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This Kansas City Business Owner Is Trying To Make America's Restaurants Safer For Women

Zach Baumann
Caitlin Corcoran, co-owner of CaVa.

If you want to get drunk and try to pick up a stranger, don't plan on doing that at Ça Va in Westport. Co-owner Caitlin Corcoran won’t tolerate behavior that makes a customer or employee uncomfortable.

"I can create whatever kind of culture I want, and I don't want to be that boss that is unsupportive," Corcoran told Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann. "I don’t want my employees to feel like they're just a cog in the machine, and I’m taking advantage of them."

She knows how that feels.

About eight years ago, Corcoran was working in a restaurant owned by someone else when she looked up from what she was doing and saw a man who had raped her a decade earlier seated at one of the tables.

Seeing him felt like bricks hitting her chest, she said.

"He had recently gotten out of prison. He went to prison because I sent him there. I did not know he’d been released yet," Corcoran said.

Corcoran ran to a back room where the restaurant’s owner was working. Through the panic attack she was experiencing, she explained what was going on. Her boss told her to breathe and collect herself for five minutes, then return to work.

"The guest wasn't talked to. My safety wasn't the concern, my support as the employee wasn't the concern, they just didn't want to make a scene," Corcoran said.

Legally, she said, she'd done all the things a rape victim should, yet she still didn’t feel protected in her workplace.

The atmosphere she's created at Ça Va is different.

For the past five years, Corcoran has been training her employees in what she refers to as "radical inclusive hospitality."

That includes watching out for not only employees but customers as well.

Credit Bold Americana
Employees at Ca Va in Westport: (from left) Jeff Bolden, Solace Naeymi, Caitlin Corcoran, Thomas O'Neil, Lily Dawson, Sophia Butler, Cayla James.

When she sees a customer drink too much and attempt to make himself part of someone else's evening, she moves in to check out the situation. The first time she stepped in, she said, it felt natural.

She approached a table where the body language of several women told her they were not comfortable with the strange man at their table.

"I was bluntly like: 'Do you all want to give him your number? Do you want to go get a drink with him?' And they instantly were like emphatically: 'No, please get him to leave our table.'"

Corcoran told the man that she'd count down from five, and if he wasn’t gone by zero, she'd call Westport Security. He left on three.

Credit Caitlin Corcoran
Abby Calvert and co-owner Howard Hanna behind the bar at Ca Va.

As someone who grew up in the hospitality industry — her mother was a pastry chef — and someone who was a gender studies and sexuality studies major in college, Corcoran said she's thought about her line of work as a breeding ground for racism and misogyny for a long time.

But, when she decided to turn her ideas about sensitivity to race, gender and sexuality into common practice, she assumed such training was already standard human resources material in bigger markets. A few months ago, she learned that it's not.

Turns out she's a pioneer of sorts.

Corcoran was recently named a James Beard 2018 Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership fellow, one of only 20 nationwide. She attended the James Beard conference and spoke to others in the hospitality industry about her views on creating a safe environment for work and play.

Her ideas sounded radical enough that a James Beard website editor asked her to write about them for the organization’s blog.

She knows that she's offended a few customers, but, she said, that's fine. Those who were offended decided to test the boundaries of propriety and aren't people she wants to come back.

"People are coming and supporting us because of our values and because of our ethos. I don’t need everyone to love me. I don’t need every frat bro who wants to do a Jaeger bomb shot and hit on chicks to come in and do that. That’s not the vibe I’m creating and very purposely so," she said.

To let people know they're not alone when it comes to sexual assault, she has information about MOCSA (Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault) at Ça Va, as well a Black Lives Matter stickers.

"I do think that because we have MOCSA in Kansas City, and because we have a lot of great conversations starting around race equity with the mayor’s office," Corcoran said, "that people here are primed to start this sort of thing."

Listen to Caitlin Corcoran's entire conversation with KCUR's Central Standard here.

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.
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