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Creating a Safe Place

Creating a Safe Place

#MeToo: How are You Answering the Call for Change?

Leveling the playing field and rebooting the reputation of the nation’s fastest growing industry may seem like a daunting task, and make no mistake, it is. The inescapable truth is that 2017’s public airing of the long-simmering sexual harassment issue was just the first step in a long, arduous journey. Everyone—advocacy organizations long dedicated to fighting workplace inequality, high-profile chefs, independent restaurateurs—is energized and enormously optimistic about the future. Seize the moment to create a workplace culture in which employees feel safe, valued, respected, even joyful. If you need a little help getting there—and who doesn’t?—we’ve gathered some expert advice below.

First, know that establishing a safe workplace is a top-down effort. Owner-operators set the tone, and it’s crucial to set it right from the start.

“You can have a lot of great policies on paper, but if people don’t feel they’re going to be believed by management, it won’t be taken seriously,” says Sheerine Alemzadeh, co-founder of Healing to Action, a Chicago organization representing survivors of workplace violence.

Understand what is legally considered sexual harassment:

  • Quid pro quo: conditioning of specific employment benefits based on sexual favors or behavior.
  • Hostile work environment: incidents that occur frequently or over time that intimidate or offend, which may include lewd comments, gossip about personal relationships, displays of pornography, derogatory talk about gender, leering, unwanted touching.

Then set a clear protocol for reporting such incidents, ensure that the worker is protected from retaliation, and intervene promptly.

“Frequently, by the time it’s officially reported, it’s not the first thing that happened,” says Alemzadeh. “It may start with jokes and verbal harassment, but if not sanctioned, the harasser becomes emboldened and escalates the behavior.”

Training must be continuous and offered to back-of-house and front-of-house, sending the message that everyone’s voice matters, advises Katherine Miller, senior director of food policy advocacy at the James Beard Foundation.

“The topics covered will be uncomfortable, so it’s best to bring in a trainer who will talk to your staff and answer questions candidly,” says Miller. “If it’s unaffordable to do this alone, join forces with other restaurants in your community.”

There’s a real business case to be made for investing in ongoing training. Sexual harassment is hugely costly in terms of diminished productivity, adverse impact on employee health, reputational harm and job turnover, potentially the single largest cost, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

“We’re constantly battling labor shortages because with so many restaurants operating, it’s very easy for an employee to leave and get a new job down the street,” says Miller. “A best-in-class culture will help retain staff and be the kind of place customers come back to often.”

Bring Everything to Light

As a woman in the eye of a veritable media storm, Shannon White, CEO of BRG Hospitality (formerly Besh Restaurant Group) has much to teach us all about handling a crisis with grace and confidence. The actions she implemented immediately to reassure employees and diners that sexual harassment issues were being painstakingly addressed, proved vital long term as well, helping lay the foundation for a new culture at BRG Hospitality and within the industry she has loved wholeheartedly since age 18. A few hard-earned lessons:

  • In her first weeks as CEO, White hired an external firm to interview employees in a non-threatening atmosphere. “We needed to bring everything to light.”
  • To give employees a protected voice, an
    anonymous hotline was established and monitored by the director of Human Resources and White, who swiftly address issues.
  • A HIPAA-protected employee assistance program was launched to help employees cope with a worklife known for long, late nights.
  • The employee handbook was retooled, including a morality clause and a clear code of conduct defining unacceptable behavior. “Every person needs to sign it. Once the line is drawn, immediate action will be taken if anyone crosses it. I let all my managers know they needed to be on board because we are not ever going to let this happen again. The era of excess is over.”
  • A new culture can’t be built overnight. “It helps to map out a plan for the year and make sure standards are consistently communicated to every employee and new hire.” Progress is discussed weekly, and White says “there’s nothing too small for me to know about as we work through this together.”

You’re Not Alone: Check into These Resources

Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC)

A membership-based organization working for improved conditions for America’s 13+ million restaurant employees. Sexual harassment prevention trainings are offered by local chapters across the country. http://www.rocunited.org

Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment (RAISE)

An ROC partnership of restaurant industry leaders committed to the High Road standard: upward mobility for women and people of color; livable wages not dependent on tips; access to affordable healthcare and paid sick time; and creating a safe work environment. Free sign up and access to Know Your Rights training webinar, best policies handbook, monthly informational calls, research studies and more. http://www.raiserestaurants.org

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

Leading for Respect (supervisors) and Respect in the Workplace (all employees) training provides specific skills employees need to act respectfully and to intervene when they observe disrespectful or abusive behavior. Fee-based.


Uses bystander education strategies to empower bar staff to stand up against sexual harassment. Available in 11 cities, and expanding; cost varies by city, ranging from free to $650. http://safebars.org/start-your-own-safe-bars

From the groundbreaking Glass Floor Report (ROC, 2014) that first brought light to the issue:

  • More than one-third of all sexual harassment claims to the EEOC come from the restaurant industry.
  • At least monthly, two-thirds of women experienced sexual harassment from management
  • At least monthly, three quarters of women experienced sexual harassment from co-workers
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