Food service professionals have gathered annually at the Western Foodservice and Hospitality Expo since 1936 to share their knowledge and experience. This year's event, taking place at the L.A. Convention Center Aug. 28-30, includes a two-hour seminar titled “The New Normal: Trans Inclusivity in the Workplace.” It's a series of presentations and talks aimed at educating restaurant management on “the business case” for trans inclusivity, and how to provide an inclusive working environment.

Hosting the event is Michaela Mendelsohn, CEO of one of the largest El Pollo Loco franchises in the country and the first transgender member of the L.A. Workforce Development Board. We spoke with Mendelsohn about what she hopes to accomplish with the seminar.

Why are you focusing the inclusivity message on management?
About four and a half years ago, one of my managers hired our first trans employee. It was not something I knew about but was very pleased to hear it. She had worked at another large chain that had treated her very badly. The manager there told her that, even though she clearly identified as a woman, she had to use the men's restroom, and then a man in that restroom attempted to sexually molest her. She told management what happened and they said she could use the women's restroom as long as no one was in there, so she always had to have another employee make sure the coast was clear. One day, a woman [customer] walked in behind her, and when she told her husband, he complained to the manager. Unfortunately, the manager caved in and fired her. Of course, this is very much against the law in California, but she didn't know that. These girls are having such a tough time out there. I'm so fortunate in that I transitioned about 10 years ago as a boss, which had its own set of issues, not only in my own workplace but interactions with different business owners. But these girls had no protection, or at least restaurant owners were treating them like they had no protection, so I went about hiring more transgender people.

As a business owner, I had to worry, to be honest. I was thinking, is this going to make my customers uncomfortable? But the wonderful surprise was that the customers were delighted. What happens is when a transgender woman — in this case — comes to work, it's maybe the first time she's been able to be out as her authentic self interacting with customers. It's such a great experience to be themselves and have that contact, and customers pick up on it. And they reward us, and our businesses grow and get better. It's a win-win. We get to do the right thing and our businesses are doing very well because of it.

What's the importance of delivering the message of trans inclusivity to the restaurant industry?
I like the restaurant industry not only because I'm familiar with it but because it's an entry-level job with pathways to management. And they get to be out in front with customers and not just in back rooms. That serves a number of purposes. Just two days ago, the L.A. LGBT Center had me doing an interview, and the question came to me, how did it feel to transform so many people's lives? And I said, I didn't transform any lives. I just give them the opportunity to be on equal footing and to work hard with everyone else. They transformed themselves. Look at the magic that's happening here. And the real magic is that every single customer they meet in an environment like this is a potential for real change. Nothing changes people's minds and hearts like actually meeting and getting to know someone.

I should point out that it's tougher now than it has been in 10 years to fully staff and retain good help in restaurants around the state. There are about 96,000 restaurants in California, which represents about 1.7 million employees, and hundreds of millions of customer interactions. This is a real opportunity for the restaurant owners to have another pool of employees. As owners, we can't exclude any qualified pool that could be helpful to us. Inclusivity is good for business, and it's being proven.

What are some of the inclusivity dos and don'ts you're telling management to focus on during the seminar?
It starts in the hiring process. To give an example, one girl that's speaking at the seminar on Tuesday, I met her at the LGBT Center. She had been looking for a job for over a year. She was very well-dressed, clean, personable, spoke perfect English, presented herself well, had a great job history. But over a year, she'd been turned down in over 50 interviews. The disconnect was that the interview process would go well but they'd ask for her ID, and it showed male and a picture of a male. So, first thing is on the application. We ask [the restaurant] to have a place for preferred name and gender pronoun. A lot of these women may not yet have changed their identities legally, they may be in the process, they may be planning on doing it in the future. That shouldn't be a deterrent. If they're identifying as female, they should be dressed in the female dress codes for that particular restaurant and be treated accordingly. They should be treated like any other women. Of course, there's bathroom policy, and they should be permitted to use the locker or bathroom for the identity they identify with. That's part of California law, but restaurants aren't necessarily familiar with how the laws work.

What about the potential barriers of getting other employees in tune with the message of inclusivity?
The attitude has to start from the top down, not only the policy but the culture. One of the things that you'll see in big companies is certain policies are in place that look inclusive, but it's not taught. It's been a wonderful experience for us — we haven't had any significant issues in our restaurants. Not saying it won't happen, but we found that employees quickly bond with their new trans employees, and really have their back and look out for them.

It's not only employees but how customers treat somebody, and how the other employees support them. In El Pollo Loco, a high percentage of employees are Hispanic. There's that age-old term of “a customer's always right,” but in the case of a customer who comes in and makes ethnic slurs, that's not acceptable. Our employees are empowered to say it's not, to ask the manager to come out, and if the manager cannot resolve it, they tell the customer to leave. I think all restaurants deal with those issues, so I think [trans inclusivity] is really consistent in where we've been. We just have to take it to that next level.

(This interview was edited for length.)

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