Post Harassment Scandal, New CEO Aims To Change Restaurant Culture

Nov 21, 2018
Originally published on November 21, 2018 7:23 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we profile an executive whose job is to change a company's culture. One year ago, celebrity chef John Besh was accused of sexual harassment and forced to step down as CEO of the restaurant group that he owns. We heard some of the aftermath for that company yesterday. Today NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on the new CEO, Shannon White, a 33-year-old former waitress.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: When she got tapped to head the Besh Restaurant Group a year ago, Shannon White cut a very different figure from the Food Network showman who preceded her. At the time, she was just emerging from a hectic summer. She moved to a new house. She gave birth to her first child, and she took over operations for Besh's many restaurants. And she was hobbling about on one foot.

SHANNON WHITE: I was running out, fell and broke my foot. So then I had to have a cast and a boot with a 3-week-old.

NOGUCHI: White took over a chain that now employs 800 people, rolling herself on a scooter with her newborn girl in tow.

WHITE: Her bottle, her diapers, her wipes. I'd fill her basket, and I would drag her around in this rolling bassinet thing.

NOGUCHI: White and I first meet over barbecue shrimp toast at Willa Jean, a bakery restaurant in the group run by a female executive chef. White's path to CEO was unconventional. She doesn't have a college degree. She joined one of Besh's restaurants as a server then a manager before becoming chief operations officer of the whole empire.

WHITE: I always said I would never go into management. Like, I was like, I don't know why anybody would ever do this.

NOGUCHI: So when Besh was forced out, White was not exactly waiting in the wings. Like many other leaders who got jobs in the wake of the #MeToo movement, she inherited a workplace damaged by sexual harassment. Those who've worked with White say her temperament is exactly what the company needs - diplomatic, unflappable and focused on consensus. Former employee Maggie Moore says Besh sexually harassed her. Shannon White, she says, is a very different kind of leader.

MAGGIE MOORE: She's one of the few women in a management position. I really respected her. I mean, she was no nonsense. (Laughter). Shannon had a presence that when she was in the room, you were listening to her.

NOGUCHI: Through a representative, John Besh declined an interview, citing the advice of attorneys. Moore, who worked as Besh's assistant, says he propositioned her during a work trip.

MOORE: Point blank asked me to come back to his hotel room. And I said no, and he got upset. And then after that, he never treated me the same way.

NOGUCHI: Moore says Besh's power went unchecked. He eventually had her fired. After allegations like Moore's and 25 others went public, as the new CEO, White had to pick up the pieces. That meant investigating claims, counseling staff and trying to calm roiling workplace morale. It helped that the contrast between White and Besh was so obvious. Besh rose to fame and fortune in the spotlight cooking New Orleans-style etouffee and gumbo. As his empire grew, Besh focused largely on national television appearances.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IRON CHEF")

JOHN BESH: I'd be honored to battle Iron Chef Mario Batali.

NOGUCHI: White is following a very different model.

WHITE: I don't think you'd want anything to be built around one person. You know, that's, like, your - what is it? Your single point of failure? The true way to manage these sorts of things is to support from the ground up.

NOGUCHI: White says she learned leadership tenets such as duty and responsibility to others from her father, a naval commander turned prosecutor. She told me that initially she didn't think she could take on motherhood and being CEO at the same time...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD CRYING)

WHITE: Aw. What, my baby?

NOGUCHI: ...But her fiance, Josh Saladino, says he's never seen her confidence flag, even in the past year.

JOSH SALADINO: I wouldn't say she gained confidence. She already had too much to start. Like (laughter) - but I feel like she was born to be a leader, and she has lived up to that.

NOGUCHI: White says she initially felt a responsibility to prove that the restaurant business could learn from its mistakes and right its wrongs.

WHITE: In the beginning, I was, like, making myself sick over it, like, trying to figure out how to make a change in the industry but then realizing that I can only make a change with what I can control.

NOGUCHI: Under Besh, the restaurants operated largely on their own. Managers called the shots without input from the corporate office. Now every significant decision affecting the 800-person staff goes through White and her human resources director. When someone gets fired, for example, she makes sure it was for a valid reason. And she says she learns from what went wrong.

WHITE: I think what I'm doing is very different. It's just a different role. Your hands are in everything. How do you start to, like, make a change, and how do you get everybody to want to make that change with you?

NOGUCHI: A year after Besh's departure, White says she's still unwinding its relationship with the company's founding owner. She says she wants to transfer Besh's ownership to the executive chefs at the restaurants. At the same time, she's grappling with what it means to cut ties with the company's past.

WHITE: I think the year mark is a little hard.

NOGUCHI: Is it?

WHITE: Yeah. I think so. We dealt with the big issues, but now how do we now sustain, how do we grow? Who are we creating that for, and why are we doing it? And when your whole model is pulled out from underneath you, like, you know, you're creating a new one.

NOGUCHI: From here, she says, she faces a new kind of job, defining the company's identity for the future. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.