Bay Area restaurant creates innovative system to protect staff from customer sexual harassment

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Claims of abuse by celebrity chefs are getting a lot of attention, but many food industry workers say they face serious sexual harassment from customers, too.

Erin Wade, owner of Homeroom Mac + Cheese in Oakland, said she was shocked when she learned her staff was often harassed by customers.

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Wade is a former labor attorney and said she tried to create a diverse, inclusive business with carefully written policies to protect the staff. So she was very distressed when she learned her female employees were getting a lot of unwanted attention from customers. Wade said an incident with one particular customer was a game changer.

"He was the father of four kids. They were at the table with him, and he reached up the shirt of one of our hosts and touched her stomach and told her she was sexy," Wade said.

The host told her female co-workers what happened and Wade says they had a common response: "Hey wait a minute - we've all had a gross experience like that." But many had not reported the episodes because they worried their managers would not take it seriously.

Kayla Sorensen, now a Homeroom manager, was a server when the women finally went to Wade with their concerns. Sorensen describes what happened as "a sharing of experiences between the male management staff and most of the female server staff."

After that, the whole staff worked together to create a solution now posted on the restaurant wall. It is called the Management Alert Color System, MACS for short - perfect for a Mac and Cheese restaurant.

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Problematic customer behavior is divided into color categories. Yellow means the server is getting a "weird vibe" that feels uncomfortable. Orange is when someone makes an inappropriate comment that could have sexual undertones. A red situation is when a customer makes overt obscene comments or touches an employee.

If a customer seems out of line, an employee goes to a manager immediately and says something such as: "I've got an Orange at table 2." Under the policy, the manager has an automatic action he or she must take in response. Orange requires the manager take over serving the table.
Red alerts get the strongest response. Manager Kale Irwin said he appreciates having a very specific plan of action. In a red situation, he addresses the situation with the customer immediately, saying something such as, "This is inappropriate. If you'd like to continue to stay, this has to stop."

Irwin said the system is simple and has been very effective. The kitchen staff also uses it to deal with vendors who sometimes act inappropriately. Red alerts are rare now because managers take action before uncomfortable situations escalate.

Customers we talked to said they were glad to know the staff is being protected. Wade believes the entire process has actually been good for business.

"The fact that we create a really warm, safe inviting place for our customers and our staff absolutely affects our bottom line and it's part of our recipe for success," according to Wade.

Homeroom is now hearing from other restaurants who want to find out more about the Management Alert Color System.

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Written and produced by Jennifer Olney
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