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Stunned by Stella's: torrent of employee-abuse and harassment allegations unprecedented

Restaurant, hospitality educator says torrent of employee-abuse and harassment allegations unprecedented

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/11/2018 (708 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the fast-paced, pressure-filled world of the Canadian restaurant industry, Bruce McAdams thought he had seen and heard just about everything.

But the assistant professor at the school of hospitality, food and tourism management at the University of Guelph was struck by the wave of allegations of abuse and worker mistreatment made last week against Stella's, the popular Winnipeg restaurant chain.

"This thing that has come out of your city is like nothing I've seen," McAdams says.

Since last Thursday, an Instagram account called @notmystellas has received more than 275 stories from people who have worked in various positions throughout the company's seven locations, documenting everything from sexual harassment to unsafe working conditions.

Bruce McAdams, assistant professor at the school of hospitality, food and tourism management at the University of Guelph, says the allegations of abuse and worker mistreatment at Stella's is something he has never seen in the industry. (Supplied)</p>

Bruce McAdams, assistant professor at the school of hospitality, food and tourism management at the University of Guelph, says the allegations of abuse and worker mistreatment at Stella's is something he has never seen in the industry. (Supplied)

The Free Press has also heard from more than 20 former and current employees whose personal accounts paint a disturbing picture of a company with little regard for the people it employs.

Christina Hajjar (from left), Amanda Murdock and Kelsey Wade are part of the #notmystellas movement that exposed the culture of harassment at the popular Winnipeg restaurant. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Christina Hajjar (from left), Amanda Murdock and Kelsey Wade are part of the #notmystellas movement that exposed the culture of harassment at the popular Winnipeg restaurant. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

As an advocate for a stronger and more sustainable restaurant industry, McAdams has been following this story closely. While it's tempting to view it as a microcosm for the restaurant industry as a whole, he says Stella's is unique.

"Based on the accusations, if they are true, then they are checking all the boxes for things you can do wrong," he says.

"Restaurants do have to work better at things like breaks, sick days, competitive schedules — those things aren’t rampant, but they are present in the restaurant industry in Canada," he says. "It is a unique environment. It’s a transient workforce, a young workforce, it’s a diverse workforce that includes many members of marginalized groups. There's physical work, it’s high stress, alcohol is served. There’s sexualization of servers, there’s inequity in terms of representation of women at higher levels of management.

'Based on the accusations, if they are true, then they are checking all the boxes for things you can do wrong.' ‐ Bruce McAdams

"Yes, it exists in our industry and is need of addressing. I think we’ve gotten better in some issues — the harassment issue we’ve definitely made progress and continue to make progress. When it comes to adhering to labour standards and progressive work environments, I’d give us a D. Maybe a C-minus. We need to pull up our socks."

For the front-line staff currently working at Stella's, this past week has been especially stressful.

"We were being harassed by customers," says a current employee, who does not want to be identified, adding that servers were given no guidance from upper management on how to respond to customers.

For front-line staff currently working at Stella's seven locations, this past week has been especially stressful. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

For front-line staff currently working at Stella's seven locations, this past week has been especially stressful. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"I had a customer ask me how I could let this happen. We had calls, we had emails. We had people come in, obviously, but we've had people stay away. Our sales have plummeted. I know everyone says 'solidarity with Stella's employees,' but I say hit them where it hurts.

"I'm glad people didn't come in."

She says that people's anger is understandable, even if it's misdirected. It's understandable, too, that people might even feel betrayed by Stella's. This is a company that cultivated an image of friendliness; approachable food, served by approachable people. The fact it's a local chain is precisely what attracted many of its employees, including this one.

"I’d eaten at Stella’s before," she says. "Everyone seems happy and bubbly and the food is good. It was the first place I applied to."

It wasn't long before she became disillusioned with Stella's sunny-side-up disposition. "Everyone was demoralized. I felt like everyone was walking on eggshells. It was also very competitive. Everyone looks left and right at all times, afraid of making mistakes."

And mistakes could cost you shifts. Many employees the Free Press spoke to talked about "competitive scheduling." According to Noël Pruden, who worked in various kitchen management positions over the five years he was employed, servers are ranked on a scale from A to D. The A's are the all-stars; D's are people with poor skills and poor attitudes. The ranking system could be arbitrary; names could be switched around at random.

The Stella's location on Sherbrook Street closed for two days after the story broke. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The Stella's location on Sherbrook Street closed for two days after the story broke. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

'I had a customer ask me how I could let this happen. We had calls, we had emails. We had people come in, obviously, but we've had people stay away. Our sales have plummeted. I know everyone says solidarity with Stella's employees, but I say hit them where it hurts.' ‐ Stella's employee

"We were told to go through our schedules and write these letters beside their names, and put them in that order on the schedule," he says. "They didn't tell us to sit down with anyone and have a meeting. There was no mention of what the followup was supposed to be."

