Posted: Dec 14, 2018
In the MeToo era, reservation platforms profiting from the restaurants of those accused of misconduct raises serious ethical questions
The #MeToo movement has had varied impacts thus far on chefs accused of misconduct: Mario Batali stepped away from his restaurant empire but still profits from it; John Besh removed himself from daily operations of his New Orleans restaurants but has yet to divest from the company; and Oakland chef Charlie Hallowell is mounting a controversial comeback almost a year after being accused of sexual harassment by more than a dozen employees. While those individuals continue to profit in the wake of #MeToo, the movement felled the empire of D.C. chef Mike Isabella, who just this week filed for bankruptcy and will shutter most of his remaining restaurants by the end of the month.
Because numerous chefs and restaurateurs credibly accused of sexual misconduct are still profiting from their businesses, some onus falls on diners, employers, the media, and, to a lesser extent, third-party partners (including suppliers and reservation and delivery apps) to hold them accountable. But while plenty of suggestions have been made to restaurants (fire them!), media (don’t cover them!), and diners (don’t eat there!) on how to handle bad actors, less attention has been paid to a more tangential question: Do reservation platforms like OpenTable and Resy have any moral responsibility when it comes to working with, and thus profiting off of, alleged harassers?
Earlier this year, OpenTable made a public show of moral responsibility with regard to harassment, establishing Open Kitchen, a campaign to get restaurants to run their “businesses so that no one is harassed or discriminated against.” The effort, it announced, was part of “a shared commitment to 86 an exclusionary, abusive culture, front and back of the house.”
When the campaign launched in March, a Medium post from CEO Christa Quarles suggested platforms did hold a degree of moral responsibility in the current #MeToo moment, writing, “It’s no longer okay to be complicit. It’s on all of us ?— ?chefs, managers, restaurateurs, leaders, guests and consumers and more? —? to call out inappropriate behavior and hold offending parties accountable.”
The campaign drew in several prominent chefs from around the country, but some wondered if OpenTable was doing enough: As of press time, the company continues to offer reservations at restaurants of known harassers, including Mario Batali’s Babbo in New York City. (Restaurants voluntarily opt-in to the Open Kitchen initiative.) OpenTable did not respond to inquiries for this story, and earlier this year declined to comment on whether it would consider blacklisting restaurants run by known or admitted harassers, as Eater’s Hillary Dixler Canavan reported.
Of course, reservation platforms inherently have a strong incentive not to cut ties with restaurants: They make money off the partnerships. Depending on the particular plan a restaurant chooses, OpenTable charges a monthly rate of $249 plus $1 per seated reservation (less if the reservation is booked via the restaurant’s own website or social media feed), or $2.50 per seated reservation with no monthly fee.
Nick Kokonas, restaurateur and founder of online reservations platform Tock (which offers two tiers for its services, one at $199 per month and a premium version at $699), says the company has not terminated any existing contracts on the basis of misconduct, but that questions surrounding ethical conduct has influenced which restaurants it chooses to work with.
“Tock has passed on taking on new clients due to concerns about the nature of the business or ownership,” he says. “Of course, if a client is engaged in any proven illegal activity of any kind, that would be against our terms of service and that client would be terminated.”
Legally speaking, any reasons a reservation platform might have for terminating a restaurant relationship would be laid out in the business contract — and any severing of that relationship on moral or ethical grounds would in theory be discretionary on the part of the platform. “The right to terminate any contract for ‘bad acts’ is (or should be) a standard portion of every service contract, especially if the action of one party would reflect poorly on the other,” says Jasmine Moy, a New York-based hospitality lawyer.
But others believe reservation platforms don’t hold anywhere near the degree of responsibility for individuals’ actions that the restaurants themselves do. “It’s a business partner,” says Kate Klonick, an assistant law professor at St. John’s University. “They are not an oversight board of any of these places. They’re simply affiliated.” In Klonick’s estimation, there is no duty on the part of the platform — be it legal or otherwise — to suspend business with a restaurant due to bad behavior by owners or staffers.
After allegations against Oakland chef Charlie Hallowell surfaced, he took a hiatus and sold two of his restaurants — Boot & Shoe Service and Penrose — to former employees before coming back with a 10-point apology letter in an attempt to make amends. Now, he’s mounted his comeback in Berkeley with Western Pacific, and the restaurant has partnered with Resy for its online bookings. Resy declined to comment on its partnership with Western Pacific or on its policies for terminating contracts; monthly costs for restaurants using Resy vary from $89 per in Atlanta to $189 in New York.
So is it ethical for these platforms to continue working with restaurateurs or chefs with track records of harassment? Do reservation platforms have a responsibility to their users to not work with these kinds of people?
For the platforms, “this is a subjective business decision,” Moy says. “Every CEO is going to feel differently about it from a cost-benefit analysis standpoint and from a moral standpoint.” Such a decision would also likely be impacted by whether a company is privately or publicly owned, as well as by input from shareholders, if applicable. However, Moy says, as little public blame falls on reservation platforms for the actions of chefs and restaurateurs, the need for said platforms to avoid certain restaurants simply isn’t there. And without consumer pressure, it’s highly unlikely that third-party platforms will choose to sever ties with restaurant partners.
“I think individuals can and should expect companies to not do harm within their four walls, and maybe even to want companies to be doing more to enforce good behavior because they have larger voices,” Moy says. “[But] demanding that a company take a certain punitive action against a third party, especially when the bad acts haven’t been adjudicated in a court of law, is one step further.”
For many grappling with this issue as the industry works to move forward, part of the struggle is that there’s not much precedent for justice in these situations — though Batali is under police investigation for misconduct, he and other accused or admitted harassers continue to profit from their businesses, and continue to maintain relationships with reservation platforms.
This exact debate over ethical burdens is currently playing out over social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, which claim to be neutral spaces for ideas and consumable information — the platforms absolve themselves of responsibility over content, even as its users engage in hate speech, harassment, or threats. Restaurant reservation platforms, meanwhile, are simply used as channels for securing an experience. While platforms provide a restaurant’s details, including hours, menu, seatings available, descriptions, and frequency of booking, they tend not to include much background on the owners or chefs, which arguably could be influential in selecting a dining experience in the wake of #MeToo. In other words, users rely on apps like Resy and OpenTable to present them with options for where to eat.
OpenTable self-identifies as a “powerful marketing engine” for restaurants, beyond just providing options for where to eat. As restaurant marketers, platforms may not be legally obligated to share any sordid history of their partners. But as the #MeToo reckoning comes to bear, there’s a solid argument that these platforms may be ethically obligated to provide diners the full picture, if they choose to retain their role as the go-between diners and restaurants owned and operated by the accused.
Nevertheless, the business relationships between reservation platforms and restaurants that bad actors are still profiting from won’t be called into question unless diners take the lead. “[When] advertisers pull their ad buys from Fox News or [another network], that’s typically a result of a boycott from the customers,” Moy points out. “I think we can’t expect OpenTable [or other reservation platforms] to terminate these contracts without we, the people, demanding that first.”
By Dana Hatic
December 14, 2018
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