Do female food servers have any business working in a fine-dining establishment?

When a reporter from a national food-service magazine posed this thorny question to Chicago restaurateur Nick Nicholas five years ago, few words were minced. "Broads are a pain in the ass to work with," proclaimed the outspoken restaurant owner. "My waiters all wear tuxedos. Now, how would some gal look in a tuxedo? Like shit, that's how. Of course I'd hire a broad. It's just that qualified broads never apply."

Since that interview appeared, Nicholas has eaten crow, his words and a considerable amount of money in lawyer's fees. "There was a time maybe I could have said those things and gotten away with them, but it's absolutely not true anymore," Nicholas tells New Times. (His 450-person payroll currently includes "a couple" of women food servers.) "You can't do it anymore. You'll go to goddamn jail! Things have changed and I've changed, too, thank God. Even if I did feel that way, I couldn't tell you. Hell, I couldn't tell my own mom!"

"Have I been in trouble?" says the restaurateur, who insists that food servers "earn" their lucrative jobs in the dining room by working their way up through the kitchen. "Yes, a couple of times. Several women have asked, ~`Is it fair, the way he's doing this?' And so far, thank God, the ruling has been that it is fair because some women have gone through that process and made it to the floor."

THREE VALLEY RESTAURATEURS have not been as lucky.
After a three-year investigation into allegedly discriminatory hiring practices at the establishments, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently cried, "No fair!"

Last April the federal agency filed lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, charging that the restaurants have long histories of hiring men over equally qualified women. Named in the suits, which still are slogging through the court system, were five high-end Italian restaurants: the Avanti restaurants, a two-restaurant chain with locations in both Phoenix and Scottsdale; Allegro, in north Phoenix; and Tomaso's and Chianti, two Phoenix establishments owned by Tomaso, Incorporated. "As far as we can determine, they had lots and lots of opportunities to hire women and they hired only men," says Mary Jo O'Neill, a supervisory trial attorney in the EEOC's Phoenix office. The lawyer denies that the suits constitute a witch hunt against ethnic eateries; according to her, Italian restaurateurs simply were the ones who got caught.

No matter that many diners claim they actually prefer being waited on by tuxedo'd tray-toters. The feds say the law's the law.

"Actually, sex discrimination is pretty common in the industry," claims O'Neill, who says her office currently is investigating a number of other Valley restaurants for the same alleged crime. "But it seems to be mostly these fine-dining Italian restaurants that have kept on with the practice even though we've been investigating them since '87. Even after they received the charge from us, they still haven't changed their practices. That's unusual."

Equally unusual are the damages being sought in the case. In addition to back pay for qualified women who it says were denied jobs on the basis of sex, the EEOC also seeks financial compensation for qualified women who might have applied for jobs but didn't bother to because they realized the effort would be futile.

Asked how the EEOC plans to locate these phantom waitresses (let alone prove that they really thought about working at one of the accused restaurants), O'Neill laughs. "That's a good question," she says, explaining that so far the EEOC's attempts to find such women through newspaper ads haven't been very successful. "It's been hard finding victims," she admits. O'Neill refuses to say how many irate waitress wanna-bes the EEOC already has under wraps, nor will she speculate on how much money may be involved in a settlement if the court rules in the agency's favor.

"As big as Phoenix is, restaurants are still a small industry," she explains. "The owners and the people in that business all know each other. The fear factor is real--these women don't want to be blackballed out of the restaurant industry." Nevertheless, O'Neill claims that the EEOC's Phoenix investigation yielded reports from "many" women with experience in so-called "fine-dining," high-end restaurants in other areas of the country who claim they were discriminated against when they attempted to find work after moving to the Valley.

"They can't find a job doing what they did before, yet they've got the years of experience," she says. "They're stunned."

And woe to the waitress who doesn't have any prior experience in tonier dinner houses. Answering the oft-heard dodge that the fine-dining industry will gladly hire women when there are women worth hiring, O'Neill says, "As long as these places don't let women in and let them get experience, they're never going to have women who are qualified." She adds, "A lot of these places don't really have any minimum qualifications for food server positions. They'll bring in a buser that's worked there for a year or so, who's caught on to what's going on, and they'll promote that person to a food server. Well, that's fine, except none of these places seem to have women busers. It's a real Catch-22. This is the kind of hard-core discrimination that keeps on perpetuating itself."  

That discrimination has long been a thorn in the apron of the waitressing profession. According to a recent report in the trade magazine Restaurant Hospitality, waitresses' wages currently average 72 percent of male food servers. Factor in tips, and the gap widens considerably.

