Letter From the CEO: Real Change, Right Now

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#86this: Main Menu

By Erin Patinkin
illustration by autumn whitehurst

We can change the food industry.

In the wake of the horrifying allegations against Harvey Weinstein, an almost daily ritual has developed in my office: while reading the news or scrolling through social media, one of my teammates inevitably releases a sigh or screams “gross!” a signal that another prominent male has been accused of barbaric improprieties.

Though the allegations themselves are appalling, the responses by the co-owners, partners, and companies that employ abusive staff are equally so. Rarely have they provided an inspiring path forward or, frankly, expressed enough outrage. The examples are many: In response to restaurateur Ken Friedman’s behavior, his partner and famed chef April Bloomfield stated her focus was on “food” and that she referred her whistleblowing staff to outside counsel, as though they were flies to be shooed out of her kitchen. Only after a lambasting did she show remorse, regretfully professing that her initial response “fell short.”  Joe Bastianich admitted that he knew his business partner, Chef Mario Batali, had “said inappropriate things” and that he “should have done more” when Batali’s behavior came to light. Similarly, Raymond Landry, general counsel to Besh Restaurant Group, stated, “[the company] needed to do more beyond what the law requires” after 25 women (so far) accused Chef John Besh of harassment and creating a toxic work environment for women. These stories are, I am sure, just the tip of a very dirty iceberg.

These subpar expressions of penitence are symptoms of a bigger problem of enabling and a lack of ethical leadership in the food industry. It is one rife with a top-down permissiveness that extends beyond excusing or ignoring sexual harassment claims and is deeper than a few months of “revelations.” The fact is that many leaders tolerate and often condone bad behavior, from allowing alcohol and drug use both on and off the clock, to stealing wages via common “shift pay” schemes, to ignoring rampant verbal abuse in kitchens, to disregarding OSHA rules, to continuing to partner and build businesses with known sexual predators, etc.

Almost as often as one of my team members gasps at their Facebook feeds, I receive messages from concerned fellow business owners asking me what they can do to ensure that their workplaces are safe. Many of us have been hoping—yearning, really—to see solutions-oriented strategies emerge from influencers because we, too, need guidance. However, their woefully lacking responses have proven that it is up to folks like my colleagues and me—people without the large media platforms, big investors, and star power—to be the change we would like to see and to fully embrace the safeguards and policies that protect our workers.

How does a leader accomplish this? As the CEO of Ovenly, it is my responsibility to define my organization’s culture, to create the framework for procedures that set up staff for success and happiness, and to author and live out the behaviors that can undergird my company’s core values. Beyond my own personal moral code, I understand that my job, on a grander scale, is to create value not only for my investors but also my staff and, ultimately, to keep the company happily afloat. Dismissing or willfully ignoring wrongdoing from anyone, partner or otherwise, is not only irresponsibly bad leadership, it also decreases business value and can spell the end of the company—the biggest of business failures.

Every company faces challenges from the serious to the weird and they are, often, unpreventable because, well, people are unpredictable. And it is the leaders’ duty to swiftly confront these challenges when they arise.

I have had countless uncomfortable conversations with staff about expectations and have been required to make many snap decisions to fire staff for violating policies. For example, a few years ago, I happened to walk into our kitchen as one of our most hard-working supervisors told an inappropriate joke about rape to one of our female team members. I was shaken by it, and so I immediately asked the supervisor to meet me outside of the kitchen. I reminded him of our anti-harassment policy and indicated that that joke was offensive and constituted verbal harassment. I outlined my expectations and told him I would meet with him before his next shift to discuss further. He said he understood and that he would stop, and we both walked back into the kitchen. A few minutes later, he loudly recounted another and even more offensive joke, in what, I assume, was an attempt to show me his power. I grabbed my general manager, updated him on what had happened, and together we fired that staff member on the spot.

For me, the decision was straightforward and the appropriate response to the situation. However, the female staff member who was on the receiving end of the first joke later confided that she did not understand why that offense would get the other staff member fired, and she felt guilty that she was somehow the reason he lost his job. I assured her he was terminated for his own behavior, not hers, and explained what kind of language was appropriate and what kind of work environment and culture my business partner and I, as owner-leaders (and especially as female owner-leaders), hoped to create.

Were these hard conversations to have? Yes. Was firing an employee I cared for difficult to do? Yes. Did it hurt my company’s short-term efficiency and output in our commissary to fire that employee? Yes. Was it the right decision? Yes. If I had ignored what I witnessed, I would have been tacitly approving that type of behavior.

Even today, with almost 60 employees and four retail stores, my managers at times ask my business partner or me to participate in the most difficult human resources conversations, not because they cannot do it themselves, but because, as the leaders and owners, our presence signifies seriousness and care. I never say “no” to these types of requests for help from managers because—and here is the thing—as a leader it is my duty to set an example and reinforce company policies.

As our culture finally seems to be paying attention to and taking action against abuse in the workplace, I want to call on leaders to launch an industry-wide reset. It is time to create actions that abolish all harassing behaviors and environments and intentionally build better and more positive workplaces and experiences.

There are very simple ways to begin this process, and I have come up with five simple steps to help anyone get started:

1) Create a handbook with a very strict anti-harassment policy and have it reviewed by a human resources professional

Review the most important parts of the handbook with each employee and, going forward, include that review as a component of onboarding for new hires. If anyone violates those policies, fire him or her, even if s/he is an owner or a partner. Hold everyone in the organization accountable to the same standards of excellence.

2) Create a mandatory anti-harassment training (sexual and otherwise) for all staff, including leadership

Make the training part of the on-boarding process for new hires. Don’t know where to start? I am happy to share my own curriculum with you for the price of free. Please contact me, and I will happily get it to you.

3) If you see something, say something!

Has one person complained about harassment to you or other members of your management team? Investigate and address it immediately. Follow up with the staff member who made the complaint, congratulate him or her for having the courage to come forward, ensure him or her you will investigate the situation, and indicate that you will do everything in your power to make her or him feel safe. Fire anyone who engages in behavior that is contrary to your policies or your company’s culture and core values. Positively reinforce honesty and forthrightness.

4) Create confidential, annual, 360-degree feedback loops that include questions about happiness, safety, and inclusion

Let your staff review you, your managers, and your company anonymously. Read and assess those reviews and improve on your and your company’s areas of weakness.

5) Remind yourself that neither you nor your company’s profits are the most important parts of your business; rather, your staff and your clients are

No business can succeed without employees to sell and customers to buy, and a great way to create value is to treat these folks right. The happier they are, the more successful you will be.

There is a sea change happening right now. As leaders, let us not just read people’s stories or yelp at the news, let us really do more and change the narrative for the better.


Erin Patinkin is CEO and co-founder of Ovenly, one of New York’s top-rated bakeries. Erin has dedicated her leadership and business practice to radical responsibility and to creating a more empathetic economy for everyone. She has been recognized as one of New York’s most “badass women” in food in New York City by Zagat and as “one to watch” by Conde Nast. Her writing has been featured in Lucky Peach, Vice, and in her cookbook, Ovenly: Sweet & Salty Treats from New York’s Most Creative Bakery, which was named as one of the best overall books of 2014 by National Public Radio. You can find her at erinpatinkin.com or on Instagram at @erinpatinkin.

Autumn Whitehurst is a freelance illustrator based in Brooklyn, NY.  She finds immense pleasure in making a mess, whether it’s putting her hands in the dirt, rough housing with her 75 pound canine companion, or fooling around with materials in the studio. 


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