A statement Barnett emailed to the Current from Sanchos’ management team disputed that claim, saying it held two meetings to discuss those topics.

“Among other things, we informed our staff that customers would be required to wear face coverings, that we would have outside seating only, and that social distancing would be practiced,” the statement reads.

In an interview, Trishé told the Current that Asvestas and Barnett never consulted with staff before they decided to reopen Sanchos on Memorial Day weekend.

With less than a week before the scheduled reopening, she said employees had yet to receive clear and actionable instructions from the owners and resorted to talking amongst themselves about how to best implement safety measures. Workers went so far as to create their own plans via group texts to buy extra hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment, or PPE, she added.

“They didn’t flat-out say, ‘Fuck you guys,’ but that’s what I got out of it,” Trishé said. “Nothing was done to take into consideration the individual risks their staff would be taking by working in that environment with no safeguards in place.”

When staffers brought their concerns to Asvestas, Trishé said he deflected with sarcasm or tried to make individual employees feel like they were in the wrong.
“[Asvestas] will make you feel crazy for feeling any sort of negative way about him, and he’ll gaslight you and try to make you feel bad,” Trishé said.

One of Trishé’s coworkers, who asked not to be named for fear of hurting her future employment prospects, told the Current she’d seen Sanchos managers add water to hand sanitizer bottles intended for guest use.

“If they don’t care about the safety of their guests, the people that financially support the business, how am I supposed to believe they care about me?” the worker asked.

However, in the statement emailed by Barnett, Sanchos’ management insisted that health and safety are front and center as it responds to the health crisis.

“Above all, we want everyone to know that we take these policies seriously and will continue our efforts to improve every day to promote the safety of our employees and customers,” it read.

Ione Rousseau, a furloughed Sanchos employee and 16-year veteran of the bar industry, says Asvestas’ mistreatment of staff didn’t start — and likely won’t end — with the pandemic.

While eating at the restaurant with friends on her day off, Asvestas asked her to have sex with him in the house across the street, Rousseau alleged in an interview.

“I emailed my lawyer about Sam Asvestas within my first two months working there,” Rousseau said of the incident. She hasn’t yet decided whether to pursue a legal claim against the restaurant.

Trishé and four other Sanchos staff members interviewed by the Current corroborated Rousseau’s accounts of Asvestas’ behavior around female workers. Those staffers accused Asvestas of crossing professional lines by dating members of his staff, placing cash tips in their bra straps and allowing his friends to heckle and taunt Sanchos' employees while the friends were his guests at the restaurant.

“He brings his friends up here, and when they see how he treats us, they think that’s okay,” Trishé said. “They definitely take their cues from him.”

Between an in-person interview and email correspondence, Rousseau shared a dozen alleged examples of Asvestas’ inappropriate conduct involving herself and other female employees. Those included uninvited physical contact and propositions for sexual acts.

She recalled an instance when Asvestas allegedly massaged her shoulders without her consent and repeatedly requested that she go home with him, saying she could become his “next ex-wife.”

Throughout the encounter, she said, Asvestas placed his hand on her bare thigh.

“I’m not making $2 an hour to stand here and be groped,” Rousseau said. “I’m not on the fucking menu.”

In its emailed statement, Sanchos’ management told the Current it decided not to make any public comment regarding sexual harassment allegations, given their sensitive nature.

Getting Back at Green

On June 2, 2020, Ronald Vara, a former employee of Green Vegetarian Cuisine, posted an emotional Instagram story alleging that the restaurant’s co-owner Mike Behrend stole some of Vara’s first vegan dessert recipes nearly 15 years ago.

Vara’s post prompted others to come forward with accounts of their time with the restaurant group, which includes San Antonio and Houston locations of Green and Earth Burger, a vegetarian drive-thru concept.

Other posters responded with allegations that they faced sexual harassment on the job and saw workers at the chain serve non-vegan and non-vegetarian food products in a pinch.

Green has since blocked Vara and others who made complaints about their time with the chain from its Instagram feed. It’s also turned off commenting capabilities.

When the Current reached out to Green for comment for this story, Marketing Manager Ellen Evans provided the following email statement: “We recently established a private email to encourage anyone in the community to share feedback and concerns about our restaurants after receiving many anonymous accusations in social media posts. These accusations are unsubstantiated. Please understand that we do not discuss personnel issues publicly.”

Vara said he felt compelled to post his grievance on social media because his experience with Green still feels raw today. He’s now a private pastry chef and recipe developer specializing in vegan treats, but he added that he struggles to trust professional partners as a result of his experience with the brand.

“I don’t trust anyone,” Vara told the Current. “That was my first experience with a small, locally owned company: getting ripped off. So, no, I don’t trust anyone I work with.”

Vara provided the Current with screenshots of direct Instagram messages he received from other former Green workers who shared their negative experiences with the company. One message said Behrend, the co-owner, sometimes allowed plates advertised as vegan to be sent to the dining room when they weren’t actually vegan.