"The figures indicate that there's always been this kind of extreme sex segregation in the industry," says Sue Cobble, author of Dishing It Out, a forthcoming book about the twentieth-century American waitress. "Women have traditionally worked in the more informal restaurants--breakfast and lunch places--while men hold the dinner jobs in the more elite restaurants."

Cobble reports that waitresses have made some inroads into the fine-dining arena during the past ten years--a shift attributable to both an injection of new blood in the industry and a spate of successful EEOC lawsuits.

"What's surprising," says Cobble, "is that you can still find restaurant owners who will publicly state, `This is a waiter-only restaurant--only men can provide the service and give people the sense of status we want to offer.' Since the late Sixties and early Seventies, employers have been aware that they're liable if they have a hiring policy where women are automatically excluded on the basis of sex."

"I didn't even know there was such a law," counters Tomas Maggiore, owner of Tomaso's and Chianti, two restaurants accused of sex discrimination. Despite his professed ignorance, the longtime restaurateur claims to have employed "a bunch" of women at those restaurants during the period he was under EEOC scrutiny.

"How disillusioned I am about living in a country that's the epitome of democracy of the world and they tell me as a small-businessman how I should run my business," says Maggiore, a Sicilian immigrant active in the Valley restaurant industry for over a dozen years. "To me, people are people. They come in, they do the job, I hire them. But now the law comes along and tells me I should do this or I should do that."

Maggiore's diatribe ends on a telling note of rebellion: "It's just like you tell a kid not to do something. What's the first thing that kid is going to do?"

"We believe the lawsuits are fundamentally misguided," contends David Bodney, one of the Phoenix attorneys representing Maggiore and the Avanti owners. The feds claim that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits gender discrimination. But Bodney points out that the law doesn't require private employers to "recruit and train otherwise unskilled persons of both genders for specialized positions." The problem, says Bodney, is "there are very few qualified women."

Bodney, who usually winds up on the opposite side of discrimination lawsuits, insists that the restaurant owners have the law behind them in this case. "There are certain things that are very important to satisfy the job requirements of a fine continental dining establishment," says Bodney. According to the attorney, such exacting skills would include the ability to mix a caesar salad or prepare steak tartare in front of diners.

Nice skills if you've got 'em, but they still won't count for much at Avanti. The restaurant no longer offers diners the thrill of tableside preparation. "I wasn't aware of that," says Bodney, who nevertheless insists that food servers in his clients' restaurants must possess other "skills" peculiar to the fine-dining experience. Exactly what those rather mystical talents are, or why any women with a solid restaurant background couldn't perform them, Bodney won't--or can't--say.

Charles Herf, attorney for Allegro, calls the EEOC's action "one of the greatest abuses by a governmental agency of their power that I've experienced in 22 years of practicing law. The EEOC has treated Allegro as if it were the General Motors of the restaurant industry." Characterizing the northside strip-mall restaurant as a "small, husband-and-wife-owned business," Herf has unsuccessfully tried to get the case dismissed by claiming Allegro doesn't fall under EEOC jurisdiction because it employs fewer than fifteen people. "They sued, knowing full well the economic impact of a lawsuit could put these people out of business," says Herf, predicting that, win or lose, the cost of fighting the suit probably will force the owners to close shop. "The EEOC was not granted authority by Congress to put every small business out of existence. But that's the power they have when they can file a federal District Court lawsuit."  

TOSS THE WAITER-WAITRESS controversy into the lap of restaurant industry observers, and most insiders agree you've got a hot potato liberally garnished with gross generalizations, half-baked arguments and a wilted sprig of stale sexism.

"Yawn," comments Waitress X, a veteran food server who's not holding her breath. "Discrimination in the restaurant business? So what else is new? These guys, particularly the Europeans, are never going to change. They look at their restaurants as an extension of their homes and kitchens and think they should be able to hire whoever they want. Just watch. They'll get out of it somehow. Is it ridiculous? Sure, it's ridiculous. Why do you think I'm working two jobs?" Not everyone is as pessimistic. "I think that any restaurateur who sticks his neck out and insists on only one sex as part of the wait staff or even the kitchen is making a big mistake these days," says Stephen Michaelides, editor of Restaurant Hospitality. Dismissing the notion that women are unqualified to work high-dollar dining rooms as "absolute nonsense," he adds, "There is nothing a waiter is asked to do that a waitress can't."

