It’s been a little more than a year since Charlie Hallowell, an Oakland chef and restaurant owner, offered a notorious 12-point apology plan after 17 women who worked at his businesses alleged that he had engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment. It’s also been a little more than a year since, with managing partner Donna Insalaco, Hallowell opened a new restaurant in Berkeley, called Western Pacific. That restaurant was recently sold, Insalaco told Berkeleyside last week, a move that’s raised questions about how willing the Bay Area is to forgive the disgraced chef.
Here’s the backstory: In December of 2017, Hallowell stepped away from the daily operations of his portfolio of businesses, which at the time included East Bay venues Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe Service, and Penrose. The departure followed allegations leveled against Hallowell by 17 women, who in interviews with the SF Chronicle “described a demoralizing work environment where his indecent propositions and abuse of his power were the norm, along with a near-constant stream of sexually explicit language,” reporter Tara Duggan wrote at the time.
In response, Hallowell admitted to the Chronicle that he had “participated in and allowed an uncomfortable workplace for women” and said, “I take full responsibility for all of my actions.” In the months following, he sold Boot & Shoe Service to former Pizzaiolo employee Jen Cremer and Richard Clark, and sold Penrose to another former Pizzaiolo employee, Rico Rivera, who rebranded it as Almond & Oak earlier this year.
Hallowell kept a low profile until October of 2018, when he penned what he called “an open letter to the Oakland community.” In the letter, Hallowell outlined 12 steps he would be taking to allow his return to the business, and announced that he was “working with a men’s group dedicated to holding men accountable for their actions and examining how I and we can stop mindlessly upholding patriarchy” and that “once a month a dunk tank will be set up in the backyard at Pizzaiolo. Charlie will be in the dunk seat and anyone who wants to put him in the tank can come and give it a shot!” The apology letter — and the dunk tank comment, in particular — was largely met with public disdain.
In that same apology letter, Hallowell also announced that he planned on opening a new, pizza-focused restaurant in Berkeley called Western Pacific, saying that he had “a very real fiduciary responsibility to our employees and our investors” that required that Insalaco and he move forward with the plan.
Western Pacific opened later that October. It’s unclear how much of the general public was aware of the baggage attached to the restaurant, and according to Chron restaurant critic Soleil Ho, when she passed the spot in February of 2019, “There were a lot of diners in the restaurant. Maybe they had no idea about the owner’s history; maybe some believed he’d been treated unfairly; and maybe some just didn’t care and simply wanted a quick bowl of gluten-free porridge for lunch.”
That’s one of the only mentions of Western Pacific you’ll find in that paper’s pages, as Ho said that she would refuse “to grant publicity to to chefs like John Besh, Mario Batali or Charlie Hallowell.” Even before Ho joined the paper, however, then food-section chief Paolo Lucchesi, wine critic Esther Mobley, and then food columnist Jonathan Kauffman agreed that the paper should not recommend ”restaurants owned by men who have been implicated in sexual harassment investigations.” Michael Bauer, the only dissenting voice, has since retired. The East Bay Express, the one East Bay paper that employs a regular restaurant critic, also failed to review the restaurant.
According to an NPR report from last month, Ho’s piece from earlier this year announcing her ban on alleged sexual harassers caused Western Pacific’s business to drop by 50 percent.
It’s clear, however, that not everyone was boycotting Western Pacific. The NPR item also quotes Roxy Cruz, a 31-year-old grad student, who told All Things Considered that while she disdained the spot at first, she now chose to dine at Western Pacific because “you just get used to the idea that there’s enough bad behavior all around you just can’t avoid it.”
Western Pacific and Pizzaiolo also enjoyed the support of East Bay taxpayers, whose funds helped bolster efforts by local business improvement organizations. According to a June, 2019 report from the SF Chronicle, the Downtown Berkeley Association encouraged its Instagram followers to put pizza from Western Pacific “in your face hole!!” and the Temescal Business Improvement District regularly celebrates Pizzaiolo via Twitter.
Enjoy Italian food? @pizzaioloakland has some signature pizzas, along with pasta and other mouthwatering dishes. If you want to try their Meatballs al Pizzaiolo, cookies, or signature house-made beverages be sure to get your ticket to #TasteOfTemescal!https://t.co/hwVRgpsIYg— Temescal District (@TemescalDist) March 16, 2019
The NPR report, which extensively quoted Hallowell, caused its own small tempest. In an open letter sent to local food media on October 16, Zeina Razek, who says that she worked in the kitchen of both Boot and Shoe Service and Penrose, wrote that “There are also very real long-term consequences to Hallowell’s actions for the survivors of his abuse. We hope you understand that no apology — public or otherwise — can reverse the past.” The letter was co-signed by over 25 other female members of the “East Bay food community,” including former Tartine Manufactory executive chef Christa Chase, Hallowell accuser Catalina Del Canto, and Roses’ Taproom owner Hillary Huffard. (Eater SF contacted Hallowell for comment but as of publication time did has not received a response.)
Periodic reminder that Coqueta is still open, Four Barrel is packed, and Hallowell still hasn’t let us drop him repeatedly in the Dunk Tank.— IDK Concepts (@IDKconcepts) September 6, 2019
By the time of Hallowell’s NPR appearance, Western Pacific had already been on the market since the summer, Berkeleyside reports, with an asking price of $425,000. Insalaco, who did not respond to a request for comment from Eater SF, confirmed to Berkeleyside that Western Pacific was sold, but that Hallowell and she would continue to own and operate Pizzaiolo, the original venue that put Hallowell’s name on the map.
In an email exchange with Eater SF, Razek says that while she “cannot personally speak to the motives behind the closing of Western Pacific,” she said that she believes “diners in the Bay Area community are very mindful of every aspect of their food experience—they take the time to consider local and sustainable food practices in the restaurants they patronize, and I think now they are considering more closely how important it is to promote those places with safe working environments and healthy business practices as well.”
“Diners will ultimately vote with their dollars,” Razek says. “ and I think they’re making a pretty powerful statement that our community does not want to support those businesses with unethical and unhealthy working environments.”
- Chef Charlie Hallowell Leaves Restaurants Following Accusations of Sexual Harassment [ESF]
- New Owners Rebuild Boot & Shoe Service After Charlie Hallowell’s Departure [ESF]
- Charlie Hallowell Sells Second Restaurant to a Former Employee [ESF]
- Former Charlie Hallowell Restaurant to Reopen With New Owner, New Name [ESF]
- Charlie Hallowell Announces 12 Point Plan to Return to Restaurants [ESF]
- Oakland Chef Accused of Sexual Harassment Opens New Restaurant [ESF]
- Disgraced Bay Area Chef Charlie Hallowell Still Wants a Second Chance [ESF]