The Cocktail Industry Has a Sexual Assault Problem


6 minute Read

Sexual Assault

In the final months of 2016, more than a dozen hospitality industry professionals went public on social media with stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment perpetrated by colleagues.

First came the website. In first-person accounts, 15 women wrote that they had been assaulted by one LA-based consultant and mentor; the website was called The Reality of Sexual Assault in the Cocktail Community. “His conversations with me were no longer appropriate,” one woman writes. “He would describe in detail all the ways he was going to ‘take me home and fuck me,’ that because I was so tiny, he’d be able to pick me up and take me however he wanted.” He went even further with another woman. “He put the full weight of his body against mine and shoves his tongue down my throat,” she writes on the website. Another writes, “He grabbed my face and began kissing me, while trying to reach into my shirt.” The accused, who was named by some on the website, independently wrote an apology on Facebook before scrubbing his social media presence.

As the list of people sharing their stories grew, others in the industry shared stories of sexual harassment or sexual assault at work or at work-related events. Accusations launched at other high-profile industry professionals trickled out on Facebook.

As the year drew to a close, similarly disturbing news emerged from Toronto. A respected bar owner and spirits educator and his employee were charged with forcible confinement and two counts of sexual assault. “The 24-year-old woman was given illegal drugs and alcohol inside the bar,” the Star reported. “She was forcibly confined in the bar and sexually assaulted, according to police.”

These are not isolated incidents. This sexual harassment, the kind rigorously proscribed against in other industries, seems in this industry to be de rigueur. Numerous men and women who had been victims of similar assaults and much worse were interviewed for this story, though only a handful agreed to speak on the record. What the end of 2016 brought to light is how prevalent, and even accepted, sexual harassment and assault are throughout the hospitality industry in the United States.

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The cocktail industry is a unique one. Restaurants and bars are social places and often escape destinations; they are generally open when other traditional office-based businesses are closed. For those who work in hospitality, staff camaraderie and fun at work are often trade-offs for tight quarters, smaller paychecks, odd hours, and demanding clientele.

“In our industry, it’s easy to create gray areas,” says Jim Romdall, who, though currently the northwest manager for Novo Fogo Cachaça, has been a bartender for 16 years. As a pioneer in the bar industry, having opened one of Seattle’s first and most prominent cocktail bars, he is widely respected for his spirits knowledge, cocktail development, and compassion. “We go to war together during service, become a tight community, and things happen, for good and for bad,” he says.

The good and the bad is inevitable in any community, especially one as nascent as the spirits and cocktail industry. Consider it the baby of the hospitality industry family, not even really into its tween years; at the end of last year, vanguard cocktail spot Death & Co. celebrated its 10th anniversary, and the summer prior, Pegu Club celebrated theirs. If bars were people, it would be just about the time when mom and dad break the news that Santa Claus isn’t real.

But bars aren’t people. They are places people drink adult beverages. In fact, one reason sexual assault in the spirits industry gets swept under the rug is related to the thing that defines it: alcohol.  It is the business’s currency, and while one can be sober and still work in the industry, alcohol remains there as a looming presence — and an excuse — for those who imbibe.

Even the victims of sexual assault sometimes end up using their assailants’ drunkenness as an excuse. As one of the LA victims explained on the website, “I keep telling myself that if the person who attacked me had been a stranger, I would have gone straight to the police. But what do you do when your friend is under the influence of alcohol?” she asked. “I gave him a drunken pardon.”

That drunken pardon has long been the norm. Brooke Arthur, a woman recognized as a role model in the spirits industry, told a harrowing tale on the website of being assaulted by the same person who received that drunken pardon. “Within very close quarters this very big man forced his hand up my skirt without a glimmer of consent,” she writes. “My reaction was large enough for him to stop, and I now know that I am very lucky it didn’t go further. After the incident I complained to my then boyfriend, and very good friend of the assailant, to which it was passed off as inebriation. And there was no further outcome.”

