WFF president and CEO Fritzi Woods

The Female Touch: Women Making Inroads Into Restaurant Industry Leadership

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Several full-service companies now are run by the fairer sex
By Daniel P. Smith August 2012 Stub

Back when Nixon was president and “The Brady Bunch” enjoyed its original run on television, a teenage Julia Stewart was handing out pancake-shaped menus at a San Diego IHOP. Being a millionaire restaurant executive seemed fantasy, a product of yesteryear realities that saw few women inhabiting corner-office spots.

“I had no female role models” in c-suite roles, Stewart confirms at the close of an eventful June workday.

Fast-forward four decades, however, and that teenage waitress has turned into one of the restaurant industry’s foremost female trailblazers as the CEO of DineEquity. In 2008, a USA Today feature labeled Stewart “one of the most powerful women in the restaurant world–ever.”

Though Stewart maintains a steady indifference to the media-generated title, the truth holds.


Julia Stewart

Stewart’s Glendale, California-based DineEquity – the offspring of IHOP’s $2.1 billion acquisition of Applebee’s in 2007 – oversees nearly 3,400 units across the country and captured more than $7 billion in sales last year.

Today, Stewart, who spearheaded that headline-grabbing purchase, highlights an escalating – albeit slowly – number of women filling executive slots in the full-service restaurant world.

Among the 20 highest-grossing full-service restaurant chains, five feature female CEOs: Applebee’s and IHOP with Stewart; Bloomin’ Brands Elizabeth Smith; Buffalo Wild Wings’ Sally Smith; and Cracker Barrel’s Sandra Cochran, who was named to her post last summer.

With such noteworthy ascents to the CEO spot leading the charge, the once-impenetrable glass ceiling in the restaurant industry has been shattered, as female executives dot the management ranks of dozens of full-service restaurant giants as well as up-and-coming players.

Next: Stepping into leadership

Stepping into leadership

Yet, as many know, this wasn’t the case as recently as the 1980s.

In 1989, the then-upstart Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF) conducted a survey of women in the foodservice industry, specifically asking them about professional aspirations. Not one respondent expressed desires to be CEO, more perhaps a condemnation of industry realities than female ambitions. And though women accounted for nearly two-thirds of foodservice workers and about half of the graduates of foodservice management programs at the time, few had reached the senior management ranks of the nation’s major players.

The discouraging results spurred the WFF into action.

Founded in 1989 after a roundtable discussion of the state of women in foodservice at the 1988 National Restaurant Association (NRA) Show, the WFF now claims over 3,500 members. It has become the leading advocacy and educational outlet to advance female leadership in the foodservice industry.

The early WFF founders worked through fears of being too radical, outspoken, or selfish team members. They expressed concerns women had about being the only woman at the table, overprotection by male bosses, outward bias, and a void of industry role models.

“A group of us loved this industry and wanted to contribute anything we could to it,” says Edna Morris, the WFF’s first chair and, at the time of the WFF’s founding, Hardee’s senior vice president of human resources. “As an industry, we weren’t accessing all of the talent that was available. With the WFF, we thought we could do something positive to elevate women leaders and minimize roadblocks.”

In subsequent years, the WFF has done just that, promoting industry diversity as both the right social move as well as a sound business decision. The organization has played a principal role in not only raising the issue of gender diversity among senior teams, but also inspiring and supporting its female members to pursue and succeed in those high-profile roles.

The WFF offers structured mentoring, strategic networking opportunities, and a host of leadership development programs, including a multifaceted executive education program with Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Last April, more than 2,000 gathered in Dallas for the sold-out WFF Annual Leadership Development Conference. The two-decades-old event has emerged as the premier conference for female foodservice professionals to develop leadership skills and achieve professional growth.


Fritzi Woods

“This is where we bring all of our audiences together–the emerging leaders, emerging executives, and those in the c-suite–so that people can build the relationships and skills that will help them grow,” WFF president and CEO Fritzi Woods says.

Outside the WFF, organizations such as the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance (MFHA) and the NRA have also crafted strategic initiatives aimed at promoting inclusion.

“There’s far more talk and action, forums and interest regarding women in the c-suite,” says industry veteran Mickey Mills, vice president of operations at the 200-unit, Nashville-based O’Charley’s casual dining chain.

