Abusive Working Conditions at Juventino, Say Former Employees

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photo via New York Daily News

22 former employees of 5th Avenue farm-to-table restaurant Juventino say that behind the farm-fresh exterior is a culture of sexual harassment and general abuse at the hands of chef Juvantino Avila. Now, Jezebel reports, those workers (21 of them women), have turned to the Internet: with the blog Juventino Disclosed, they’re hoping to “give a voice to women everywhere who think that being groped, humiliated and worse comes with the service industry territory.” That, and to give “unwitting” patrons a chance to rethink their next round of cornmeal-encrusted oysters.

From the Juventino Disclosed homepage:

The food is seductive, but behind this restaurant’s charming facade lies a toxic work environment where employees are publicly berated, servers are paid less than the legal tipped minimum wage, 17-hour work-days without breaks are demanded, and young women are subjected to unwanted sexual advances behind the closed and locked doors of Juventino’s office.

The specific stories — both the ones Jezebel collected and the ones that have started popping up in the comments section of FiPS — are extremely consistent: massage and snuggling requests, unwanted kisses, coercive “special” dinners, paired with verbal abuse and humiliation.

But because bad behavior is so ingrained in the restaurant industry, and because there’s often no way for employees to complain without risking their jobs, many of the Juventino staffers put up with the situation — at least, for a while. “I justified what was happening with phrases like, ‘Well, that’s just the industry’ or ‘Juventino is a chef and that’s how he’s used to interacting with people,’” a former server told Jezebel. “That’s how I justified him telling me that I was a ‘dirty slut’ when I once had a cold sore on my lip.”

For his part, Avila denies all allegations, as does the restaurant’s owner (and Avila’s live-in partner) Rebecca Uberti.

Him: ”One could describe the [environment]as intense,” he said. “But I have a mom, and I have sisters, and [sexual harassment]is something I would never condone or be a part of. I know it’s common at restaurants, but I don’t accept it.”

Her: the charges are “100% unfounded and untrue” and “detailed lies from disgruntled employees who may or may not have been terminated for poor job performance.”

Both Avila and Uberti wondered to Jezebel about why, if the treatment was so bad, no one had logged any formal or informal complaints. But several former staffers told the blog they did complain, “mostly in exit interviews with Avila, in which they explained that they were quitting due to his conduct.”

Still, only one of the six employees Jezebel spoke with is considering legal action. The rest say raising awareness and solidarity within (and outside of) the industry is enough. “We want to start a dialog with other women in the industry so they know that they can come forward, too,” said one former server.

Also, they’re hoping you’ll consider avoiding the place:

We believe Juventino is doing a disservice not only to his servers of the past and present but to his incredibly hardworking and honorable cooks, and ultimately to you, the unwitting guest whose patronage sustains his business and misbehavior.

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