One message alleges that kitchen workers sometimes corrected orders by scraping poultry eggs off the top of entrees and replacing them with crumbled tofu. Additionally, the message said that in a pinch, staff had used refried beans made with lard instead of vegan beans.

According to Vara, another message accused Chris Behrend — a co-owner of Green and brother to Mike Behrend — of following a 19-year-old staff member into a restaurant bathroom during an employee holiday party, “grabbing” her and “leading [her] behind the cellars ‘so we could talk and more.’”

According to the account, Chris Behrend pulled her by the hair as she tried to escape his grasp, and he only let her go once she screamed. The person who sent the message didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.

Another former Green employee who posted in response to Vara agreed to an interview with the Current but asked not to be named since she currently has a restraining order against an abusive ex-boyfriend. She said she endured multiple incidents of sexual harassment as a hostess and server at the Pearl location.

“It’s crazy to think that I did all of this work to escape an abusive relationship, only to enter a new one when it came to working at Green,” the woman said.

“That was actually my first food industry experience, and it deterred me from ever wanting to work in a restaurant again,” she continued. “I’ve worked in coffee shops, bars and ice cream shops, but I would not work in a restaurant again, because every woman I’ve ever talked to that’s ever been a waitress has been sexualized and objectified.”

click to enlarge Customers seated outdoors at Bakery Lorraine. - SANFORD NOWLIN
  • Sanford Nowlin
  • Customers seated outdoors at Bakery Lorraine.
‘No One’s Been Ignored’

Bakery Lorraine was the only restaurant group contacted for this article that agreed to an interview about allegations raised by former workers on social media.

“We don’t take any of these allegations lightly,” Bakery Lorraine owner Anne Ng told the Current. “We listen to them, we conduct an investigation — which takes time — and we resolve the situation. No one’s been ignored; everything’s been properly investigated.”

Ng also said that she and Bakery Lorraine’s co-owners recognized every person who alleged management’s inaction via social media. She spoke personally to some of them when they were leaving the company, she added.

“It’s our mission to be progressive,” Ng said. “If [the former employees] weren’t satisfied with our conversation before, they all have our personal numbers. They can talk to us any time they want.”

Former Bakery Lorraine staffer Zachry isn’t the only employee of the chain to raise concerns online about working conditions there.

Another former worker named Jackie, who asked that only her first name be used to maintain the privacy of women she worked with, said managers failed to take other female workers’ complaints of sexual assaults seriously.

While Jackie didn’t personally experience harassment or assault as a Bakery Lorraine employee, she said working for the chain left her feeling hopeless and scared.

“It made me question local businesses that claim to be progressive, when in reality, it’s all a front to appeal to a certain audience,” she said. “Not once during my time working at Bakery Lorraine did we discuss sexual harassment. … In the moment, the customer was always right, even at the expense of the employee.”

Jackie was employed by the company for nearly three years.

Bakery Lorraine co-owner Charlie Biedenharn said he aims to foster an environment where no one is afraid to come forward and speak up about workplace problems, including allegations of sexual assault.

“We wanted to be the best, have the best pastry, the best culture,” Biedenharn said. “Not just because the customer is happy but because everybody’s happy, safe and taken care of. I think we want to have a culture that people love working in.”

High Bar for Legal Action

Debes, the Houston attorney, told the Current that in the years he’s been practicing law on behalf of restaurant workers, sexual harassment and discrimination cases have always been prevalent. Many of those involve young women overseen by male supervisors.

“While there is an attitude that’s clearly inappropriate and shouldn’t be tolerated in any environment, these younger women are reluctant to say anything for fear of being blackballed or retaliated against,” he said.

So, Debes adds, the cycle continues.

“I don’t know what it’s going to take to break the back of the employers and make them realize that [this behavior] can’t be tolerated,” he said.

Many food service workers never take legal action against employers, Debes added. The arduous legal steps required to build a sexual harassment or discrimination suit mean it can take up to two years to make it to a courtroom — if it even goes that far.

Debes said a claimant must show incredible endurance to win a sexual harassment or discrimination suit. Telling their story again and again in depositions and mediation carries a unique brand of emotional weight — and for an outcome that often consists simply of back wages and any compensatory damages the judge or jury decide to award.

For many clients, a few days of back wages at the rate of $2.13 an hour is simply not worth a fight that can drag on for the better part of two years.

“Invariably, these cases are settled out of court,” the attorney said. “Most of these don’t make it to the courthouse, and that’s not fair. All these people want is justice. Whatever that term means to them at that point in their life.”

For many workers, “justice” means that, at the very least, people in leadership positions at workplaces where they experienced mistreatment acknowledge that the incidents occurred.

“It’s really frustrating because my end goal is to own a bakery, so I’m going to be in the food service industry until the day I die,” said Zachry, the former Bakery Lorraine worker. “Literally, the only hope that I can have for a workplace to be genuinely positive and healthy is to create it, because I haven’t seen that that kind of environment exists yet.”

So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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