Other critics scoff at the notion that restaurant owners should be free to reject job seekers simply because the applicants need training. "That's nonsense," says RoxSand Scocos, a Phoenix restaurateur who argues that not even the world's best waiter can walk onto a new dining room floor cold. "We have a really extensive training program here," reports Scocos, who employs both men and women servers at RoxSand, her popular Biltmore Fashion Park eatery. "No matter how experienced somebody is, it may not be the experience required for that particular house. Any position--doing anything--requires training specific to that facility. You would certainly have to have menu knowledge specific to that restaurant."

Food-service historian Sue Cobble says, "It's not like this is an occupation in which people need to get an M.B.A. We're talking about an occupation where there's fairly easy entry. Perhaps the old French service-style houses needed waiters that had gone through European-style apprentice programs. But those places are so few and far between, you only see those in the older hotels."

According to Cobble, the resistance to female food servers in upscale restaurants is "based more on the sense that customers who are paying a lot for their meals feel that they're getting more for their money if a man serves them. There's still that kind of prejudice that somehow women's labor is not as valuable as men's labor."

Even the EEOC concedes that its lawsuits may fly in the face of public opinion. Referring to the results of a phone-in poll conducted by Channel 10 shortly after the suits were filed, O'Neill says, "An astounding number of people said that when they go out for a really nice dinner, they'd prefer to be waited on by a man. I find that attitude amazing, but a lot of people really do view it as traditional that it's more elegant if you're served by a man."

Penelope Corcoran, restaurant critic for New Times, is "ambivalent" about the controversy. "As a woman, I enjoy having a male waiter," she says. "I do think that there's a certain yin-yang when the waiter is male and I as a female am being served. But if women are qualified for the job, they should certainly be hired."

"It's a very real issue," says Steve Weiss, a national restaurant consultant headquartered in Scottsdale who formerly wrote for New Times. "Do we as a society create working situations where you are not allowed to have a job you're capable of performing because you're a certain sex, or a certain age or a certain whatever? Clearly the position of the restaurant is indefensible on those grounds."

Still, some pro-waitress advocates like Weiss can easily sympathize with restaurant owners whose hiring policies may be less than liberated. "You've got to remember that the thing that makes someone become a restaurateur in the first place is that personal allure of what the thing should look like and feel like and who should be there," he says. "These people didn't build a McDonald's or a Burger King. They built an Italian restaurant and they have a certain set of priorities in doing business in that kind of place. It's almost like casting a play, and when it comes time for hiring, they say `I see an older Italian gentleman in that part.' Unfortunately, this runs right into the teeth of prejudice."

Of course, no ambitious restaurateurs--even the ones who hire women--are going to employ surly teens or middle-aged hash-slingers to serve their tony customers.  

"It's a tough question," Weiss admits. "Do we really want to legislate culture? I don't see anyone lobbying against the Jewish delis in New York City. It's part of the gestalt, being insulted by these old Jewish guys." Longtime local restaurant reviewer Elin Jeffords agrees the controversy is far from cut-and-dried. "Ideally," she says, "the service should be so smooth, so unobtrusive and so unnoticeable that it shouldn't matter whether the food server is a Saint Bernard or a Martian. And there's no reason in the world why a woman shouldn't be able to provide that kind of service."

"At the same time," she waffles, "you've got to remember that restaurants are a service industry and you've got to give people what they want. And part of me says that if someone wants to sink $500,000 of his own money into a restaurant, he should be able to staff it however he wants--even if that vision is passe. Actually, I think this is a problem that'll take care of itself. That generation of people who equated fine dining with three-foot-long pepper grinders, a lengthy recital of specials without prices and men in tuxedos with phony accents is rapidly disappearing."

But perhaps the last word goes to the Phoenix woman who gasped in disbelief upon reading Nick Nicholas' inflammatory comments about "broads" being "a pain the ass to work with." "Where do I line up to punch this son of a bitch in the mouth?" she snarled.

Then, realizing Nicholas hailed from her hometown of Chicago, she did an abrupt double take.

"Wait a minute--is this the guy who owns Nick's Fish Market?" Informed that he was, her face lit up. "Let me tell you something. You walked into that place with all those good-looking guys lined up in tuxedos and you swooned. Swooned! I loved that place. The food was just okay, but that service was great! It was worth going in there just to be waited on by those gorgeous guys."

Check, please.

"Of course I'd hire a broad. It's just that qualified broads never apply."

"It's been hard finding victims," the EEOC lawyer admits.

"Yawn," comments Waitress X. "Discrimination in the restaurant business? So what else is new?"

"There's still that kind of prejudice that somehow women's labor is not as valuable as men's labor."

"It's part of the gestalt, being insulted by these old Jewish guys.

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