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."

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Dewey Webb