This piece ran as a sidebar to a longer piece, “How Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana Harbored a Culture of Abuse Behind a Progressive Facade,” in the August 12 print issue of the INDY. 

Lauren C. Phillips, one of the women who was secretly recorded by Jordan Hester, has worked in the restaurant industry for years—everywhere from a Huddle House in Western North Carolina to high-profile restaurants in New York City.

While she’s never worked at Brewery Bhavana or Bida Manda, much of her time in the restaurant world has been spent in Raleigh. She speaks lovingly about the romantic heat and rush of late nights, the flash of plans and clink of glasses. There’s brutal grace in being quick on your feet. The adrenaline bonds you to other people. You don’t forget.

But Phillips also speaks candidly of how volatile these workplaces can be, and how the industry fails to protect workers—particularly back-of-house staff, people of color, and women.

“These people donate enough money to the right people, publicly enough, and nothing else they do seems to matter,” Phillips says. “And truthfully, what diner really wants to know all the drama that’s going on with the staff? You know, we like being able to go out to dinner and not think about what their problems are.”

Restaurants have transformed downtown Raleigh, over the past two decades. The hospitality industry has become competitive but tight-knit. Reputation matters. Word-of-mouth between chefs and owners can get you in, or keep you out. 

“I want some light shed on the fact that this is not a unique story,” Phillips says of the allegations against Jordan Hester. “I want a discussion started about how this happens all the time. And this is not okay. It is not acceptable on any level. For this to not only happen but for these places to harbor these men, even after knowing what they’re doing. So many times I’ve seen people in prominent positions screw up in Raleigh, but just go to New York and then do it all over again to another set of women.”

The #MeToo movement first swept through the food industry in 2018, when a number of national stars fell from grace, including Ken Friedman at New York’s Spotted Pig, New Orleans restaurant tycoon John Besh, and Mario Batali, who had restaurants all over the country. Scores of women came forward with accounts of groping, sexual coercion, assault, and pay disparity. Other restaurant implosions have taken place since then, including this summer, when employees at the trendy Chicago restaurant Fat Rice, took to social media to detail hostile treatment by chef and co-owner Abe Conlon. In mid-June, he stepped down. 

This plays out at the top. Women hold only 21 percent of head-chef roles at restaurants around the country, while only 18 percent of industry executives are women. It doesn’t help those power imbalances that a certain creative volatility is lionized in the men at the helm—a dangerous model for an industry that relies on invisible labor in the back of the house, and emphasizes appearance at the front of the house. 

Restaurant critic Tejal Rao wrote in a New York Times piece last week, “As chefs built big restaurant businesses, often referred to as empires, they became powerful brands, capable of obscuring abuse, assault and discrimination.”   

The pandemic has revealed much about the system itself. It has brought the restaurant industry’s endemic racism and sexism to the fore, as food media scandals at places like Bon Appetit and The Los Angeles Times have revealed the way that uncritical, whitewashed coverage of the food world has upheld toxic power structures. It has revealed the fragility of restaurants, which operate on razor-thin margins, and how few guarantees they are able to offer employees. It has also revealed much about consumers themselves: how, in the rush to reopen the economy, being served at all costs is an apparent American value.

“I think that the unique thing about this right now is they don’t have anything to hold over our heads anymore,” Phillips says. “We’re unemployed, and we have very little promise of getting our jobs back. That power that they have held over us for so long is no longer looming.”

Follow Deputy Arts & Culture Editor Sarah Edwards on Twitter or send an email to

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.