New York restaurant scene rocked by sexual harassment allegations

Ten women said owner of the Michelin starred Spotted Pig subjected them to groping in public and demanded sex

The Spotted Pig, the New York West Village restaurant that put Ken Friedman, an owner, and the chef April Bloomfield on the map. Ten women employees have accused Mr  Friedman of sexual harassment. Ohotograph: Karsten Moran/The New York Times

The Spotted Pig, the New York West Village restaurant that put Ken Friedman, an owner, and the chef April Bloomfield on the map. Ten women employees have accused Mr Friedman of sexual harassment. Ohotograph: Karsten Moran/The New York Times

 

Natalie Saibel, a longtime server at the Spotted Pig, a West Village, New York, restaurant with celebrity investors, did not quit in 2015 after the owner, Ken Friedman, ran his hands over her buttocks and then her groin in a room crowded with customers.

Amy Dee Richardson, a bar manager, did not quit in 2004, when she says Mr Friedman bit her on the waist as he bent down to duck under the bar. Neither did Trish Nelson, a longtime server who said he grabbed her head and pulled it toward his crotch in front of Amy Poehler in 2007 as Nelson knelt to collect glasses from a low shelf.

But one night in 2012, Mr Friedman pushed Nelson too far, she said: He invited her into his car to smoke marijuana and almost immediately lunged forward and pushed his tongue into her mouth. Nelson, 40, said she was pinned against the car door, but managed to open it and scramble out. She gave notice within days. “I was terrified to tell anyone why,” she said. “Ken bragged about blacklisting people all the time. And we saw it happen.”

From almost the day in 2004 that it opened on West 11th Street with the backing of investors such as Jay-Z, Michael Stipe and the celebrity chef Mario Batali, the Spotted Pig shot to the top of the list of New York City’s hottest restaurants. A clubby place whose third floor is a renowned private playroom for hand-picked VIPs, the Spotted Pig has racked up Michelin stars and accolades for its chef, April Bloomfield.

Ken Friedman (right), with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, bar owner Julie Reiner and sommelier Belinda Chang, at the Monkey Bar in New York, in 2011. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The New York Times
Ken Friedman (right), with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, bar owner Julie Reiner and sommelier Belinda Chang, at the Monkey Bar in New York, in 2011. Photograph: Joshua Bright/The New York Times

But in more than two dozen interviews with former employees of the Spotted Pig and other restaurants owned by Mr Friedman and Ms Friedman, a dark behind-the-scenes portrait emerged of Mr Friedman and the workplaces he runs. Even by the loose standards of the hospitality business, where rowdy drinking sessions after shifts and playful sexual banter are part of the culture, employees described Mr Friedman’s restaurants as unusually sexualised and coercive.

Ten women said Mr Friedman (56) had subjected them to unwanted sexual advances: groping them in public, demanding sex or making text requests for nude pictures or group sex. Many others also said that working for him required tolerating daily kisses and touches, pulling all-night shifts at private parties that included public sex and nudity, and enduring catcalls and gropes from guests who are Mr Friedman’s friends.

In a response, Mr Friedman said his personal and professional lives are intertwined with his restaurants and staff. “Some incidents were not as described, but context and content are not today’s discussion,” he said. “I apologize now publicly for my actions.”

Later, his company announced that Mr Friedman had decided to take an indefinite leave of absence from the management of the restaurants, effective immediately. Mr Friedman is one of the nation’s top restaurateurs, in large part because of his partnership with Ms Friedman, who is among the highest-profile chefs. They own five restaurants in New York: the Spotted Pig, the Breslin Bar & Dining Room, the John Dory Oyster Bar, Salvation Taco and White Gold Butchers.

All the employees interviewed said that for many women, Mr Friedman’s unwelcome sexual overtures, verbal and physical, were part of the daily routine at his New York restaurants, especially the small, intimate Spotted Pig. They said Mr Friedman had frequent consensual sexual relationships with employees; openly hired, promoted or fired people based on their physical attractiveness; was often intoxicated at work and pressured staff members to drink and take drugs with him and guests.