Empowered and supported, plenty of women have voiced their ambitions to lead and stepped forward as the doors to executive slots have opened.

“It all starts with raising your hand and being clear about what you want and finding a company open to your skill set and capabilities,” Stewart says. “There’s a self-confidence now from so many women wanting to take the next step.”


Sandy Cochran

Adds the Cracker Barrel’s Cochran: “It seems appropriate to be optimistic about opportunities continuing to exist for people who are committed to development and who are willing to stretch themselves.”

Yet more, with CEOs like Stewart, the Smiths, and Cochran as well as executives such as Mills, today’s young women in the restaurant world have tangible examples of women in leading roles. Today’s female executives include driven women building professional and personal support networks and, in many cases, successfully tackling the challenge of running a business and a family simultaneously – in many minds, the major impediment to career advancement for females.

“When you see folks like you achieving good things and you see the possibilities, that can really push people to reimagine the professional paths available to them,” says Mills, herself a mother of three.

Just two decades ago, no one could point to a female leading a major full-service restaurant brand and few women sat at the corporate leadership table. Today, fingers point in any number of directions.

“There’s definitely been progress,” confirms Morris, who also served a stint as president of Red Lobster. “We now have women running and even owning restaurant companies. Unlike the WFF’s first days, it wouldn’t take long to call a group of leading industry women together today.”

To be certain, however, room for growth remains aplenty.

Next: Where women stand today

Where women stand today

Back in 1999, the WFF released “A Census of Women in Leadership in the Foodservice Industry.” The report provided the industry its most detailed review of gender among the leadership ranks.

The pre-Millennium findings were bleak: Women represented but 4 percent of the foodservice industry’s highest-ranking officers and 4 percent of its top earners. Among the largest 100 restaurant chains, women held only 8 percent of board seats.

Today, however, more women hold c-suite, management, and director positions than ever before.

Since 2008, the WFF has been tracking the gender makeup of publicly traded foodservice companies’ boards and senior teams, including 51 of the nation’s largest restaurants. Woods says the ongoing study–titled “Women in Leadership in Foodservice”–aims to bring visibility to the number of women in the upper ranks.

A look at leading full-service restaurant CEOs

Julia Stewart

DineEquity (Applebee’s and IHOP)

2011 Total Compensation: $5,392,402

2011 Sales: $7,081,300,000

2011 Unit Count: 3,385

Douglas Brooks

Brinker International (Chili’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy)

2011 Total Compensation: $3,618,325

2011 Sales: $4,007,900,000

2011 Unit Count: 1,332

Clarence Otis

Darden Restaurants (Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52, Eddie V’s)

2011 Total Compensation: $8,480,148

2011 Sales: $7,573,600,000

2011 Unit Count: 1,891

*sales and unit count numbers do not include the eight-unit Eddie V’s

Elizabeth Smith

Bloomin’ Brands (Outback Steakhouse, Carraba’s Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, Roy’s Restaurants)

2011 Total Compensation: $8,547,239

2011 Sales: $3,849,000,000

2011 Unit Count: 1,254

Sally Smith

Buffalo Wild Wings

2011 Total Compensation: $2,115,112

2011 Sales: $2,044,752,000

2011 Unit Count: 8,167

Sandra Cochran

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store

2011 Total Compensation: $3,062,820

2011 Sales: $1,958,647,000

2011 Unit Count: 608

David Overton

The Cheesecake Factory

2011 Total Compensation: $4,136,642

2011 Sales: $1,542,187,000

2011 Unit Count: 156

Samuel “Sandy” Beall

Ruby Tuesday

2011 Total Compensation: $4,633,115

2011 Sales: $1,400,000,000

2011 Unit Count: 776

W. Kent Taylor

Texas Roadhouse

2011 Total Compensation: $614,800

2011 Sales: $1,373,475,000

2011 Unit Count: 366

Steve Carley

Red Robin Gourmet Burgers

2011 Total Compensation: $2,467,703

2011 Sales: $1,212,052,000

2011 Unit Count: 445

Steven Davis

Bob Evans

2011 Total Compensation: $3,587,415

2011 Sales: $977,000,000

2011 Unit Count: 564

Richard Federico

P.F. Chang’s

2011 Total Compensation: $1,104,461

2011 Sales: $931,379,000

2011 Unit Count: 206

NOTE: all 2011 sales and unit count info comes from Technomic’s “2012 Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report”

“Knowing the disparity will help us get closer to the gender parity we want,” Woods says.

