Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s bartending career has been widely discussed by people who believe there is something inherently undignified about working in the service industry, a sector in which some 102 million Americans collect paychecks. That many of the indignities women face while serving come from predatory management and overzealous customers has remained somewhat less examined. But according to a new book, the now-representative pushed back on a particularly grotesque display from a male manager four years ago, walking off the job when he tried to rank and reward her colleagues based on how hot he decided they were.
Until Coffee Shop, a Manhattan restaurant and bar, shuttered last year, it was known for its mediocre food and self-consciously clubby vibe: A restaurant for the “young, urban, and professionally gorgeous,” as an early profile put it, Coffee Shop was the kind of place where seats in the front of the restaurant were permanently reserved for whatever celebrity might stumble in. The trio of owners, who additionally operated the nearby Flats Fix where Ocasio-Cortez also worked, are former models. The most prominent, Charles Milite, once told New York he decided as a child that he wanted to be wealthy after watching the post-apocalyptic movie Soylent Green, where the sole rich character dines on steak instead of liquified people. “I decided then and there I wanted to be the person who ate steak,” he said.
In a city where the service industry is already hyper-competitive, Coffee Shop was widely rumored to use additional metrics in its hiring practices, almost exclusively bringing on aspiring models to serve its sandwiches and vaguely Brazilian-influenced food. In the restaurant’s later years, a members-only club where models from select agencies could hang out between shoots opened in Coffee Shop’s basement, accessible only through a door towards the restaurant’s back.
Given all of this, it’s unsurprising that the restaurant institutionalized some of the service industry’s grossest tendencies, particularly for its female servers. For his book, We’ve Got People, reporter Ryan Grim interviewed some of Ocasio-Cortez’s former colleagues at Coffee Shop, who described a culture of persistent and overt objectification: In one instance in 2015, writes Grim, a manager instructed all the servers on the floor, including Ocasio-Cortez, to line up against the wall. The manager would then rank all the staff by how attractive he found them, and give the servers he deemed to hottest the best table sections that afternoon. The story, relayed by the colleague and confirmed by Ocasio-Cortez, is that the now-representative stormed out and quit both jobs on the spot. She returned only after much “pleading” from management, and when it was promised no similar “contests” would be run at Coffee Shop again.
Incidentally, the colleague remembered Ocasio-Cortez winning the contest before she walked out, further objectifying her—more importantly, the people Grim spoke to remembered the now-representative as being “different” from the other servers. “She was always working towards something,” a barback told Grim.
Coffee Shop closed last year after 28 years of operation. Milte, the co-owner, blamed an increase in New York’s minimum wage. Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez will be bartending an event in Queens on Friday to raise awareness for the federal Raise the Wage Act.
A previous version of this story referred to Grim’s book as forthcoming; it is actually out, as of this week. Jezebel regrets the error.