The Spotted Pig, the 100-seat gastropub in New York’s trendy West Village, is undergoing renovation. Until the restaurant closed in 2020, it was the site of an infamous third-floor space dubbed “the rape room” by several employees, who claimed the private dining enclave was the ground for sexual harassment by management.
The rape room lives on as a dark symbolic story in the city’s hospitality industry. Mario Batali, the celebrity chef and investor in Spotted Pig, was a frequent visitor and was also charged with criminal conduct on the third floor, including groping and kissing a woman who appeared to be unconscious in 2008.
“We called him the Red Menace,” Trish Nelson, a former server, told the New York Times. “He tried to touch my breasts and told me they were beautiful. He wanted to wrestle. While I was serving drinks to his table, he told me to sit on his friend’s face.”
Last week, Batali, 61, was found not guilty of sexual assault and indecent assault after a speedy trial in Boston in a case unrelated to the Spotted Pig charges. Batali had waived his right to a jury to decide his fate in a criminal case that sprang from the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault.
Boston Municipal Court Judge James Stanton agreed with Batali’s attorneys that prosecutor Natali Tene, 32, who said Batali forcibly kissed and grabbed her during a nighttime selfie session at a Boston bar in April 2017, no was a fully credible witness.
But the judge also reprimanded Batali. ‘It is an understatement to say that Mr. Batali did not dress in glory that evening. His demeanor, his appearance and his attitude at the time were not befitting a public person of his stature.”
The prosecutor in the case, Kevin Hayden, said he was disappointed with the verdict, but grateful that Tene had come forward. “It can be incredibly difficult for a victim to disclose a sexual assault,” Hayden said, adding that when the perpetrator “was in a position of power or celebrity, the decision to report a sexual assault is all the more challenging and can be intimidating.”
The outcome of the Batali trial has drawn attention to the issue of harassment in the US hospitality industry, even though Tene was a customer — not an employee — of the bar where the interaction took place.
New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said the abuse she experienced as a bartender at Coffee Shop, a now-closed Union Square bar-restaurant known for employing models and actors, prepared her for political live in Washington.
“If you work as a woman in the service sector, you are harassed all the time† It’s just part of your job,” Ocasio-Cortez once told the Hollywood Reporter. “You are often addressed in a very classic way. You are treated like a servant. So you really get used to navigating through those dynamics.”
According to a Social Science Research Solutions (SSRS) survey published by One Fair Wage in January 2021, 71% of female employees had been sexually assaulted at least once during their time in the restaurant industry – the highest of any industry reporting statistic.
Harassment complaints come to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from employees in the restaurant industry more often than from any other industry.
In the SSRS survey, 44% stated that they had been subjected to sexual harassment by someone in a management or property role, and sexual harassment was much more common for tipped personnel – ie service personnel – than for their untipped counterparts.
“Tired employees were more likely to be treated in sexist ways; more likely to be the target of sexually aggressive and degrading behavior; received more persistent and intrusive sexual attention, and were more likely to be coerced or threatened into sexual activity,” the report said.
Employees who were tipped were also more likely than their untipped colleagues to say they had been encouraged to “just forget about it,” and virtually all of them said they’d experienced some form of retaliation for speaking up.
“Sexual harassment is common in the hospitality industry. The stakes are high, as restaurant jobs can be highly paid and hard to come by. So when hospitality workers are sexually harassed, they often don’t complain for fear of reprisal,” said Eric Baum, the New York attorney representing Tene in her civil claim against Batali.
Baum says sexual harassment laws that protect restaurant workers are not often enforced. “Therefore, many restaurant managers and supervisors believe that the strict standards prohibiting sexual harassment do not apply to them.”
A study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Notre Dame, Penn State University and the Emlyon Business School in France found that tip dependence, combined with the service with a smile feature, was directly linked to created intimidation.
In the Batali case, prosecutor Nina Bonelli said Tene had tried to “de-escalate” the unwanted touching by simply “smiling it away” in the photos. “The kissing, the groping. She never asked for it. She never agreed to it,” she says. “She just wanted a selfie.”
Batali’s acquittal in the Boston case follows the New York Attorney General’s finding that Batali and his business partner Joseph Bastianich, their management company B&B Hospitality and their New York restaurants Babbo, Lupa and the now-closed Del Posto created a hostile work environment. who cultivated a sexualized culture of misconduct and intimidation.
Last year, Batali, Bastianich and the company agreed to pay $600,000 to at least 20 former employees. “Fame and fame do not absolve one from following the law. Sexual harassment is unacceptable to anyone, anywhere, no matter how powerful the perpetrator is,” Attorney General Letitia James said.
Batali had previously apologized, acknowledging that the allegations were “consistent” with the way he had acted. “I made a lot of mistakes,” he said in an email newsletter at the time. “My behavior was wrong and there are no excuses. I take full responsibility.”