Like their counterparts in politics, the movies and the media, famous chefs and restaurateurs around the country have been caught up in the recent #MeToo movement, and are being held accountable for bad behavior in the kitchen. Star chefs such as Mario Batali in New York and John Besh in New Orleans were forced to leave their restaurants after multiple employees accused them of sexual harassment.

The issue has also bubbled up in Boston where, in a 2015 lawsuit, a server accused the chef de cuisine at L’Espalier of sexually harassing and assaulting her. In December, five Latina kitchen workers at the McCormick & Schmick’s in Faneuil Hall alleged they were subject to lewd comments and groping on the job, and filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against their employer.

In Maine, though no one has stepped forward with on-the-record allegations of the magnitude Batali and Besh face, harassment goes on, restaurant people say, but much of it goes unreported. They add that the problems here more typically arise between restaurant staff and patrons, or between patrons and other patrons, than between employees and employers. Often these encounters are fueled by alcohol.

To tackle potential sexual harassment, a few local bar and restaurant owners are launching the Heart of Hospitality program Thursday. It will offer two-hour sessions to train servers, bartenders and other hospitality staff to recognize and de-escalate harassment, whether from an employer, an employee or a customer who’s had too much to drink.

Eventually, they hope the program will expand to other Maine cities.

Briana Volk, who owns the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club and Little Giant with her husband, Andrew, believes that it’s the perfect time to start Heart of Hospitality in Portland. “It’s really frustrating watching all these people being called out (nationally), but nobody’s talking about ‘What’s our solution here? How are we going to fix it?’ ” she said. “And not just fix it individually within our restaurants, but as a community?”

Andrew Volk says there are “definitely restaurants and bars in this town where people don’t feel comfortable speaking up” about sexual harassment. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s just part of the culture,’ ” Volk said. “That’s bull (expletive). That’s harassment.” The Volks have banned misbehaving customers from their bar, even regulars, to ensure their staff feels safe, most recently this very month when a “handsy” customer groped one of their employees.

Now, they’ve volunteered their own bar and restaurant for the first round of Heart of Hospitality training. The training is a collaborative effort, among the Volks; Oronde Cruger, a server, host and bartender who is also program director for Speak About It, a local sexual assault prevention group that works with students; Clara Porter, director of Prevention.Action.Change, a Portland-based organization that provides training to counter harassment, assault, and abuse; and a few other organizations. They worked to secure $25,000 from wholesale liquor supplier Maine Spirits to create Heart of Hospitality.

Some of that money went to bring a D.C.-based program called Safe Bars here last summer, training about 20 people – bartenders as well as violence prevention experts – on how to intervene in harassment situations. They have modeled Heart of Hospitality in part on that program and in part on strategies developed by Cruger. Graduates of the summer training will run the Heart of Hospitality sessions on Thursday. Businesses that go through the training – which costs them $250 – will receive a logo to display at their entrance, on their website and on social media – a way to advertise that they are a “safe space.”

FOOD SERVICE COMPLAINTS

It’s hard to quantify sexual harassment at restaurants and bars in Maine (or anywhere). Between July 1, 2016 and June 30, 2017, 48 complaints were filed with the Maine Human Rights Commission that included claims (sometimes multiple claims) of sexual harassment, according to Amy Sneirson, executive director of the commission. Of those 48 complaints, eight came from restaurant/food service/bar environments. “Food service” includes venues such as convenience stores and food service at VFWs.

The commission finds reasonable grounds that harassment occurred in about one-third of the complaints that are filed, Sneirson said. The remaining cases are either settled, dismissed, or have some other administrative resolution, she said. Ryan Wilmsmeier, a 34-year-old bartender who works at Portland Hunt & Alpine Club and took the Safe Bar training, said he worked with one chef in Portland who, he discovered later, had a reputation for making inappropriate comments and inappropriately touching his female staff. “(The women) were just too afraid to tell us because he was their boss,” he said. Wilmsmeier would not name the chef, who he says has since left the city. He thinks such harassment is less common in Portland than elsewhere.

“A lot of our chefs are younger, and so they didn’t grow up in that same kind of era as Mario Batali and other chefs – not to say that younger chefs can’t sexually harass people,” Wilmsmeier said. “But I feel like we’re in a better place here. It’s sort of a different mindset.”

Admittedly, a chef or other employer who is sexually harassing his staff isn’t likely to sign up for a program like Heart of Hospitality, but Briana Volk believes the program can still make a difference.