"This is a system to keep people in line and push them the hardest at all times," says the current employee. "It became apparent to me that if you call in sick or if you have a day where you are a little bit off, you will be cut shifts. It’s used as a punishment. We work with mostly young women who are right out of high school, barely in university, who are so vulnerable to this. They accept this as a given."

Then, of course, there's the matter of harassment. The restaurant industry has a long history of bullying and harassment which, McAdams says, typically comes from the kitchen and dates back to the late 1800s when French chef Georges-Auguste Escoffier developed the kitchen brigade system still used today.

"It was militarized; he was from the navy, he’d had kitchens in the military," McAdams says. "It’s what we call a command-and-control, militarized approach to leadership. That became ingrained in our kitchen culture."

The objectification and sexualization of mostly female servers coupled with the toxic masculinity of the kitchen was also a recipe for abuse.

"You have men in aprons cooking, which, in the old days, some would consider women’s work, so there was this over-masculinization of their own work," McAdams says. "And then in the '90s and early 2000s, this jocular approach to Gordon Ramsay-ish kitchens, ‘I’m a man, and I’m the boss and I’m going to yell and scream.’"

Christina Hajjar (from left), Kelsey Wade and Amanda Murdock held a press conference asking for an acknowledgment from the company about the abuse reported by workers and a formal apology from owners. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Christina Hajjar (from left), Kelsey Wade and Amanda Murdock held a press conference asking for an acknowledgment from the company about the abuse reported by workers and a formal apology from owners. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

That said, McAdams notes that attitudes in the industry have been shifting. "I get the feeling we're trying to change, but we need to go faster and be more collaborative," he says.

He points to some guiding lights, including WITHorg (Women in Tourism and Hospitality Organization), which is working to close the gender leadership gap, and It’s Your Shift, a five-module online program on harassment developed by the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association. Female chefs such as Amanda Cohen and Dominique Crenn represent a new generation of leaders. The "that's just how it is" excuse no longer flies.

"I’ll tell you, that example of Stella’s is the exception," McAdams says. "The majority of kitchens are 'fair' to 'good employers, but the other problem is, we have very few 'fantastic' employers. If you look at the list of Canada’s Top 100 employers that came out last week, there was not one restaurant company, which is insane, given the number we have."

'It became apparent to me that if you call in sick or if you have a day where you are a little bit off, you will be cut shifts. It’s used as a punishment.' ‐ Stella's employee

Statistics back this up. While Stella’s has been in the news, there are no shortages of complaints against other restaurants in the city. According to the province's Employment Standards branch, more than 300 complaints have been lodged so far in 2018.

Per Restaurant Canada, there are 80,000 restaurants in this country, employing more than one million people. The majority of those restaurants are focused on being great places to eat. Too few of them, however, are focused on being great places to work — and that, to McAdam's mind, is a source of many of the industry's issues.

"We treat employees more like expenses than assets," he says. "We are very focused on our labour costs. It’s our most controllable cost. There’s minimum wage going up, so managers and chefs are trying to get people off the clock, maximizing productivity; they may be working people through breaks because of all these pressures.

"We’re in the moment, trying to manage these costs as opposed to looking at people as assets and saying, ‘These people are going to be key to my restaurant's growing revenue and increased productivity.' I think that is innate in restaurant DNA in Canada in how we manage people. There are companies that do look at people as assets — but there’s not enough."

That assessment lines up with Pruden's experience as a kitchen manager. "Your expectations were to have a very low labour cost and a very low food cost," he says. "If you managed to meet those numbers you'd be given a bonus at the end of the quarter. I found the expectations put you under so much stress to cut people's hours. It bounced back on to the staff in a negative way."

The current employee says at Stella's, "you are a disposable, interchangeable commodity at all times. And the company makes sure you know that."

"Somebody sat down and developed these ways of making the most out of people, like an orange to squeeze," she says.

The employee who still works at Stella's would like to see a wholesale revamp in how the company treats its employees — from allowing water breaks to managing from a place of motivation, instead of fear.

"This is a chance for change," she says. "This is a chance for them to step up as human beings and give people their dignity back."

"(Stella's) is an unfortunate situation and I feel for those involved," McAdams says. "I appreciate the fact that it’s been brought out into the public realm, and I think it provides us, as an industry, a huge opportunity to reflect and evaluate where we are and come together collaboratively to try to continue to improve what we’re doing as employers."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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History

Updated on Saturday, November 17, 2018 at 10:26 AM CST: Headline tweaked.

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