Last month, a website called “The Reality of Sexual Assault in the Cocktail Community” launched with the goal to expose what the site describes as rampant sexual assault in Los Angeles’ bar community. To date, 15 women have provided the site with graphic accounts of alleged assaults suffered at the hands of one man, a powerful figure in L.A.’s restaurant and bar scene. Additional women and men in the restaurant industry have reached out to the site with similar stories of assault at the hands of other alleged attackers, suggesting these cases could be systemic and widespread.
The man accused on the site has been a respected figure in the craft cocktail community for decades. Over the span of his 20-year career, he has mentored and collaborated with hundreds of bartenders across the country. Most recently, he ran a consulting firm that employed more than a dozen people. In the women’s published accounts, they allege that the man used his position to intimidate, harass and assault female colleagues.
One of the accusers, Jeanelle Owings, said publishing her account has been emotionally trying. “I wanted to use my real name because I think it’s really important that if I want to be a voice for other women and men [who have been abused] that I’m willing to be that voice for me first and foremost,” Owings said in an interview. “I did have a lot of support. I don’t want to negate that. But I’m scared. I’m afraid of the backlash, of being ostracized by my community.”
Another account, published on the site by Ashley Afferino, describes how she first met the man “while working as a bartender at a new spot in West Hollywood. He was consulting on the bar program.” She goes on to state:
“It was last call at the full bar. Comrades were singing and jumping about to the sounds of Queen. I moved into the crowd and attempted to join in these shenanigans. It turns out I end up next to him in the crowd of people. Stoked to party down with my friend, I smile and start moving about. He put his left arm around my shoulders and pulled me into him almost engulfing me in his body. He then took his right hand and shoved it into my pants in attempts to put his fingers inside me. Being the large man he is I was unable to pull away. It was like a movie, I was being violated right there, in a friendly bar, full of people I knew and trusted.”
The women’s goal, as stated on the site, isn’t to explicitly shame their alleged attacker in public but rather to start a larger conversation about sexual assault in the bar industry. “[Victims of sexual assault] worry about fear of retaliation, fear of being blamed or shamed, fear of the criminal justice system not being effective or being embarrassed about what happened,” writes one of the website’s authors. “This fear is perpetuating the problem and preventing justice.”
The alleged attacker did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking a comment. His out-of-office email reply stated: “My apologies but I will be taking some personal time to focus on family for the next few weeks. I will respond to all emails as soon as possible.”
Shortly before the site launched, the man issued two apologies on Facebook. The first, published near the end of October, was an acknowledgment of abusing “alcohol, people, drugs, and everything else I could consume over the past 20 years. I cannot apologize enough to anyone that has been effected [sic]/hurt/insulted by my actions.”
He later deleted the post and published another one. “Friends, it is with great sadness that I announce the closing of [his consulting firm] at the end of this month,” the post begins. “It has been an amazing year with many ups and as of late, too many downs. I will be moving home to NY to focus on family, sobriety, and God. I will be leaving our industry and social media behind. I wish everyone love, healing, and peace.” A few hours later, he deleted or deactivated all of his social media accounts. According to his LinkedIn profile, he is now self-employed in Albany, New York.
The women wrote on the site that the Facebook posts are not enough: “Who were you really apologizing to? Was it us? Or the community that can’t even begin to perceive the measure of your crimes? […] It’s extremely painful and disingenuous when a guilty man shares his abridged story, receiving waves of personal support when he should be asking the community to support his victims. It’s hard to explain the fear that we feel as we want to speak of our injustice but don’t know how that same community may respond.”
The website’s authors — a mix of West Coast bar managers, bartenders, distillery executives and brand ambassadors who variously met in their lines of work — say that launching the site was a joint decision and that their experiences needed to be addressed in a public forum.
The site states that the women were unanimous in deciding that such a forum was necessary to create an online safe space for conversations about sexual assault in the restaurant industry. They say they want victims to be empowered to speak up and report crimes, and that they are working together to provide resources on the website for victims of assault.