Top image credit: EDMDroid
Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the women in this story, some of whom continue to work in the F&B industry.
25 year-old Jasmine shares that she was aware of Frolick’s reputation when she joined the company. At the time, she thought very little of what it might mean to work at a place like this.
“It had opened in the West, and I was looking for part-time work after leaving another job,” she says. “It just seemed like a fun place to work at. The working hours were flexible, the girls working there always looked so cool, and we didn’t have to do things like clean the fridge.”
From places like Frolick to more bawdy ones like Hooters, the practice of hiring attractive or skimpily clad women to front F&B establishments can feel old-fashioned, exploitive, and troubling in a way that’s hard to explain. “Objectification” is a word that comes up often, as is the argument that this reinforces the idea that a woman’s looks is the only thing that matters.
This is seen most clearly in how Jasmine recounts that when she applied to work at Everything With Fries, she was asked for her cup size. Places like Awfully Chocolate, according to a former intern at Rice, allegedly gives their servers T-shirts that are a size smaller than the one they request for.
Norman Then, the 29-year old owner of Stickies Bar, which is known for cheap beer and servers who are young, attractive “influencer types”, argues that this is just business and marketing.
“I don’t know about other F&B places but when it comes to liquor places and night life,” he says, “Guys drink a lot more than women, generally.”
“Guys like to look at girls and talk about girls, girls also like to look at and talk about other girls. And also with girls the service is better. They’re more attentive, and they have a gentler touch, which people like.”
In response to the fact that some of his servers can sometimes dress quite provocatively, he says that he encourages his staff to express themselves. While there have been instances where he’s tried to get girls to “cover up more”, he’s been told, “This is just fashion.”
Adding that young women these days are influenced by everything from social media to television, Norman says that he isn’t trying to change society or culture.
“But I do talk to the girls personally sometimes and tell them, it’s not about your looks.”
One owner of several restaurants and bars, who requested anonymity for this story, points out that it’s not uncommon for any public facing business to want to hire good-looking staff. From retail to relationship managers, we see it everywhere.
“Places like Frolick will say, we look for girls with a nice smile. But you look at who they hire, and it’s quite clear how we understand things like ‘having a nice smile’. Usually it just means we want pretty girls or handsome guys.”
The real problem, he tells me, is when people think they have a right to treat servers a certain way just because they are paying customers.
For instance, girls who work at clubs or pour drinks for “boozy brunches” are frequently harassed. One of his female employees tells me, “When people are drunk, they think it’s just harmless fun to do things like kiss you on the cheek. Or they’ll get really touchy and just start grabbing you in places. But it’s not fun, and we have to smile and put up with it.”
At the same time, this business owner insists that he isn’t putting his staff in harm’s way.
He adds, “Naturally, when people are good-looking, they are also more confident. So they might want to flaunt it more. It’s a bigger problem with society when guys then think these girls are “asking for it” when they look or dress a certain way. But I’m not here to solve that problem. I’m here to run a business.”
Norman, on the other hand, shares that they have very little tolerance for customers who behave inappropriately.
“Usually if customers say something rude or inappropriate, the managers will tell them to watch what they say. If they touch the girls, we’ll immediately serve them the bill and ask them to leave, and tell them they’re not allowed to behave like this towards our staff.”
There have also been instances where customers photographed his female servers “in compromising positions” as they were going about their work.
“It’s one thing to look, but taking pictures crosses the line.”
Gabby, who is in her late 20s and used to part-time regularly in bars, explains that it’s only normal for customers and servers to enjoy that interaction between genders.
“Guys and girls are different right,” Gabby says. “This is what makes it fun when you go out to drink or hang with friends, and your servers are a different gender and you get that different experience. Like a guy talking to a male server is very different from a guy talking to a female one. And I get that. It’s normal.
“So this objectification is somewhat inevitable, and it’s not all bad. We’re only human right, and who doesn’t want to be served by cute guys and girls? There’s still a way for this to remain respectful.”
She then introduces me to her friend Amelia, who tells me about a different, “more important” problem.
Amelia is 28 this year, and got her first job in F&B when she was 19.
“It was one of those hipster cafes, run by a guy in his 30s. Parents gave him money to start it, he drove his own car, blah blah blah,” Amelia recounts.
“At 19, when you don’t know anything, guys like that seem quite cool. They show you attention, and because it’s your first job, you want them to like you.”
She tells me that she was surprised when her boss took a liking to her. It started when she was closing up the shop one day and he offered to give her a lift home. Because it was late, she didn’t refuse. He also told her that he didn’t live very far away from her so it was no trouble at all.
Over time, they got closer and started spending time together outside of work. He continued to give her lifts home, and while they were hanging out, he would share about his problems with his then-girlfriend.
“I didn’t know why he was telling me all this, but it made me feel special. Fuck, so embarrassing to say this now. But I was so naive. It was like, I liked that I seemed to make him happier than this other woman.”
One evening, after post-work drinks, he told her that he was falling for her.
“He even said, “If you want me to leave my girlfriend, just tell me. I’ll do it.” I believed him. That night, we went back to his place. And yes, whatever you think happen happened.”
Amelia says she now recognises that she had been strung along, and that her boss had no intention of ever leaving his girlfriend.
“I also don’t think I actually liked him. I was just young and stupid, and infatuated with the idea that this successful older man said he liked me.”
There’s usually a pattern, she says, and there’s always an element of manipulation involved. Because many of these establishments are usually small businesses, staff often communicate directly with employers. Sometimes, conversations over text can take a turn for the personal.
She clarifies: “Of course there’s nothing wrong with employers pursuing relationships with girls or even mutual attraction. But if a guy in his 30s, with so much more life experience, is consistently using his position as employer to have a certain kind of relationship with significantly younger employees, you don’t need me to tell you how messed up that is.”
It’s also not uncommon, she says, for employers to make promises about helping these young women to further their ambitions. This can influence their judgement when it comes to deciding whether or not a relationship is appropriate. In her experience, none of these promises are ever kept.
At one point in my conversation with Jasmine, she tells me, “Let’s just be real for a second la okay. I think that the Frolick bosses really just started the business as a way to party with young girls.”
She’s referring to how one of Frolick’s employee privileges (when you became more senior) included a Butter Factory VIP card, and employees would be invited to party with the bosses.
This, Amelia and Gabby tell me, is one of the bigger problems with the F&B industry that needs more attention. While it’s beyond doubt that many business owners start doing what they do out of some kind of passion, a select few have a hidden agenda.
“All this happened so long ago, but I’m still so grossed out that even my fiancé doesn’t know,” Amelia says.
“I just want people to know that this stuff happens. I want girls to know, especially the younger ones, that you need to look out for bosses like that, especially the ones who seem well respected in the industry. Know the signs, know how to draw the line, know how to say no. At the time it might feel special, but really you’re just getting played. You will regret it.
“And for those who see such things happening, do something. Don’t look the other way.”