“I do think ‘he is drunk’ is used as an excuse,” says Chazz Madrigal, a West Coast bar manager who recently founded the group 86Silence, a support and education organization that is dedicated to enabling victims to have a voice. But the presence of alcohol means there should be less ambiguity, not more, says Madrigal. “We are service professionals,” he explains. “We are professionals serving alcohol in a fun environment. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

Sexual assault is only half the problem, though. The other half is the silencing of victims who do come forward. One young woman I spoke to who requested anonymity told me that a new client made lewd remarks to her. When she rejected his advances, he told her boss that she “wanted him.” When she asked her boss to be taken off the account, her boss refused, and she was forced to remain directly involved with the client. “Boys will be boys,” her boss said.

Aja Sax, a Canadian server and yoga instructor, told me of the night she was drugged at a bar and then assaulted. But the weeks that followed her assault were awful, too. She says she started out determined to press charges but was ultimately silenced.

Sax is not alone. In another entry on the website, Jeanelle Ownings writes that the thought of speaking up didn’t even cross her mind. “If I fought for myself or spoke up — as much of my experience in this industry has taught me — I’d be disregarded as dramatic, a liability, emotional, attention-seeking, pathetic, a train wreck, alcoholic, etc.  He had power, I didn’t.” Even worse was her next realization. “My experience with him was mild in comparison to some of the offenders I’ve been victimized by within this industry, which in light of all of those coming forward is horrific.”

“A lot of these women in the Los Angeles situation kept quiet for several reasons,” Madrigal says. “They were scared because of his stature and they encountered random victim-blaming when they spoke out.”

And they were afraid of professional repercussions, too. “It’s a fact that our industry talks so much,” Madrigal says. “They were afraid of making a scene and not being able to get a job because of it.” And they aren’t wrong, either. “Calling for a reference, given the way that the shop talk goes on in the industry, means the victim is powerless,” says Madrigal. “I’ve seen good people completely ostracized.”

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When sexual harassment and assault are accepted as the cost of doing business in an industry, they are effectively normalized. It’s exactly the opposite of how things should go down when an assault occurs. “The employer has an obligation to view the workplace, and if he sees sexual harassment, or any other type of harassment in the workplace, he has an obligation to put a stop to it,” explains Regina Faul, a lawyer and partner in the labor and employment group of Phillips Nizer LLP. “Employers have a duty to be proactive about the situation, to investigate.”

That the cocktail industry has too long neglected regulating against sexual assault is something that industry VIPs are finally admitting. “As a community, we need to raise awareness and encourage more people to not be afraid to come forward,” says Tromba Tequila founder Eric Brass. “We as spirits professionals have a responsibility to care for and protect not just the customer but each other.”

This care-taking is long overdue, as Ann Tuennerman admits. Tuennerman is the founder of Tales of the Cocktail, the biggest cocktail industry event, which takes place in New Orleans each July. “Recent events and discussions have given us pause to review our programming and processes while acknowledging that we can do more,” Tuennerman told me.

Tuennerman hopes to lead the way toward a new era with free educational programming for bartenders and support for victims. “To make Tales of the Cocktail to be the safest cocktail event in the industry, we are working on many fronts including: updating our code of conduct and reporting processes, creating free educational programming for bartenders, and supporting victims with resources we have at our disposal,” she says.

But she admits, too, that there is a lot of work to do to make Tales of the Cocktail safe from sexual assault. “We recently updated our code of conduct and are in the process of integrating that code of conduct into our agreements with all staff, volunteers, vendors and presenters,” she says. Other measures are particularly designed with the events of this summer in mind. “Especially in situations of assault, we think it is important to arm the industry with preventative information,” Tuennerman says. To this end, there will be a free educational session at the July event.

But what Tuennerman’s words illustrate, in addition to the changes being made, is the gross negligence on behalf of an entire industry that has allowed these incidents to go unchecked for so long.

Let’s hope 2016’s revelations help usher in a new era in the hospitality industry.

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The Cocktail Industry Has a Sexual Assault Problem

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