Public Comment

Is Boycotting Charlie Hallowell's Restaurants a Good Solution?

Friday January 12, 2018 - 05:26:00 PM

The Bay Area is reeling from revelations about charges by employees of sexual harassment by several well known and successful businessmen, including chef and restauranteur Charlie Hallowell, owner of three popular Oakland restaurants, Pizzaiolo, Penrose and Boot & Shoe. All three continue to be open, though others in San Francisco have been closed, but Hallowell is taking a leave of absence. 

I am a devotee of Pizzaiolo, enjoying morning toast & coffee there for 4 years. 

Reports by employees about Hallowell’s comments have been upsetting. I have also noticed his flirtatious behavior with patrons. One woman who comes for breakfast told me it helps to have her partner with her, which has stalled Charlie’s asking “When are we going to have sex?” That’s clearly no more appropriate for a customer than for an employee. 

An incident I saw 2 years ago disturbed me; Charlie came up behind a barrista as she made tea, and put his hands on her shoulders. She hadn’t realized he was about to approach, and seemed startled. He whispered something. After he left, I asked, “Are you comfortable with that?” She answered, “No, that wasn’t comfortable.” “Maybe you should tell him," I suggested. She shook her head. “I don’t think I will.” She no longer works at Pizzaiolo. I didn’t say anything, either; now I think maybe I should have. 

Charlie has made mistakes and has acknowledged them and apologized. I take both his behavior and his apology seriously. If Charlie indeed takes responsibility and is willing to change his behavior, hopefully the restaurants will survive. What I’ve observed is that Charlie is a charming, affectionate man with great charisma who brings energy and pizzazz into a room. This has not been a problem except when he expects women employees and diners to appreciate sexual innuendos and uninvited touching. 

Ironically, two new employees told me they left previous jobs due to harassment. They were happy to get work at Pizzaiolo, because they had never heard any negative reports. They intend to stay, and hope the restaurant can continue. 

One of my friends is boycotting the restaurant. She refuses to come as a protest against his behavior toward the workers. When I told a barista, she said, “I appreciate her concern; I definitely do understand people boycotting us, but I’m scared. It’s our livelihood.” 

The baristas are delightful youngsters, even with the high turnover which annoys another friend, who complains “Just as I get to know them, they’re gone! This doesn’t happen in my country; there, they stay for years.” After reading about the 17 former employees who have complained about harassment, she said, “Now we know why” there is such turnover. One of the current employees, who has had no problems with harassment, is nonetheless checking out ads on craigslist in case they need a new job. Not because they want to leave, but they are concerned that if people boycott, as some patrons say they intend to do, the restaurant may close. I would miss the baristas and hope our delightful morning times can continue. 

Knowing him as I do, I believe Charlie is sincere in being willing to face the results of his behavior, and willing to change. 

He has been steadfastly kind to me, including feeding me for free during chemo treatments for breast cancer. I continue to have breakfast daily thanks to his generosity. I have tried offering him checks, but when I realized he never cashed them, I asked why. He said, “I’m not going to cash them as long as I know you are struggling.” 

He has also been generous with consistent donations to the auctions at Emerson School which raised money sufficient to hire an art teacher and a music teacher. 

I sincerely hope Charlie decides not to close the restaurants. It would be a loss to our neighborhood and the community of folks who meet in the mornings to chat and enjoy the fabulous pastries. We started a “Croissant Club” on weekends because the croissants are so good that even our French friends have joined us. 

I asked one day if I could kiss him on the cheek & he replied, “Get outta here! You can always kiss me!” He and I have hugged over the years, and I realize that he always approaches me from the front, so I have the opportunity to refuse any gestures of affection. Certainly during breast surgeries, I didn’t want hugs, as contact would be painful. I would recommend this to men who wonder what they need to do to be respectful: Don’t sneak up on us! Give us a chance to refuse your touch, no matter how well intentioned. 

NO means NO. If we all treat each other with respect, the world would be a beautiful place. Let’s try it. 



Alta is a poet and the founder of the pioneer feminist publishing house Shameless Hussy Press.