Crime

Rape allegations connected to a popular bar lead to a reckoning for Victoria’s restaurant culture

Workers say sexual harassment and assault are endemic among the city’s bars and restaurants—and that their managers know it’s happening

Crime

Rape allegations connected to a popular bar lead to a reckoning for Victoria’s restaurant culture

Workers say sexual harassment and assault are endemic among the city’s bars and restaurants—and that their managers know it’s happening

Protestors rally outside Chuck's Burger Bar in Victoria on Feb. 4. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Crime

Rape allegations connected to a popular bar lead to a reckoning for Victoria’s restaurant culture

Workers say sexual harassment and assault are endemic among the city’s bars and restaurants—and that their managers know it’s happening

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Rape allegations connected to a popular bar lead to a reckoning for Victoria’s restaurant culture
Protestors rally outside Chuck's Burger Bar in Victoria on Feb. 4. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Content warning: This article contains descriptions of sexual assaults.

Recent allegations that a bartender at Chuck’s Burger Bar routinely harassed female employees and sexually assaulted customers are causing a reckoning in Victoria’s restaurant and bar industry. Since stories began surfacing on social media at the end of January, more than a dozen women have come forward—many of them anonymously—with various claims of sexual assault, including being plied with free drinks, drugged, and then raped while they were unconscious.  

In response to the allegations, the Victoria Police Department has opened an investigation, urging anyone with relevant information to contact the department. Protesters have also responded, gathering first outside Chuck’s for two nights and later moving to the Victoria police station—demanding accountability for what they say is a pervasive problem in the industry. 

None of the claims have been tested in court. Victoria police say their investigation is ongoing but that the Crown has not laid charges. 

On Feb. 1, Chuck’s announced that it had fired the bartender in question, Jesse Chiavaroli. The restaurant said on Facebook it was co-operating with police and “was surprised by these allegations, as they are completely inconsistent with our business practices and workplace culture.” Chuck’s also said it was “100 percent behind the survivors” and that “a member of our community who was so close to so many of us pulled the wool over our eyes.” Chiavaroli did not respond to multiple phone calls, voicemails, and text messages seeking comment. 

Angela, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, told Capital Daily that she and a friend went to Chuck’s for drinks in January. She says Chiavaroli brought over many rounds of free tequila shots and that she ended up “snapping out of a blackout” at 3am in his apartment without her clothes on. 

Angela’s friend says she also blacked out for a while but remembers that Chiavaroli and another man took turns raping her.

“I remember being in a shower with a random man that [Jesse] had put in there with me to keep me occupied while he had raped my friend,” Angela says.

“And I slipped and I fell in the shower, and I hit my head on the counter, and I was on the ground. And the guy that was in the shower came up behind me while I was on the ground and kept me on the ground and [raped] me.”

The next morning, both women began to suspect that they had been given sedatives.

“I didn’t get any testing; I don’t know for sure [but] I could’ve been roofied because, you know, I’ve been drunk before but I’ve never felt like that,” says Angela’s friend, Jane (whose name has also been changed out of concern for her privacy).  

“I remember waking up at 11am and I still felt drunk… it was a weird feeling, like I wasn’t hung over. I felt very dizzy and weird.” 

The force of the allegations and ensuing protests is emboldening women across the industry to share their own experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault. Women have come forward from restaurants across Greater Victoria with stories ranging from managers turning a blind eye to sexual harassment at work to managers forcing themselves on employees—which in one case is alleged to have resulted in the survivor of the assault being fired. 

The moment of catharsis for survivors is also a reckoning for restaurant and bar owners and managers, among whom there’s a sense that this is their industry’s #MeToo moment.

Protestors march along Yates Street on Feb. 4. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily


Widespread sexual harassment

Some former employees of Chuck’s say the restaurant tolerated inappropriate behaviour that created a sexualized work environment and safety hazard for women. Other former employees say that if the owners didn’t know about the inappropriate behaviour that was happening under their roof, they should have. 

And many women told Capital Daily the problem is far from unique to that one restaurant. 

No national organization or agency collects data on workplace sexual harassment and assault complaints, but a 2018 report from the US found that women in the accommodations and food services industry filed a greater percentage of sexual harassment and assault charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission than women in any other industry between 2012 and 2016. Also in 2018, an Angus Reid Institute survey found that 89% of Canadian women (across all industries) had taken steps to dodge unwanted sexual advances at work and 52% had experienced workplace sexual harassment.  

The risk of workplace sexual harassment and assault is heightened in bars, in part because employees are predominantly low-paid women, they rely on their customers for tips, and there is a link between sexualized violence and alcohol, according to Viktoria Belle, who offers gender-based violence prevention training to hospitality workers across Canada as the executive director of The Dandelion Initiative. “When we go in to train bars, we say, ‘every single space has this issue,’” Belle says. 

Shelby, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, has worked in various restaurant-industry roles over the last seven years. She says she can point to “about a dozen” people who behave in the ways Chiavaroli is accused of behaving and who frequent Victoria bars and restaurants. 

