8 Women Shaking Up the Restaurant Industry
We know the restaurant industry is by and large still run by men, but the women who are leading the charge to make change are powerful and they’re making waves. These eight women are shaping the future of the restaurant business.
Empires are built not born, this one on the shoulders of a woman who boldly claims, "My restaurant can kick your restaurant's ass." We believe her.
Martha Hoover is part of a bowling league called Ladies with Balls. It's not surprising, actually, when one looks at the résumé of this former sex crimes prosecutor turned restaurant empress. Everything screams girl power.
The Patachou brand, which Hoover started while pregnant with her first child, has grown over nearly 30 years from the original Cafe Patachou in Indianapolis to five cafes, one Petit Chou, one Crispy Bird, Bar 114, and Public Greens which is soon to grow to three locations.
Hoover's career started not in the kitchen but rather in the courtroom. She calls that leap an easy one, having gone to law school "as a default." While her father—an M.D. and a Ph.D.—had encouraged her to be anything, the one thing he'd said she could not be was a chef.
"I went to law school never thinking I was going to practice, but what happened was I lucked into—just being the recipient of good timing—an opportunity to work with a sex crimes unit under a local district attorney," she says. "It was a remarkably fertile time for me because we were charged with creating an entire body of law that had never been considered before regarding protecting women and children, so it was really interesting."
As a result, Hoover had a hand in changing the cultural narrative, one that defined women at the time as weak, she says, and not even deserving protection. Perhaps it came easily to a woman who was raised to believe her gender was never a handicap.
"I came about in a time when the women's movement was front and center," she says. "I was really strongly influenced by the politicization of my gender."
Still, the one thing that had always seemed off limits to her was the industry she's landed in. And yet—she's reticent to admit it—being a women may have pushed her toward the hospitality business.
"Was there some maternal nurturing part of my being that made me a natural? As much as it pains me to say it—yes, I'm sure that my wanting to take care of people somehow was fed by that," she says.
Hoover refers to the situation in which she opened her first restaurant "a perfect recipe for disaster," but in hindsight, she believes it is what has allowed her to create the culture her businesses foster today.
"It gave me the freedom to do exactly what I thought was the right thing to do without any preconceived notion or template of working in someone else's restaurant," she says.
Her company culture is what others might call "refreshing," she says, particularly at this place in time in the restaurant industry. The Patachou group is diverse, both in employees and their roles. No one is pigeonholed, Hoover says. Someone can come in as a host and end up executive director of the Patachou Foundation—a true story, Hoover says.
"I've always thought that it is really unfair to lock someone in, and in most restaurants, you know, the people who get locked into the lower rungs are usually people of color, immigrants, and women," she says. "We automatically give people more power than other restaurants normally would. And by power I mean really to create a serious career staying at our company. We give them opportunities to build wealth, which is incredibly important."
Meanwhile, most of the folks in leadership at Patachou—four out of five, Hoover says—are women. And they didn't all come to the restaurant industry from leadership positions, either. Many have moved up through Patachou.
"But here's the thing—and I always say this—I can't want for the women in my organization more than they want for themselves," she says. "I encourage women to take advantage of the resources the company has to get into a leadership pipeline and to learn leadership skills. We mentor and work with people and we're an inclusive organization. And I have to be completely honest about this, I do this with men in my organization, too."
The benefits extend, of course, well beyond the employees. Jobs without growth become default jobs, Hoover says. Working for Patachou gives employees a career.
"When you look at something as your Plan B, you're never fully invested in it and you don't succeed to your potential," she says.
Patachou's culture is keeping the business growing. Hoover is actively looking to expand Cafe Patachou, which she calls the mothership breakfast and lunch business, into other markets. But the business is undoubtedly changing. Hoover expects to see more restaurants owned by fewer people—instead backed by equity and venture capital firms. Meanwhile, in the culture realm, Hoover sees things changing in other restaurants, but very slowly.
"It's going to be a slow drip and I think the change will happen most effectively when women and people of color—disenfranchised people—demand more of the men who have been running these organizations," she says. "And we need customers to speak with their feet. They have to support restaurants that are doing things correctly."
If you build it, they will come. In Julia Turshen's field of dreams, women and non-binary people of color are sought out for jobs in the food industry. Her database, Equity At The Table, makes the dream a reality.
When you ask Julia Turshen how long she's been in the food industry, the 33-year-old says 33 years. "It's all I've ever known."
The award-winning cookbook author, food writer, and podcast host lives and cooks in the Hudson Valley with her wife and pets. Knowing that the food industry needed to change was seemingly as ingrained in the self-taught home cook as working in food.
"Like any industry, I've always known it's centered on straight, white men. That's nothing new," she says.
