Oakland chef Charlie Hallowell has removed himself from the daily operations of his three restaurants following accusations of sexual harassment by former employees.
According to a report from the SF Chronicle, 17 women have come forward to reveal a “demoralizing work environment” rife with sexually explicit language, and abuse of power by an owner that created an unhealthy environment and “insidious culture” for female employees.
The chef-owner’s restaurant group, which includes Pizzaiolo, Penrose, and Boot and Shoe Service, has never had a human resources department. Since the accusations surfaced, the company has retained an outside consultant to investigate.
In an email statement to the Chronicle, Hallowell recognized that his behavior was “unfiltered and often completely inappropriate” and that he was “deeply ashamed and saddened.”
“I can see very clearly that I have participated in and allowed an uncomfortable workplace for women. For this I am deeply ashamed and so very sorry. We have come to a reckoning point in the history of male bosses behaving badly, and I believe in this reckoning and I stand behind it,” said Hallowell. “I understand that I cannot right the past wrongs, and at the same time, I take full responsibility for all of my actions.”
Hallowell’s past actions include what one employee described as “sexual Tourette’s disorder,” with a constant need to discuss his employees’ sex lives, and a stream of inappropriate commentary. In one instance, Hallowell asked a female bartender “When was the last time you let someone come inside you?” during a busy service.
Without an HR department available to her, she had no recourse, and Hallowell’s behavior was so deeply ingrained in the culture that it became the norm. “Everybody knows it’s unacceptable. And the excuse is, ‘That’s just how he’s always been,’ and, ‘That’s just how he is,’” former employee Molly Surbridge told the Chronicle.
The accusations are the latest in the growing number of restaurant industry reckonings which have shone a bright light on a culture of abuse. Locally, Michael Chiarello (Bottega) has been sued for sexual harassment and wage theft — both of those suits have been settled. Ken Friedman, owner of Tosca Cafe, was recently accused of inappropriate sexual advances, touching, and more by 10 former employees. Eater NY revealed celebrity chef Mario Batali’s long history of inappropriate behavior at his restaurants. In New Orleans, John Besh was similarly accused of fostering an unhealthy culture ate his restaurants. With the exception of Chiarello, all have apologized and “stepped away” from the daily operations of their businesses.
Hallowell, who got his start at Chez Panisse, opened Pizzaiolo in 2005 in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, energizing the East Bay dining scene. He subsequently opened Boot and Shoe Service and Penrose in Grand Lake. His fourth restaurant, Boot and Shoe Berkeley, is slated to open in January on Shattuck Avenue, while plans for an all-day bakery and cafe were announced for the former Grand Fare space in September.
Updated on December 28, 12:20 p.m.:
Charlie Halowell has released his statement to Eater, as follows:
An Open Letter to my Co-Workers and the East Bay Community,
I can see very clearly that I have participated in and allowed an uncomfortable workplace for women. For this I am deeply ashamed and so very sorry. We have come to a reckoning point in the history of male bosses behaving badly, and I believe in this reckoning and I stand behind it. I understand that I cannot right the past wrongs, and at the same time, I take full responsibility for all of my actions. I am genuinely committed to shifting the ethos of the entire business to a much safer and more hospitable environment for everyone, but especially women.
I am clear that my behavior as a business owner was unfiltered and often completely inappropriate. For this I am filled with shame and have deep regret for the damage I have caused. I know that a written apology in no way justifies, excuses or “fixes” any harm I have caused. I didn't see at the time what an effect I was having on the people around me. My willingness to participate in this kind of sexism is something I regret with all my heart.
I have started to very clearly see the ways in which I have failed as a leader, ways I have allowed myself to behave and speak that compromised my employees and the women around me. I understand that my words and actions have had a damaging effect to both my female and male co-workers and our amazing company as a whole. For this I am so sorry. I am truly sorry for causing pain.
We are working with legal counsel and an HR consultant to create and implement company-wide policies and procedures to better equip the company to handle these sensitive matters. Additionally, the company is retaining an outside, independent investigative attorney to come and perform a full investigation. This investigation will provide all employees with an opportunity to express concerns to a neutral third party. This mechanism is intended to help ensure that the company creates and sustains a safe working environment for all employees. We are also retaining a very well respected restorative justice company that will facilitate reconciliation and help us all find a path forward.
In an effort to create real change, while the investigation is taking place, I will be uninvolved with the daily operations of the business. My intention is to foster a safe environment for all employees to express their experience of working in this restaurant group so that we can clearly determine how to move forward. With this information, we will work with an HR consultant who will help the company implement new policies and procedures that protect all employees and create a culture that every employees deserves to work in.
I love the community we have built, the family we have nurtured, and the beauty we have collectively brought to Oakland. I believe so much in what we have co-created and I believe that with a real shift in my personal behavior and the entire culture of my company we can create an even more beautiful company built on the things we hold dearest to our hearts: respect, justice and love.