“The thing you have to understand about working in the industry is that guys like him are everywhere,” Shelby told Capital Daily in an email. “Their behaviour is so common that you become desensitized to it. You shrug it off as though it's a weird personality quirk instead of a systemic problem.” 

Even as a 15-year-old hostess working in Edmonton, she says she endured constant comments about her body from customers and co-workers. Edmonton recently faced a similar reckoning to what is now occurring in Victoria—after bar promoter Matthew McKnight was accused and later convicted of multiple sexual assaults—and it’s not alone. A Toronto bar manager and owner were convicted in February 2020 of drugging and raping a patron. An Ottawa bar manager assaulted a trainee in 2017. Dozens of women came forward in Winnipeg in 2020 to talk about having been drugged at local bars

City council is exploring ways to “end sexual harassment and assault in Victoria,” with a focus on nightlife venues, as a priority action item of its 2019-2022 strategic plan. The city has faced calls to require that bars and restaurants conduct sexual assault prevention training in order to be able to apply for a liquor license. A spokesperson for the city said that is being considered as part of a new liquor policy but could not confirm that it will be implemented. 

An industry-wide outcry

After moving to Victoria, Shelby took a yearlong hiatus from the industry and then started working at 10 Acres Restaurant Group in 2019. 

She describes a toxic workplace culture in which female front-of-house staff regularly had to contend with customers who made lewd comments and even sometimes touched or grabbed them—with what she says was the tacit approval of their supervisors. 

“Managers were on the floor, managers were listening to this, managers were seeing this very clearly,” she says, “and there was never any attempt to help us out of that situation or to address the situation afterwards. It would always kind of be like, ‘Oh well their bill is $300, so just brush it off and go to your next table.’ I think that’s one of the main issues with the industry: if you’re bringing in money and spending money, a lot of the time managers and owners would just look the other way."

10 Acres Restaurant Group general manager Simon Gillett says he believes harassment has been overlooked in his industry, and allowed that it could have occurred in his own restaurant—but condemns it all the same. 

That’s a very unfortunate occurrence; if that kind of thing has happened at 10 Acres, it absolutely must never happen again,” Gillett said in an interview with Capital Daily. “It's not something that we would ever condone. It doesn't matter. I don't care if you're spending $1,000 or spending $10.” 

Gillett says the industry needs to come to terms with its treatment of women. “We don't give it the attention and the focus that it deserves,” he says.  

Shelby says she was sexually assaulted twice by customers who ran into her at another bar after her shift was over. It didn’t occur to her to speak to management about the assaults. “I knew that if they were OK with these men treating us like that on shift, they wouldn't care what happened off shift.”

In Shelby’s experience, it’s unheard of for front-of-house staff to feel that complaints of sexual harassment are taken seriously. “Victoria is a small-town community. We tend to know each other,” she says. “I can’t think of a single person that I know who’s worked at a place where they feel like their concerns are being heard.” 

Other women who have worked at numerous popular restaurants across Victoria have similar stories: persistent harassment from customers, co-workers, and managers, with few repercussions for abusers. 

Jordawn Smith has worked in a variety of restaurants, from takeout lunch places to ritzy hotel restaurants. And in every one, she says she faced harassment.

"I would say I probably [experienced] harassment in all of them. Like it just happened so often that like, I can remember some specific instances, but not [all],” she says, “It’s kind of everywhere."

Protestors demonstrate outside of JR Slim's, where Jesse Chiavaroli worked as a bartender, on Feb. 4. The restaurant said he no longer works there. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily


‘Nothing came from it’

Chiavaroli’s reputation preceded him. “He was like the most famous person in the bar scene in Victoria,” says Mathew Vetten, a former server at Chuck’s. “Victoria is a very small group of hospitality people and everybody knows everybody, and everybody knew Jesse.” What they knew, says Vetten, was that “he was a womanizer, he got a bunch of women, and he was always hitting on women.” 

Vetten and others who know Chiavaroli describe him as charismatic and intelligent, someone who created his own cocktails, liberally gave out free drinks, and offered women rides home. Some say he had a steady stream of women streaming into the bar to see him.

 “He was very flirtatious,” says Amy, a former server who was 19 when she worked with him and who has asked for a pseudonym to protect her privacy. “And I remember I knew that before I even started working there. I'd heard about him.” 

He was also known to bring women up through the private elevator attached to Chuck’s to the apartment he sublet above. Several women say they would be greeted with drugs like cocaine and ecstasy. 

“He would have a dinner plate full of cocaine and molly [MDMA] ready,” Shelby says. “He would definitely encourage us to do a lot of drugs.”

Amy says he began pursuing her soon after she started working there. “He would repeatedly ask me out,” she says. “And he would always offer me free drinks after shifts.” She says he called her “Baby” and “Sweetie,” encroached on her personal space, and pursued her so relentlessly that other employees felt compelled to check in with her. One of them says Chiavaroli leaned on her to persuade Amy to go out with him. “It was getting annoying to me,” she says. “And it was just very inappropriate, especially with the age gap, being 19-years-old and he's pushing 40, and I was like, ‘Jesse, like, back off here, like enough is enough.’ And he would have these one liners—I think he said at one point, ‘It's legal. There's nothing wrong with that.’”

