Since the #MeToo movement began, myriad business leaders — from media and tech to finance — have resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment, leaving bad morale and problem workplace cultures in their wake.
That happened to the Besh Restaurant Group a year ago, after the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a shattering expose about its founding owner, John Besh. It detailed allegations made by 25 female employees describing a harrowing workplace in which Besh belittled and fondled workers, or tried to coerce them to have sex.
Dominique Ranieri, a former server who accused Besh of inappropriate behavior, says sexual harassment ran rampant in the company’s culture. She says she was subjected to “groping, sexual advances — verbally, physically — constant commentary.”
That story became a watershed moment for the restaurant industry. Two weeks earlier, similar allegations against Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein had emerged, kick-starting the #MeToo movement. That spotlight then turned on Besh — a local hero and television celebrity who helped champion Creole cuisine on the national stage. At the time, his group included 17 restaurants and 1,200 employees.
Since then, Shannon White, the 33-year-old former server who replaced Besh as CEO has been trying to turn the restaurant chain around. She, like other leaders in the wake of #MeToo, found herself struggling with keeping the business and its employees together while trying to dramatically change the workplace culture.
(NPR has also faced its own sexual harassment problems. It fired top news executives last year.)
When the crisis hit, White’s personal life was also in transition. She and her fiancé had just moved to a new house and White had just given birth to her first child three months earlier. She was also hobbling around on a broken foot, and adjusting to a new role as chief operations officer of the restaurant group.
“Finding out that people didn’t feel safe coming forward, it’s like a kick in the stomach,” White says. As she read the story over and over, she told herself: “We have to do something. Right now.”
Overnight, Besh’s national fame had become a liability. Staff defected. Seven restaurants eventually closed or were spun off. (This month it opened its first new restaurant, Warbucks, since the scandal.) The company, which now has 800 workers, rebranded itself BRG to erase his name.
“You have employees and you have guests and your orders, but you can’t push pause and say, ‘We’re going to redo this,’ ” White says. “What can we do to start to make change while the wheels are already in motion?”
Over several months, the company allowed NPR to sit in on meetings, interview employees, and watch as they grappled with how to effect that change.
Free-flowing alcohol and late-night work make restaurants a notorious hotbed for sexual harassment — especially so near the glow of Bourbon Street. But White says that soon after Besh left, she realized addressing the problem would mean cultivating trust, respect, better lines of communication, and more avenues for promotion.
“It’s eye-opening; people think it’s all about sexual harassment, and I’m like, ‘It’s so much bigger than that,’ ” she says.
White’s path to CEO was unconventional. She left college before getting her degree, then joined one of Besh’s restaurants as a server, then manager. Eventually she was promoted to chief operations officer.
In her persona and leadership style, White strikes a sharp contrast with Besh. Where he devoted much of his time to television appearances and cookbook promotion, White says she focuses on the details of operating the company.
“I think what I’m doing is very different; it’s just a different role,” she says. She keeps her hands in everything and is focused on persuading everyone who works for her to make the changes she wants to see.
Those who’ve worked with White say her temperament is exactly what the company needs — diplomatic, unflappable, and focused on consensus.
“She was one of the few women in a management position,” says Maggie Moore, a former assistant to John Besh. “I really respected her. Shannon had a presence that when she was in the room, you were listening to her.”
Moore says by contrast, Besh did not heed others; his power went unchecked. She says he propositioned her for sex during a work trip in 2015: “Point blank asked me to come back to his hotel room, and I said no, and he got upset,” she says. “After that, he never treated me the same way.”
Through a representative, John Besh declined an interview, citing the advice of attorneys.
Immediately after allegations like Moore’s and others went public, White had to pick up the pieces — investigating claims, counseling staff, and trying to calm roiling workplace morale.
White also needed to ferret out and fire the bad apples. An anonymous tip line the company set up led to investigations that ended with the dismissal of four managers and a dozen other workers. White says many others left over time.
“A lot of people aren’t going to make it through this, and as a culture starts to shift you see very clearly it brings to light the people that aren’t willing to shift with it,” she says.
Some rule changes were obvious, like ending employee alcohol discounts, which White says helped fuel misbehavior. But many policy changes couldn’t be as cut and dried. White recalls how in the initial weeks of the scandal, she proposed banning dating among workers. Some workers objected.
Human Resources Director Dawn Hazen also pushed back, arguing the policy was unrealistic and would lead workers to hide their relationships, which in turn could lead to conflicts of interest. Hazen was the company’s first HR director, hired just two weeks before the scandal broke.
As with its policy on interoffice dating, White and Hazen say soliciting input from employees helps set realistic rules and get buy-in from workers.
Sometimes, policies evolved over time.
In August, for example, White and Hazen consulted restaurant managers about a potential update to the employee handbook. In it, they consider including a policy saying customers may not touch staff. Some of the managers point out such a rule might be hard to enforce, pointing out that some regulars are friendly and might hug staff when they come in. But they also acknowledge that in other situations, hugs are sometimes unwelcome.
“It has to be that gut feeling,” one manager tells White, arguing the policy should leave the call up to the manager.
By late October, that policy had morphed and had become incorporated into the new-employee orientation led by Hazen.
She explains the new policies to the 50 new bartenders, cooks and servers gathered for training as the company prepares to open its first new restaurant since the scandal. Hazen acknowledges it’s hard to work in the close quarters of kitchens, and suggests they warn co-workers before passing by.
“Say, ‘Coming behind,’ or something like that, to give them a chance to get out of the way,” she tells them.
On the other hand, if it’s a customer being inappropriate, tell your manager, who will decide how to handle that customer, Hazen says.
Rita Bernhardt, the 28-year-old chef de cuisine at the group’s restaurant Domenica, says such open discussion has made a difference as a worker. In the past, she says, personnel decisions were left to a manager’s discretion. But now, Bernhardt is required to report any problems immediately. White and Hazen have been very responsive, telling her, “We’re going to solve this right now,” she says.
It’s still too early to gauge the effect of all these changes. But some say the problems haven’t gone away.
“In the year since that story came out, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to restaurant workers — mostly women — tell me about the problems they faced with harassment, and those phone calls aren’t stopping, really,” says Brett Anderson, the reporter who broke the Times-Picayune story. That includes some workers who say little has changed within the Besh restaurants.
Besh’s continued ownership remains controversial.
“I know that it matters to some employees, and I know it matters to some customers that he is still an owner of the company,” Anderson says.
Even White admits that in subtle ways, Besh’s ownership still weighs on the company.
“The goal in the past was always to give ownership to the chefs over time, [and] I’d like to see that speed up,” White says, so she can set a vision for the company without Besh around.