“If it’s the employer who’s the person who’s harassing people, with programs like this it does put some social pressure on them,” she said. “Knowing that the restaurant community as a whole is having these conversations and training people to avoid this, it hopefully will make them rethink what they’re doing.”

Collaborating on the Heart of Hospitality program in Portland are, from left: Clara Porter, director of Prevention.Action.Change.; Karen Wentworth, director of community education and prevention at Family Crisis Services; Sheila Gibbons of Maine Spirits; Oronde Kruger, program director at Speak About It; Andrew Volk, owner of the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club; and Tracy Willette of Maine Spirits.

Porter said Heart of Hospitality is starting its training with bars “who are interested and open” and already trying to make their establishments safer, more welcoming places. She said it became clear during Safe Bars training that a lot of bartenders like Wilmsmeier already have some strategies for dealing with harassment in their workplaces.

“What the training will do is give them extra tools to intervene safely and without commotion, and early on in an interaction where they’re seeing something that’s concerning,” Porter said.

THE NEED TO INTERVENE

The bystander intervention training teaches how to interpret body language, distract a harasser and interrupt uncomfortable situations so they don’t escalate. A distraction might include a bartender calling the harasser over to the bar and pretending he has a question about the harasser’s credit card. Cruger recalled the time he had to deal with a large party of drunken men at a party at Liquid Riot, which hosts many birthday and bachelor parties. Drunken partygoers sometimes try to fondle the servers, and for tipped workers who are trained that the customer is always right, “that can be hard,” Cruger said.

“You don’t want to risk not getting paid at all for your efforts,” he said, “but you also don’t want to be touched by this person. So what do you do?”

In the case of the large party of men, the men had wandered over to a table of women and started flirting. Cruger, who was working as host, approached the table and asked if everything was all right, and did anyone need anything? When he returned to the host stand, one of the women approached him to say things weren’t all right. “Actually, I’m not good,” Cruger reported her saying. “It was funny at first, and kind of fun, but now it feels kind of creepy.”

So Cruger pulled aside the man who seemed most sober and reasonable, telling him if his group didn’t return to their own table, he’d have to give it to another party.

It can be hard to know when to step in. Maybe the couple with the weird body language who appear to be having an intense conversation are not two strangers but an old married couple having a fight. And it can be hard for women to speak up, or intervene in situations, because they’ve been taught their whole lives to be polite and not make anyone uncomfortable, notes Sylvi Roy, a bartender at the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club who went through the summer Safe Bar training.

Roy said she had a hard time the first day of the training last summer because it’s a difficult topic and it was difficult to hear other people’s personal experiences. But ultimately the training gave her confidence. She put her new skills to the test one day last fall, when she saw an older man approach a woman in the bar. Roy noticed the woman was leaning away from the man and giving other nonverbal signals that she was uncomfortable. “She didn’t want to offend him, even though he was definitely pushing things too far for her comfort zone,” Roy said.

Bartender Ryan Wilmsmeier works behind the bar at Portland Hunt & Alpine Club. A Washington, D.C.-based program called Safe Bars trained about 20 Maine bartenders and violence prevention experts last summer on how to recognize and intervene in harrassment situations. Heart of Hospitality is modeled in part on Safe Bars.

Roy found a way to let the customer know she was keeping an eye on the situation. Then Roy distracted the man, drawing him into a conversation about television shows so the woman was able to quickly call an Uber, and hand over her credit card to pay. Before she left the bar, she thanked Roy for helping her get out of the situation.

Women aren’t the only victims of harassment. Wilmsmeier said he, too, has been touched and grabbed, but has always been able to turn to his manager for help. “Pretty much every man in this industry has had this happen to them, too, but we’re taught not to talk about it,” he said.

Wilmsmeier said the Safe Bars training gave him more confidence in how to handle such situations.

Heart of Hospitality isn’t trying to change the culture of people going to bars to drink, flirt and potentially meet someone, Cruger says. Rather, the program encourages better communication and setting boundaries to nip potential problems in the bud. Even if a customer is attracted to a person, he noted, that doesn’t mean she wants to go home with him. A moment of intervention, he says, gives that woman a second to think about what she really wants, and if she wants to slip away, to slip away.

“There are tons of reasons why people go to bars, and those reasons may change over the course of the night,” Cruger said. “Just because you’ve been flirting with someone doesn’t mean that they want to continue to be flirting with you. When people stop communicating with themselves and each other, that’s when the danger comes in and that’s what we’re trying to change.”