Why An NYC Bar Just Lost A $500K Harassment Settlement

Sweet & Vicious is a longstanding artsy bar in the fashionable Nolita area of Manhattan. According to The New York Times, the bar is famous for its "Jargaritas," sweet margaritas served in mason jars. But, now, the establishment is catching attention for something vicious instead.

In a settlement overseen by New York Attorney General Letitia James, Sweet & Vicious owner Hakan Karamahmutoglu will pay $500,000 in reparations to 16 current and former employees who suffered sexual harassment, racial discrimination, homophobia, and wage theft under his management, via Eater. Per the news outlet, Karamahmutoglu is accused of discriminatory hiring practices that marginalized female and minority employees following a 16-month investigation by the Attorney General's office. The bar manager allegedly regularly allowed male customers and managers to physically violate the space and disrespect the boundaries of Sweet & Viscous' female employees, reports the New York Post, even witnessing customers throw the "Jargarita" glass jars at workers without intervening.

A series of audio recordings capture Karamahmutoglu actively making demeaning and racist comments to employees, per FOX News, with slurs including but not limited to "gangster," "terrorist," and "cow," as well as explicitly objectifying female workers and expressing distrust toward non-white employees. In addition to harassment and a subsequently unsafe work environment, Karamahmutoglu is also accused of labor exploitation via unpaid overtime, eight-hour shifts without breaks, and tip stealing.

An act toward worker protection... hopefully

James also presided over 2021's $600K settlement against world-renowned chefs Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich for separate allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace via NBC. "This settlement is a reminder that no matter the perpetrator, we will not tolerate sexual harassment, discrimination, or wage theft of any form in the workplace," James says via Daily Mail. "For far too long, workers in the hospitality industry have been forced to weather a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and discrimination that has gone unreported," the AG continues, per FOX News. "Every New Yorker should be able to go to work free from fear of abuse and degradation regardless of industry."

However, despite the "victory" of the settlement, one Sweet & Vicious employee expressed doubt that the $500K would incite lasting change for bar management. "I will not delude myself into believing that this settlement will change the attitudes of the people in charge," they said via Daily Mail. "But it is my hope that news of our fight will afford those that come after us the opportunity to go into these jobs with their eyes open and the wherewithal to demand humane treatment in a professional environment." Already, their doubts are proving sound. 

The future of workplace safety reform

In a statement to The New York Times, Karamahmutoglu said, "I am deeply distressed by the allegations as they do not reflect my perspective or character, and they do not reflect the attitude of the bar to its employees or customers," adding that he only agreed to the settlement to quiet the conversation. Erika Harrell, Ph.D. of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, ranks bartending as the third most vulnerable occupation in the workforce, with the highest rate of nonfatal workplace violence after law enforcement officers and security guards. Unfortunately (but, for many service workers, likely unsurprisingly), this isn't a new issue — not by a long shot.

In 2018, Lauren Taylor of Safe Bars (a training program that teaches bar staff and restaurant servers how to handle sexual violence) told CNN, "We all, I believe, are bystanders as often as every day, no matter where we are, a bar or somewhere else." Countless career bartenders have experienced harassment — from verbal abuse to physical altercations and stalking (like these 13 testimonials professionals shared in Cosmopolitan). The Sweet & Viscous settlement might not repair the injustices done to the bar's employees, but it serves as an important reminder that the conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace — particularly for industry workers – is far from over.