NEW ORLEANS - When employees enter Saba — an Israeli restaurant started by award-winning chef Alon Shaya — they pass by the company’s mission statement, which emphasizes the importance of a safe and comfortable working environment. Only at the end does it really get around to food with the words: “Then, we will cook and serve and be happy.”
“The team is number one and that is who we are as a company,” said Shaya, explaining the genesis of his and his wife’s new venture, Pomegranate Hospitality , which includes restaurants in New Orleans and Denver, and the environment he hopes to create for the company’s nearly 150 employees.
Discussions about new restaurants generally revolve around the food. And at Saba the piping hot pita bread or the blue crab hummus is discussion-worthy. But long before the first plate of shakshouka was served, Shaya and his team focused on how to create an inclusive work environment different than the toxic restaurant workplaces exposed by the #MeToo movement.
Just over a year ago, Shaya was part owner and executive chef of three restaurants in the Besh Restaurant Group, headed by New Orleans chef John Besh, including his James Beard-awarding winning namesake Israeli restaurant.
Then a story in NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune detailed allegations of sexual misconduct in Besh’s company, causing Besh to step down. Shaya wasn’t personally accused of misconduct but the story detailed allegations of harassment at two of his restaurants. Shaya was quoted in the story about concerns he had over BRG’s then-lack of a human resources department. Shaya has said that’s what led to his firing — something Besh’s company disputed. A messy legal battle ensued during which Shaya lost all rights to his namesake restaurant.
Fast forward to current day: Shaya sits at Saba discussing the policies and procedures Pomegranate has put in place to ensure a safe working environment.
The interview process includes questions way beyond whether a person has waited tables before (‘What was the last gift you bought for somebody?’). Management holds 30- and 90-day chats with new employees and then every six months. The restaurants are closed Monday and Tuesday so everyone has a guaranteed two days in a row off.
Women populate high-profile roles including executive chef in New Orleans. About 60 percent of each restaurant’s staff is women. They’ve adopted ideas from other restaurants including a system used by Erin Wade at the Oakland, California-based Homeroom to deal with sexual harassment and a code of conduct for guest chefs used by Raleigh, N.C.-based restaurateur Ashley Christiansen.
Service is limited during 2:30 to 4 p.m. so the staff can sit together for a meal, often accompanied by staff presentations to their co-workers. Some topics are work-related. But employees are also encouraged to share what interests them. During a recent session, cook Timmy Harris talked to the waiters, managers, and cooks about existentialism, Southern literature and author Walker Percy.
“It kind of drives home the point that this is a place for people to develop themselves. It’s not just a restaurant. We’re not just slinging pita,” Harris said after.
Shaya said he can’t talk much about what happened while working at BRG for legal reasons but says now that he and his wife own their company they’re able to create the structure they want.
“Even in our restaurants someone will be inappropriate at some point,” Shaya said. “And I know that when that happens people are going to jump on it because people have really bought into the values.”
Experts say many issues have contributed to sexual misconduct in the restaurant industry, including a tipping structure that can inhibit servers — often women — from complaining about out-of-line customers, little training for managers and high turnover. Restaurants’ small size — often family-owned or single units — has historically meant they don’t have strong HR policies, said Juan Madera, an associate professor at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management.
Allegations of sexual misconduct at restaurants and the wider #MeToo discussion have been a “wakeup call for restaurants,” Madera said. He’s hearing from restaurant associations and others who want to figure out how to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
Raleigh, N.C.-based chef and restaurateur Ashley Christiansen, who talked with Shaya about his new venture, says a restaurant’s HR presence is as important as the food or the linen service. She says it’s difficult to measure how much progress has been made across the industry since the growth of the #MeToo movement, but she sees cause for optimism.
“I feel like it’s the thing I talk about more than food now, and I think that’s a positive thing,” she said.
Shaya says his new venture hasn’t been without problems. He’s fired one person who was cursing at another employee. But he’s also been inspired by staff members calling out someone who makes an off-color joke or not tolerating negativity.
“We’ve taken it down to the very basics of kindness, and we stick to it and I feel that we’ve attracted a lot of people who believe in that,” he said.