The owner of a Palmerston North cafe criticised for advertising their "cute waitress" with a roadside sign has hit back at his critics, saying the sign was a joke and the "cute waitress" was anything but.
Paul Leang, director of Black Pearl Cafe, sent a statement to the Herald in which he apologised for causing any offense and said that he has now removed the sign.
The controversy was sparked by the sign advertising a "cute waitress inside" - leading to claims it was sexist.
Leang said the sign was a joke that was supported by his staff in the lengthy statement, portions of which he also shared on the cafe's Facebook page.
The cafe was put in the spotlight by veteran hospitality worker Chloe Ann-King of the Raise The Bar Hospitality Union, who shared a photo online and wrote: "Sexism is alive and well in the NZ hospo industry. Feel free to boycott Black Pearl in Palmerston North."
Ann-King told the Herald earlier this week that sexual harassment and sexism is epidemic within the hospitality industry and said that the sign, even if intended as a joke, added to the problem.
"I'm sure they thought it was just a joke but we know those types of jokes feed into sexual harassment and it feeds into wider rape culture as well."
In his statement, Leang said that "the sign idea is from our team written by [a] female".
"Our cute waitress is a male who is not even cute. All staff approved this and no one feels uncomfortable about it. It is something called a 'joke'.
"The sign has been out for 2 years and we have never had an issue. We have had so much laughs thru out the year. We have so many people just come in and ask where is the cute waitress. They don't spend a dollar which is fine. Then, our non-cute male waitress will say 'YES' it's me".
Leang said he would "totally accept" if any customers thought it was "false advertising".
"Furthermore, I do not believe we have ever had anyone who came to our store because we have a cute female staff," he wrote.
"So I ask you 'is it you or us who is actually sexist?'.
"I don't think it matters if we are male, female, gay, lesbian, LGBT or anything. We are all the same people. We treat everyone the same. My staff is my priority. They are my people and I look after them as a part of my family."
He said that he had no reason to treat his staff unethically and that he believes that "happy staff means happy customers".
Leang's stance has been backed by some of the women working for him, who have made public statements on social media
"As someone who works here, I can confirm no one is uncomfortable with the sign. We gave permission to have the sign up," one woman wrote.
"It isn't even a sexual or sexist thing. Our waiters even consider themselves the cute waitresses. If it was sexual it would be 'sexy waitress not cute waitress'."
Leang told Ann-King that he appreciated her comments but suggested that she should have consulted staff before she went public with her criticism.
"I totally understand that you and the press have to make your living by spice things up and add salt and pepper here and there to get attention. Perhaps you need more information before writing anything," he wrote.
Leang ended his message by thanking those who have supported the cafe and writing: "I truly believe most people have a sense of humour and understand this."
Ann-King said she was pleased to hear that staff at Black Pearl have enjoyed a positive experience but said their experience was not representative of the wider experience of most women in the industry.
She said that those who chose to see the sign as only a joke had enjoyed the privilege of not working in an industry where low-wage and "incredibly precarious" work was common.
Ann-King said that hospitality staff were shown "very little respect from most customers" and the sign added to this culture.
She said that if the young workers at Black Pearl spent longer in the industry they would unfortunately likely experience some of the sexism and harassment that she said the "vast majority" of women in hospitality endured and said they may look back on their comments with regret.