Trish Nelson on moving forward, the painful conversations the industry needs to have, and giving the Pig back to the people.
When it's your job to keep the party going, who do you turn to when it spins out of control?
Trish Nelson has been in the restaurant industry since she was 14 years old. She loves it with her whole being. As part of her longtime job as a server at the Spotted Pig, Nelson was entrusted with making sure that the Friday night parties thrown by investor Jay-Z had free-flowing Patron and bodies packed to the walls in the notorious third-floor VIP party room. She reveled in her ability to mollify a cranky, famished guest, and then give them the night of their life. This was Nelson in her element, crafting a luxe experience for people who are used to being pampered. This was Nelson in her truth as well: a blue-collar woman, subject to the whims and wants of people who get their way, one way or another.
On January 7, a group of former Spotted Pig employees gathered around a podium in the offices of New York State Attorney General Letitia James to announce the end of a months-long investigation that uncovered a hostile work environment and "severe and pervasive incidents of unwanted touching and unwelcome sexual advances" by majority owner Ken Friedman. Per the terms of the settlement, Friedman agreed to cut ties with the restaurant and give $240,000 of his own money and a share of his profits to be shared among the 11 former employees who had accused him of harassment and unequal treatment.
Nelson had spoken out publicly—first to the New York Times and then 60 Minutes—about an alleged assault on her by Friedman and the culture of fear that kept her from telling anyone outside the restaurant about the toxic mess in which she and her colleagues worked every day. This was as fundamental a part of the Spotted Pig as their iconic burger: cross Friedman, and he'll make it his business to get you blackballed from the industry.
But at that podium this week, Nelson raised her fist and her voice, delivering an emotional speech honoring the efforts of the #MeToo movement, questioning the structure of an industry built on the backs of the working poor, and pleading for those in power to have the painful but necessary dialogues it will take to move forward in a way that values the dignity and wellbeing of the people who depend on these jobs for their livelihood.
"Our contributions to the whole of our society, however small they may seem, are impactful and important. Women and working class people like myself are the backbone of our society and we deserve just as much as anyone else to be respected and treated like human beings, especially when we are in our places of employment. We are not disposable. We are valuable," Nelson said.
But what does this forward momentum actually look like in real life?
Some of the offenders have been publicly identified, with a few being ousted from the daily operations of their restaurants or financially divested from their empires. And very few are facing potential criminal or civil charges for their actions (the AG's press conference noted that the department received "credible information" about alleged actions by frequent patron Mario Batali, and is "looking into him, his business partner, his management company, and his three restaurants" separately). But what happens to all of the hardworking people who still depend on this industry?
Will the powerful investors who may have wilfully ignored the exploitation behind the scenes now come forward and devote their dollars to making a healthier workplace? Can the people—including and especially women like Friedman's business partner April Bloomfield, who Nelson says enabled this culture—acknowledge their role and do the challenging and necessary work to understand where and who they failed, and make amends? Can well-heeled diners allow themselves the discomfort of learning about the emotional, physical, and financial toll taken on the invisible workers who facilitate their magical nights out? What does that actually look like?
In an interview with Food & Wine, Nelson laid out her hopes for the future of the Spotted Pig. "I would like to see those very powerful investors like Jay-Z and Bono and Fatboy Slim—what do they need with a failing restaurant? Why don't they buy Ken out and why don't they donate those shares, gift them to these working class women like myself who made that establishment and made April and Ken's empires what it was? I would love to turn that restaurant into a beacon of hope for the working class, for women."
Nelson and her colleagues may not have been the public face of the restaurant, but they're the people whose experience, skill, and sweat made the magic happen, day after day, late night after late night. "It is my hope, maybe we can raise money, maybe I'll start a Go Fund Me, but give the Pig back to the people," she said.
She continued, "If I were able to actually take over ownership of the Pig at some point in my life along with the women who are a part of this case, I would love the diners to feel like they were contributing to this general understanding of the restaurant industry's changing. In our hands, we would be able to actually implement protocol that would make our employees feel safe. We would be able to pull in outdoor HR resources so that it isn't just about our company being protected; it's about the people who work for us being protected. We would be able to donate a portion of the proceeds to RAINN, or just to truly bring it home to say, we are invested in revamping this restaurant culture and being a leader in what a mentally stable establishment. You can feel proud eating here because you know you're contributing to change."
The Spotted Pig is far from the only restaurant to foster an environment that is painfully detrimental to the wellbeing of its workers, and it's not isolated to the hospitality industry. Nelson, who also works as a comedian, has seen the toll it's taken in other quarters, and while it's been intensely painful for her and for many others, she knows that pure rage—while valid and necessary as a part of the process—is not what will help the world move forward.
"The complicated thing for all of us is that I know what it feels like to be shamed into silence,” she said. “I know it's not the answer, so we have to bridge the gap of this divide. We have to start these conversations. And that includes hearing things from Ken and Mario and Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. Things that I'm probably not going to agree with, especially if they can't take ownership of what they've actually done. But do I want them to be shamed into silence? No, because I think that we have to have conversations with people that you disagree with in order to evolve as a culture. I think it's important. And it helps crack the egg open."
There is more to come. There will be more terrified victims who are in the place where Nelson once was.To them, Nelson shares these words:
"I know it feels like the idea of coming forward that your life will be over because the restaurant industry is such a tight-knit community. And the people in power have often retaliated. .... But it has changed. People will embrace you. People like me, please, you can find me. I will help you. You are not alone, and don't feel like you have a responsibility. You only have a responsibility to your own mental health.
But if you can muster the courage to be able to speak your truth, somebody else will be able to do that eventually as well. And it will be a domino effect, and we will all stand together in this. Know that you are embraced, and your fear is understandable. But there is so much love waiting for you on this side of the divide."
Note: This episode contains mentions of emotional and sexual abuse. If you need to talk to someone, Crisis Text Line is available 24/7 at #741741 or via Facebook Messenger, and The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network's (RAINN) counselors can be reached at 800-656-HOPE.
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