Equity At The Table was born when Turshen sought a directory of folks who did not identify as straight, white men in the industry. But she couldn't find one. So, in April 2018 Turshen launched EATT. She hired an advisory board of women to build the site and paid for it out of her own pocket. She considers it an investment in her own community. A Patreon page helps offset the costs of building and maintaining the site.
"The results have been astounding—people in positions of power like editors and conference organizers use the site to find people to feature, hire, and celebrate. And members are connecting with each other, which is the most amazing thing to witness," Turshen says. "It is changing the industry by making it undeniable that there are tons of women and nonbinary individuals, especially those that identify as people of color and/or queer, who are here, who are capable and who are talented."
She calls the database a practical and proactive response to the blatant gender and racial discrimination that plagues the food industry. And she hopes this changes. In the future, she hopes to see an industry that prioritizes the physical, emotional, and mental health of everyone who works in it, from farmers to chefs to bartenders to servers, and more. That's one area she sees some strides already being made. She says people in the industry, "hope more customers—whether that's someone eating at a restaurant or someone buying a cookbook … the list goes on—are beginning to pay attention to everything around food in addition to the food itself."
With years of experience in strategic consulting, the female lead at the James Beard Foundation has her sights set on bolstering industry programs that empower women.
In the midst of the restaurant industry's #MeToo controversies, the James Beard Foundation brought in a new CEO—a woman. Clare Reichenbach joined the team in February 2018. Reichenbach came to James Beard with a long history of strategic consulting work, but little time spent in the restaurant industry itself.
"Like many, I spent my student days working part-time in restaurants both in the kitchen and FOH," Reichenbach says. "However, it is only since joining the James Beard Foundation that I have become part of the industry professionally. My background is in strategy and business transformation, and I'm enjoying applying those disciplines to an industry and arena I love."
For better or worse, entering the restaurant industry space at a time of turmoil has colored her mission and focus at the foundation.
"I joined the James Beard Foundation in the midst of #MeToo and against the backdrop of allegations of misconduct against some of the highest-profile players, so the issue of women's parity, and the need to promote an industry culture that supports women—and inclusion more broadly—has been a key priority for me from the start."
Supporting women in the restaurant industry has long been an objective at the James Beard Foundation. The organization previously had scholarships and mentorship programs. (Read more on Page 50 about how the foundation is doubling down on these programs.)
"Supporting women in the culinary industry has been a long-standing objective of the foundation," Reichenbach says. "Our emphasis going forward is on supporting more women to own businesses of scale. We believe that having more women at the business helm will support the cultural step-change needed."
But as a woman in business herself, Reichenbach says she doesn't see her own path through a gendered lens. Instead she focuses on broad principles of hard work, integrity, results, and caring for others.
"Gender generalizations are limited in their utility; however, I do recognize that women need to be more intentional about advocating for themselves, not being apologetic about asking for promotions and pay-raises, and having confidence in their own capability," she says.
The industry, however, seems slow to respond. As other women in this series have noted, change takes time to take hold. The foundation, however, is at least seeing results from its programs, Reichenbach says. Women's entrepreneurial events are sold out and participants are expanding their businesses, while 2017 went down on the books as the most diverse awards season yet. Still, she says, there's much more room to grow.
"The challenges are deep and systemic so this isn't a quick fix. Moving more women into leadership and ownership positions is going to take time," she says. "There are many endemic challenges to the kitchen culture, and it will take concerted effort and industry-wide change (and policy) to shift the system at a fundamental level, but there are so many examples of excellence, and best-in-class approach in terms of culture, conduct, leadership, benefits, wage etc. It is changing profoundly."
What else is seeing profound change? The restaurant business as a whole. Reichenbach sees the industry flooding with new business models as technology and personalization have bigger impacts. The future holds greater standardization of labor practices, a more professional culture, and a shift in consumer demand toward sustainable and ethical offerings. Meanwhile, Reichenbach sees herself maintaining the helm at James Beard and making a consistently greater impact on the industry.
Stepping into the leading role at a restaurant group making some of the biggest harassment headlines at the heart of the restaurant industry's #MeToo movement sounds far from a walk in the park. But Shannon White makes it look easy.
When the allegations hit John Besh and his hospitality group in late 2017, Shannon White was appointed CEO of the renamed BRG Hospitality group. White's daughter, Stella, was then barely 6 months old. With enough on her plate already, the then head of operations for several of Besh's properties stepped in to rebuild. What has the year been like? In a word, exhausting, White says. But in the next breath she adds how rewarding and beautiful it is to see the people she cares about recover and build stronger bonds in a restaurant family that she herself grew up in.
White started as a server at Domenica, BRG's Italian restaurant in downtown New Orleans, and took ownership of her job to the point where her manager asked her to enroll in management training. After moving up to GM, she began offering her time to other women in management roles within the company, as a mentor and guide. Floating between other properties within the restaurant group led to her role in operations for multiple restaurants.
