Event organizer Liana Maneese. Photo by Nick Keppler.

“Food and beverage service, as we understand it, is roleplay,” says Sonali Fernando, about restaurant culture. She is speaking to a crowd in the conference room of the Ace Hotel in East Liberty. “It is set up in a power dynamic in which there is a servant and a master.”

Fernando, a long-time food service professional in New Orleans and currently the Cultural Engineer of the Ace Hotel in that city, was the keynote speaker at a two-day conference that sought to add a side of social consciousness to Pittsburgh’s burgeoning restaurant scene.

The conference’s name is a mouthful: “86: Removing Barriers That Prevent Your Business from Staying Relevant and Maintaining Integrity—a Conference for Food and Service Industry Professionals.” The idea, says organizer Liana Maneese of the consulting firm, The Good Peoples Group, is to bring some of the cultural awareness and diversity sensitivity that nonprofits and corporations hire her to teach to the restaurant industry—an arena it rarely reaches. “These are some of the hardest working people who often don’t have time for a training like this, or consider this kind of conversation a luxury,” she says.

Maneese says this conference is an opportunity to bring into the open the types of conversations employees have quietly in the breakroom—about staffers of color working disproportionately in the kitchen as opposed to the front of the house, about barriers to management positions, about the unique and culturally reverberating discomfort minority workers feel around overly demanding or inappropriate customers.  

Sarah Cobillas, a conference attendee and operations coordinator for Foodee, a startup that coordinates catering between local restaurants and workplaces in a few cities (including Pittsburgh), says that the culinary world has unique challenges in terms of cultural sensitivity.

“The whole job is to please your guest,” says Cobillas, who previously worked in restaurant management, “to give them a great experience at all costs. Some of that comes back to management.”

If managers or owners tolerate customers sexually harassing staffers or making off-color remarks, that permissiveness can permeate the general workplace atmosphere, says Cobillas. Plus, it’s a “high-stress environment where no one wants to stop and address these things.” There isn’t much time or appreciation for the kind of cultural inclusion white-collar workplaces have tried to incorporate into their culture, she says.

Maneese says it’s in restaurants’ own self-interest to focus on diversity problems. She cites that millennials spend about half their food budget eating out and care more about the social responsibility of where they drop their cash. Criticism of a restaurant based on perceived racial insensitivity can spread across social media and cause a PR nightmare, as befell a Berkeley, California cafe where black comedian W. Kamau Bell was waiting for a table when he says staff tried to shoo him away on the assumption he was a homeless wanderer.

In a recent Pittsburgh case, it killed a restaurant in utero. In May, a restaurateur canceled plans for a fried chicken establishment themed around ’90s hip-hop in East Liberty, a neighborhood wrestling with demographic changes as real estate prices shoot upward.

“The next generation is going to be more mixed racially and more attuned to these issues,” says Maneese. “They will care about that when they decide where to spend their money.”

Nick Keppler

Nick Keppler is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Vice, Nerve, and the Village Voice.