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A former Chuck’s employee, Nathan McLean, told CTV News that he quit after he complained to the owners about Chiavaroli serving an underage woman after hours and they didn’t take his concerns seriously. 

When allegations on social media came to light, Chuck’s issued a statement, saying it had received one formal complaint against Chiavaroli in 2019, that it was not for sexual misconduct, and that they reprimanded Chiavaroli and gave him “appropriate training.” The owner of the restaurant did not respond to multiple calls and messages requesting comment for this story.

“There were some inappropriate comments that were made and Jesse was sat down and spoken to very severely—and that was it,” says Aaron Usatch, the owner of the building where Chuck’s is located. Usatch says he has spoken with the owners of Chuck’s since the allegations came to light.

According to Vetten, the official complaint was made by a teenage server who told a human resources employee that Chiavaroli followed her around asking her on dates. “As far as I could tell nothing came from it,” he says. “I didn't see any repercussions. I didn't see any difference in Jesse's schedule. There was no meeting at work about any kind of inappropriate behaviour. There was literally nothing that happened.”

Usatch says he is co-operating with the police investigation—and instructed his tenant to evict Chiavaroli from his subletting arrangement—but says he feels the social media allegations have gone too far.

“There’s no rationality left in the discussion,” he says. “It’s important to also take a breath and figure out what is hearsay and what is fact.” 

Usatch clarified that he had no knowledge of Chiavaroli's alleged behaviour and he "in no way" condones it. He said he wanted to give the police time to investigate the allegations.

"I'm a father, and I have a daughter—and I this is a sickness and a disease, and I have no tolerance for this behaviour," he said.

Vetten says Chiavaroli was given a pass: “He did bring in a lot of people, so I know for a fact that it was easy for the owners to just turn a blind eye, because no one had actually come forward with any allegations that were more serious than him just being a creeper.”

Anisa, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, says there’s been sexual abuse in every job she’d held in the restaurant industry since she was 15-years-old. “It's overflowing in every part of the restaurant dynamic,” she says, “whether it's the back of house, the front-of-house management, like line cooks—it's just like, it's just everywhere.” 

Anisa says she was raped in 2015 by a supervisor at a restaurant in Sidney where she worked at the time, after a night of drinking after their shift together. The alleged abuser had bought a case of gin and encouraged her to drink with him. 

She reported the rape to the RCMP, but her claim was dismissed for lack of evidence. Sidney RCMP confirmed the detachment investigated. Anisa says the supervisor was fired—but then she was, too. The restaurant’s owner, she recalled, tried to fire her in a voicemail, but she went to the restaurant to speak with him in person.

“He told me that I had been ‘a skank,’” she says.

Reached by Capital Daily, the co-owner of the restaurant denies that Anisa was fired over her report, and says the staff member was not fired over the rape but rather left of his own accord. She said she does not recall the exact circumstances but that “it was probably somebody who was going out together. And something happened, I don't know.

“And I imagine in the past, just like any other place, there have been issues between employees. But… if that sort of thing happens, they're gone.”

Pushing for change

When allegations started surfacing on the Chuck’s Burger Bar Instagram account, something curious happened: they were quickly deleted, according to several reports. Screenshots reviewed by Capital Daily corroborate this claim.

According to Johann Hart, who has been organizing the public protests, Chuck’s owners have confirmed that Chiavaroli himself was in charge of the bar’s social media accounts.

Angela says she believes Chiavaroli’s control of the social media accounts, on which comments were being left accusing him of sexual assault and harassment, could have contributed to a delay in his alleged behaviour being more widely known and prevented.

The protesters were back outside the Victoria Police Department on the afternoon of Feb. 11, and they had grown in numbers. About 40 people braved the cold, in what Hart described as “a call to arms.” They held signs saying “VICPD: Our Stories Are Not ‘Hearsay,” “Survivors Deserve Better,” “Honk If You Hate Rape.”

A middle-aged woman with a “Blame the System, Not the Victim,” sign said it was her first-ever protest. She came to it with her daughter, whose generation, she said, was facing well-worn roadblocks to justice. “This is not a new problem,” she said. “It’s an old problem.”

Hart said the organizers chose the police station as the site of their protest, because perpetrators of sexual violence rarely get arrested or charged: “They mostly get a slap on the wrist, and that's not okay. So, we're here to try to change that and to show that we're here and we're not gonna be silenced.”

Several sexual assault survivors spoke to the crowd. Among them was Jane, who read aloud from a letter she’d written to Chiavaroli: “I hate that you even haunt my dreams, leaving me terrified every time I wake up.”

Before the protest, Hart says, the owner of Chuck’s reached out to him to float the idea of attending the event. He was advised not to come. 

—With files from Cameron Welch, Emily Fagan, and Jackie Lamport

If you have experienced sexualized violence, the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre has resources available here or at 250-383-3232

Update on Feb 12, 2021 at 1:15pm: This article has been updated to clarify Aaron Usatch's position regarding the police investigation. It was further updated Feb. 16 at 10:20am to reflect that Victoria Police do not lay charges; rather, the Crown decides whether or not to lay charges based on a report from the police.

contact@capitaldaily.ca

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