"When the opportunity arose for a CEO position, again, it was like, OK, of course, who else would do this," White says. "I was the best person for this job. Who else is going to take care of the people who work for this company and who's going to care about them more than I do?"
White says her management style has always been one of "show me, teach me," which helped her win favor of seasoned service industry vets when she came in as a 24-year-old manager in training. She forged relationships with people throughout the restaurant group. When she thinks about the future, she thinks out their shared futures—their families, their retirements, and where they'll all be in 10 years.
"The growth and the future of a company is also the human factor of it, your personnel, those are the people who benefit from its growth," she says. "The more we can grow and get better and stronger, the more it benefits the employees that have been here for 15 years and their families. I'm watching their families grow, so you have to think about the future because you're trying to create a future for them and yourself."
But the first four or five months of the gig didn't allow for much future-gazing, White says. Those months were all about repairing and reassuring and just being available, she says.
"Sometimes, it's just sitting in the restaurants on my laptop and having my significant other bring my daughter to me at the restaurant and we hang out there for a little while—we're available, instead of sitting in a corporate office," she says. "It's very rewarding, though; I have an amazing team. Seeing these people in a time of crisis lean on each other, seeing the bonds strengthen, was really a beautiful thing, honestly, if something good can come out of it."
The hospitality group overhauled its human resources department shortly after White took the helm. Her goal was to centralize it and build oversight. This meant putting an anonymous complaint hotline in place to prevent what White calls her biggest fear when it comes to harassment issues: retaliation.
"I singlehandedly am not going to be able to change or get rid of all the problems with people, so I focus on empowering the people that work for me in this company and ensuring that if something does happen, that there won't be any retaliation to that person for coming forward and they're protected," she says.
White and the human resources director are the only employees with access to the hotline so that no one on the management level will know the identity of anyone who comes forward—they're protected, White says.
Procedures and policies, however, only go so far. To make real change, White says, you have to take action.
"You can put something on paper and splash it everywhere, but the only way you're really going to make a change is by physically doing things, backing up what you're saying with your actions," she says. "I'm involved in all aspects—not everything, I'm not saying I get every single complaint ever—but I have an escalation system and to an employee, I'm accessible."
Being accessible takes its toll on employees, on women, on mothers. When White is at home, she says she can never turn completely off—if there's an emergency, she'll be there. But she has carved out certain times of day when work comes second and family comes squarely first.
"You never shut off totally," she says. "If there's a crisis you have to be available. But you can mentally be shut off for windows of time. My thing is, when I first get home, I make sure to just sit with my daughter, and we play in the backyard now that she's a little older. That is our time."
Family is at the core of how White relates to her employees and a big reason she looks out for them. Even in 10 years, she's not sure the industry will be where it needs to be, but she hopes she'll be part of working toward making it better.
"The ability to have a life in this industry, things I never even realized—having the ability to leave if something happens with your family—those are the sorts of things that happen that set it up where it's hard for you to work in this industry," she says. "I'd like to see that change."
Randi Weinstein's workshop for women in food is called FAB, stands for Females Are Badass. When it comes to gathering a roomful of badass women, it takes one to know one.
Randi Weinstein's love of the restaurant industry was ingrained in her by her father who reveled in the restaurant dinner's ceremony, as she called it.
"It was always one of those really enjoyable things for us to do as a family," she says. "It just kind of stuck with me."
At age 15, Weinstein started as a hostess at a restaurant on Long Island, New York, where she grew up. After a detour to the fashion industry, a marriage, and a move down South, Weinstein went on to produce events that involved the food community, which allowed her to keep fingers to the pulse of what was going on with chefs and restaurants in Charleston, before there was a lively food scene there, she says.
Being one step removed from the industry but still having many friends involved with the day-to-day restaurant hustle was the vantage point from which the FAB Workshop—the initials stand for females are badass—was conceived.
"There wasn't much conversation about how poorly people were being paid and how much people were working," Weinstein says.
In 2014, Weinstein started a group called Bad Bitches with a small group of women and hosted events for the hospitality industry. The organization raised money to give scholarships to women in hospitality. Through that, Weinstein says, "FAB got its glimmer."
The first FAB Workshop was hosted in Charleston in 2017 where women from different positions through the restaurant industry came to speak candidly with each other about the meaning of success and the bumps in the road on the way to it. Weinstein kept it women-only so the space would be safe and no woman would feel guarded, instead conversation would be open. The workshop has been a success and Weinstein is preparing for its third incarnation, but has it driven change? She, like the other women who lead this industry, says change takes time.
"In order to do a cultural change and make a shift, it takes time," she says. "I think the shift has to come, obviously like most things, top-down. And until people realize that they have a problem in their culture ... then that starts changing. It's begun."
The future holds a bigger focus on fast casual, and Weinstein wonders how staffing will change to fit that, alongside the increase in technology designed to make running restaurants more seamless. "I think it's going to be interesting to watch and see how streamlined things really will be getting," she says.