In its 2011 research update to “Women in Leadership,” the WFF reported that the percentage of women serving on senior teams increased to 17 percent in 2011 from 16 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, 10 of the 51 restaurants tracked claimed a senior team that was at least 30 percent female in 2011.

“Progress is happening,” Woods says, “though it’s much slower than we all want it to be.”

Among those 51 restaurants the WFF tracks, there were six female CEOs, including Stewart, Sally Smith, and Cochran. The other three female CEOs came from the quick-service arena: Cosi’s Carin Stutz, Linda Lang of Jack in the Box, and Cheryl Bachelder of AFC Enterprises, the parent company of Popeyes.

Yet, 13 of the 51 restaurants had no women on their senior team, surprising data from an industry that routinely embraces the idea that women drive purchasing decisions.

“I think it’s ironic and underscores the disconnect,” Morris says. “Many of the companies thriving today make sure they have connections to their clientele, and that includes having female voices and perspectives at the table.”

For all of the gains over the last two decades, Woods sees the still-glaring gap as a reminder of the work ahead as well as the immense opportunity women have to make inroads.

“Part of the issue is attracting people to the industry and showing it as a great spot for advancement and compensation opportunities. Frankly, that’s something the industry has struggled to articulate,” she says. “We need to get women into the leadership pipeline and in front of the decision makers. That will help move the needle.”

Next: The future for women in charge

The future for women in charge

For the earliest members of the WFF, it’s been a lengthy journey of modest, yet significant gains.

In a stirring keynote address at the 2004 WFF Annual Leadership Development Conference, Morris recognized the emergence of women in the foodservice industry alongside the vast, still-pressing opportunity for women to occupy even more leadership roles.

“Where we are definitely means more role models, more opportunities to help others achieve their dreams … [and] an opportunity to bring new aspects of leadership into our industry, leadership that positively impacts culture and results,” Morris told the crowd.

In touch with the WFF’s roots as much as her own, Stewart is among many industry leaders championing more diverse management teams and boards, extending beyond gender and into race, experience, and business philosophy.

“Diversity helps prosperity and growth,” Stewart says.

Cracker Barrel’s Cochran similarly acknowledges that diversity is broader than just gender, understanding that unique perspectives, observations, and experiences help guide sound decision making at her company and others.

“The result is an understanding of the need for diversity … and an appreciation of the benefits that come from this,” Cochran says.

As the economy has tumbled in recent years, Stewart says, an emphasis on discovering the best talent that positions a company to succeed and reflects the consumer base restaurants serve has emerged a paramount priority. As such, traditional gender barriers are giving way to talent and business acumen.

“You hear people talking less about the noble thinking of hiring for diversity’s sake and more about finding the best person possible because that’s what is needed,” Stewart says. “This is about skill sets, abilities, competency, who you are, and finding the right mix with culture.”

Mills agrees.

“More and more companies are talking about the link between success and diverse talent,” she says, “and that’s given women a better chance to break in.”

Mills adds that shifting societal roles and economic upheaval have further inspired women to shine and embrace an ambitious career mindset.

“The traditional gender role in which the man is the home’s principal income earner faded a while ago, and that’s made women far more comfortable and eager to take on different roles,” she says.

Woods, meanwhile, points to other reasons that females will continue making inroads into foodservice leadership, including the skyrocketing number of women earning degrees and advanced degrees; the world’s need for collaboration and consensus building; and shorter CEO reigns. Additionally, Woods contends, women are more assertive in asking for jobs and advocating for themselves, a shift from the early days of the WFF when women might have craved the CEO’s chair, but silenced that ambition.

“There’s reason to be optimistic that the number of women taking on leadership spots will only grow,” Woods says.

For Morris, who played such a pivotal role in the WFF’s founding and has worked throughout her career to foster leaders, women in the industry today, she says, should be excited at the developments and opportunities.

“With a critical mass of women at the top, it can perpetuate itself,” she says.