Three former employees of the Spotted Pig, Natalie Saibel, a former server; Jamie Seet, a former general manager; and Trish Nelson, a former server, in who have accused owner Ken Friedman of sexual harassment. Photograph: Celeste Sloman/The New York Times
Three former employees of the Spotted Pig, Natalie Saibel, a former server; Jamie Seet, a former general manager; and Trish Nelson, a former server, in who have accused owner Ken Friedman of sexual harassment. Photograph: Celeste Sloman/The New York Times

Many said they had come to fear Mr Friedman, a burly man well over six feet tall, because of his volatile temper and verbal bullying. They also said that their fear was motivated by the knowledge that Mr Friedman had retaliated against employees who stood up to him by firing, blacklisting or harassing them via phone, text or email.

Allegations of sexual harassment may seem surprising given Mr Friedman’s longtime collaboration with Ms Friedman (43). “My energies are directed to the kitchen, food preparation and menu development,” Ms Bloomfield said in a statement. But staff members said they turned to her for relief. “I went to April directly multiple times about Ken’s inappropriate and abusive behaviour, because among other problems, it generated huge turnover among the staff,” said Natalie Freihon, a former food and beverage director for the group’s ventures at the Ace Hotel New York. “But she completely backed off from getting involved with the behaviour.”

Bloomfield denied that. “In the two matters involving uninvited approaches that were brought to my attention over the years, I immediately referred both to our outside labour counsel and they were addressed internally,” she said in her statement. “I have spoken to Ken about professional boundaries and relied on him to uphold our policies. Nonetheless I feel we have let down our employees and for that I sincerely apologize.”

Kelly Berg, who was hired in May as director of human resources for the restaurant company, Friedfield Breslin LLC, said in a statement that no employees had been dismissed or retaliated against for filing a complaint. Many employees said Mr Friedman was often genuinely warm and professionally supportive of women, as long as they tolerated his flirtatious behaviour. “He can be charismatic and fun,” said Jamie Seet, who worked for Mr Friedman from 2006 to 2014, including three years as general manager of the Spotted Pig. “But everyone goes on the chopping block eventually.” And the rewards of a job at a Friedman-Bloomfield restaurant can be great. Servers at the top of their game can earn six figures in a year. Mr Friedman has treated favoured employees to after-work drinks, field trips to his beach house and top-tier concert tickets.

Industry veterans say restaurants are especially accommodating to behaviour that pushes the boundaries of sexuality in a workplace. Experienced servers accept that flirting is sometimes part of securing a good tip. Shifts are filled with sexual banter that many welcome as playful.

But the Spotted Pig turned that formula up several notches. In past interviews, Mr Friedman, a former manager of bands, including the Smiths, has said his goal was to make a restaurant, with exceptional food, that was as sexy as any bar in town.

His vision was perhaps best expressed on the third floor of the Spotted Pig, an invitation-only space. The scruffy, bohemian ambience and Mr Friedman’s talent as a host and gatekeeper have made it a place where celebrities feel comfortable. In the frequently packed room, guests openly groped female servers, who said Mr Friedman required them to work until parties ended, often after dawn. Among employees and industry insiders, the third-floor space has earned a nickname: “The rape room.” Like many restaurants, the Spotted Pig operated for many years with a patchwork approach to human-resources management. Employees were told to bring sexual harassment claims directly to restaurant managers. But the managers interviewed by The Times said that they were often promoted because they were close to Mr Friedman, so that rarely happened.

“That’s what’s so broken about this industry, and this situation,” said Nelson, who has worked in restaurants for 30 years, including at the Standard in Los Angeles, whose owner, Andre? Balazs, has recently been accused of sexual harassment. “The people you are reporting the abuse to are the abusers.”

Berg, the company’s recently hired human resources director, said in a statement that employees now go through anti-harassment training sessions and that personnel policies have been outlined in an employee handbook. Seet, 37, left the company in 2014 after eight years. She said that she was not a sexual target for Mr Friedman, but the two had a close, tumultuous relationship that she now sees as abusive. Like other managers, Seet said Mr Friedman subjected her to screaming, profane tirades over minor details like an imperfectly fluffed pillow. “I told him I felt like a battered wife,” she said. Overall, Seet said, working for Mr Friedman and Ms Friedman was nearly as thrilling as it was abusive. The constant drama created tight, familial relationships. But, she said, in order for the restaurant industry to finally allow women to build careers, chaotic workplaces like the Spotted Pig will have to change. “I feel guilty even talking to you,” she said. “But it’s got to stop.” – New York Times Service

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