Red Top Brewhouse boasts multiple firsts: first brewery in the town of Acworth, Georgia, first operating brewpub in the history of Cobb County, Georgia, and, now, innovative leader in curbing sexual harassment.
Since it opened last August, the brewpub has had a system in place to deal with sexual harassment among patrons: code words.
Posted inside Red Top’s female, male and gender-neutral restrooms are notices that instruct guests what to do if they find themselves the recipient of untoward behavior.
“If you’re in a situation where you are in an unwanted conversation that is inappropriate or you feel that your safety is in question, simply ask your server or bartender for [CODE WORD DELETED]. We will reseat you or intercede on your behalf to extract you from that situation leading up to the removal of the offending guests,” reads the letter in the women’s restroom. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has agreed to Red Top management’s request not to publish the code word.)
“If you’re in a situation where you are in an unwanted conversation that is inappropriate or you feel that your safety is in question, simply ask your server or bartender for [_____].
We will reseat you or intercede on your behalf to extract you from that situation leading up to the removal of the offending guests.”
In late April, a patron used the code word for the first time. Staff acted, and the offender was removed from the premises. After the brewery shared news of the incident and its successful outcome on social media, other breweries and bars reached out to Red Top, requesting insight, so they could implement similar procedures at their establishments.
“We hope every bar and restaurant in America will copy what we are doing, because it can help lives and/or save lives,” said Red Top President Jonathan White, who founded the brewery with partner and CEO Rob Hankinson. “There are simple steps you can take and put in place easily and inexpensively. If we did not have a code word, we cannot help.”
White and Hankinson developed the protocol after researching brewery patronage across Georgia. “In general, (the clientele at) most of the taprooms were male. We saw a huge opportunity catering our business to a female demographic. We felt there are a lot of women interested in the craft beer movement, and we could represent them a little better here,” White said.
Red Top’s procedure for handling unwelcome behavior involves not only staff intervention, but also that of law enforcement, if necessary, using a different code word. “If you are in a situation that you require police intervention, ask your server for [CODE WORD] and we will immediately call the police to ensure your safety is preserved,” reads the signage in the women’s restroom.
Signs in the men’s and gender-neutral restrooms are similar, but the code words are different.
“The ultimate goal is to keep everybody safe,” White said. The notices also provide hotline numbers for sexual assault, mental health assistance and suicide prevention.
White said that staff has been trained to identify problems that call for the removal of a guest. “And, they are going to be reasonable when they escort people out,” he said. In the April incident, “the physical threshold of touch had been broken,” White said.
While the code words are designed to protect Red Top guests from sexual harassment, the company also has procedures in place to address sexual harassment in its workplace, where the majority of its front-of-house team and “a good amount” of kitchen staff is female, White said.
“We have processes written into our SOPs (standard operating procedures) to take care of it,” he said. Although the brewery has not experienced a staff complaint regarding sexual harassment, White conceded that “it is unfortunate that it is part of our industry.”
A Harvard Business Review story published in January, 2018, noted that more sexual harassment claims in the U.S. are filed in the restaurant industry than in any other, with as many as 90% of women and 70% of men reportedly experiencing some form of sexual harassment.
Co-authors Stefanie K. Johnson and Juan M. Madera cited several factors, including the fact that the majority of management and higher-paying roles are filled by men, while the typical frontline restaurant employee is “young, female, and working for a male manager.” At the time, 71% of restaurant servers were women.
“This difference in power can create an environment where sexual harassment is tolerated, ignored, or normalized, because employees do not feel comfortable confronting others about their inappropriate behavior,” Johnson and Madera wrote. “The industry’s high turnover rate — 70% annually — can also contribute to this culture, as targets of harassment are likely to leave before making any complaints.”
The pandemic has seen the exodus of many restaurant workers. Some who have stuck around have been victims of “maskual harassment,” a term coined by nonprofit One Fair Wage to describe hostile customers who demand servers remove their masks in order to get tipped.
Because sexual harassment is so pervasive in the industry, local nonprofit Giving Kitchen recently addressed the topic in a free webinar, as part of a monthlong Mind Matters campaign that focuses on mental health.
“This is the first year we put together a campaign like this,” said Jen Hidinger-Kendrick, Giving Kitchen co-founder and marketing and communications director. Open to all restaurant workers, the seminar alerted attendees to warning signs, and emphasized the importance of having a plan in place to help employees in crisis. All seminars can be viewed on the organization’s website, thegivingkitchen.org.
The majority of cases that Giving Kitchen handles through its stability network do not involve allegations of sexual harassment, but the organization is equipped to provide assistance. The injured party can fill out the Ask for Help form on the Giving Kitchen website, and the submission will “go down the pipeline,” Hidinger-Kendrick said. When harassment issues arise, case workers typically direct the food service worker to no-cost or low-cost legal aid through its Stability Network.
Hidinger-Kendrick also noted that Giving Kitchen is working on developing a “robust manager toolkit” that it can offer to food service operators and managers. Sexual harassment is one of many topics that will be addressed in the resource.
Other best-practices toolkits and training already exist within the restaurant industry. In 2018, the National Restaurant Association launched an online training suite focused on sexual harassment prevention, as part of its ServSafe Workplace training, with separate programs for managers and non-managers.
Georgia Restaurant Association CEO Karen Bremer served on the inaugural committee of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance, when the organization was formed more than 30 years ago, under the arm of the National Restaurant Association.
“I moved to Atlanta in the early 1980s from the San Francisco Bay area,” recalled Bremer, who relocated with the Peasant Restaurant Group. “I can remember discussing with the leadership of my company sexual harassment. At the time, it didn’t have a name,” she said. “We looked at it from a couple different perspectives, not just man on woman. Some of that harassment was straight customers not wanting gay employees to take care of them.”
Bremer recounted a similar customer-server incident from decades past that was race-related.
More recently, she has directed some managers to the National Restaurant Association’s de-escalation training resources, developed during the pandemic to manage hostile customers. “That de-escalation training is also good to teach employees how to deal with sexual harassment,” Bremer said.
Every business should have protocols to deal with sexual harassment and workplace bullying, Bremer said. “The majority of restaurants have an employee handbook. That is at the top of the list of what you need. Some write their own, and let an attorney look it over. Some buy handbook software.”
And, she added, “It’s a common question when getting your underwriter’s insurance: Do you have a sexual harassment policy?”
“Not only can it cost you money,” Bremer said, “but it can cost you comfort level at your workplace.”
This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It was originally published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on May 25th, 2021.