For Victoria Vaynberg, Resy is a brand, not a utility—and it's a brand that isn't male-dominated. She's working to build the brand that's on the precipice of the industry's future.
Victoria Vaynberg says everyone should work in a restaurant at least once. "It teaches you work ethic, patience, how to deal with people, builds empathy for those working in restaurants, and teaches you how to be a great guest."
And while hosting at an Indian restaurant in Princeton, New Jersey, was her only stint in the industry until recently, she says she came up in the career world in male-dominated industries—until now. "Resy is not one of those," she says.
Resy, instead, is positioning itself to play a key role in shaping the future of the restaurant industry, and not just from a technology perspective.
"Our focus is on exactly that, using technology to imagine the future of hospitality," Vaynberg says. "Technology continues to be a game changer for the industry overall. By that I mean not only capabilities of technology to operate and run a restaurant, but from the discovery and demand side as well."
The more you know, she says, the better your decisions can be. That's what apps that gather data can provide. But the restaurant industry is so rooted in what Vaynberg calls "the human touch component," which is the reason that many futurists don't see automation taking over too much in the industry quite yet. Vaynberg sees human touch as a vital part of the restaurant experience going forward.
"Reliance on technology as the access point to restaurants will be much larger than it is today—closer to where Uber/Lyft sit today for ride sharing," she says. "And restaurants will have full-stack options, allowing them to be more efficient in their operations while providing easy access to consumer needs in one place—dine in, take out, delivery, and wait lists."
But what about that human touch component—what about the people? Vaynberg's experience in the working world so far has taught her that gender in business shouldn't matter, but being a woman in business is nonetheless challenging. Still, she says, things are changing.
"Great leaders and companies want the best person for the job, and we are starting to see women in leadership positions because they've earned it," she says. "There is more interest and opportunity now than ever before for female leaders—and that's across business overall—and that's promising. In the food world there's a (much needed) spotlight on the treatment of women in the workplace, and it's giving female chefs, beverage leaders, restaurateurs, etc., a platform to help shift the narrative now."
Creating inclusive camaraderie for women in food and women who love food alike is at the heart of Pineapple Collaborative's mission.
In cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, women who love food are gathering at events with women who make food and sharing stories, getting to know each other, supporting each other, and building community. It's called Pineapple Collaborative and the policy is come one, come all.
"It doesn't really matter to us whether a woman owns a Michelin-starred restaurant or has their own business," says cofounder Atara Bernstein. "Our understanding is that every person on this planet, and every woman especially, has a special connection with food."
Bernstein, formerly of sweetgreen, and co-founder Ariel Pasternak, formerly of Stumptown and Washington, D.C.'s fast-casual farm-to-taco shop Chaia, linked up to make Pineapple Collaborative a full-time thing in the summer of 2018.
When Pasternak returned from New York City to her home in D.C. in 2015, she says, she met many women with different touchpoints in food that had no way of connecting otherwise.
"There wasn't a space for us to talk about issues in food that we're interested in," she says.
The very first meeting of what's now a multi-city collaborative started as a potluck dinner at Pasternak's home. It spun off into events in D.C., and three years later, Pasternak says, it made sense to transition it to a full-time job.
"By calling ourselves Pineapple Collaborative, it was setting the stage for us to launch in New York and San Francisco, and create a national brand that resonated with all women," she says.
The why? To break down barriers between women "in food" and outside of it. Pasternak says even as a woman "in food" working for Stumptown Coffee Roasters in New York City, she felt like an outsider at many events geared toward women in the industry.
"There was a need for a very inclusive place for women—inclusive from the perspective of diversity, who is coming and who is welcome—but also inclusive of not just women in the food industry, but women who love food to be able to connect with chefs, entrepreneurs, and authors who really inspire women who love food," she says.
But it's not just about celebrating food and the women who love it. The inclusive space creates a platform for tough discussions.
"Pineapple is a place to celebrate food and talk about difficult issues—we just had a podcast all about indigenous food," Bernstein says. "We're trying to talk about these issues in a way that empowers people to get involved and make a difference. One thing we're really excited about is there's so much momentum about the #MeToo movement that there has been this reckoning. There is so much more accountability and all these groups popping up to really make a difference, to make a safer place for women, and to make the industry a place to succeed."
Pasternak sees this only continuing. She believes the industry can solve #MeToo in the next decade.
"I think if we as a community of people in food, people who eat, can push restaurants such that #MeToo is no longer an issue in our restaurants," she says. "I think it takes a culture shift and a will on all parties. I would love to see restaurants in 10 years really working with local farms and local purveyors, and agriculture that supports not only a sustainable system but a regenerative system. And I'm only inclined to support restaurants personally that really care about their sourcing, that are intentional and transparent, that are just great places to be."