For over 100 years, the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women have been celebrated on March 8 for International Women’s Day. On this day, the world honors the focal point of the women’s rights movement to encourage positive changes for women across all industries.
According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), more than half of the restaurants in the US have women as full owners or co-owners, and women make up about 45 percent of restaurant managers. While there are more women than ever in leadership roles in restaurants, roles for women outside of management show mixed results.
Female employees in restaurants account for:
- 52% of all restaurant workers
- 71% of servers nationwide
- 41% of fine dining bartenders (although 55% of family-style restaurant bartenders—at a lower-earning level)
- 19% of chef positions
Whether it’s a lack of paid parental leave or lack of awareness of female chefs, there are many issues that plague the male-dominated restaurant industry. Luckily, there are some powerful women leading the charge to #BalanceforBetter and create a more gender-balanced world for women entering the restaurant industry.
12 Inspiring Women in the Restaurant Industry
Deborah VanTrece, Chef and Owner: Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours, Atlanta, GA
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After 25 years of traveling the world as a flight attendant, Deborah VanTrece attended the culinary program at The Art Institute of Atlanta where she graduated as valedictorian in 1994. By 1996 VanTrece was the Executive Chef of a catering company that was chosen to provide food for foreign dignitaries and international executives at the Centennial Olympics in Atlanta, where she gained praise for her globally-inspired cuisine and cooking techniques.
After the Olympics, VanTrece opened a restaurant called Edible Art which was an instant hit and “helped to put the East Atlanta neighborhood on the map, laying the groundwork for the cultural epicenter that it’s become today.” (Charleston Wine + Food) VanTrece eventually closed Edible Art in 1998 to focus on her family, but revived the restaurant’s globally-infused southern soul food concept as Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours in 2014, moving the location in 2016 where it lives today.
While she is a very hands-on Chef/Owner and is committed to her food and guests, VanTrece also feels a responsibility for creating opportunities in the industry for more black women to succeed. She spoke to Southern Kitchen of the 16-year gap between closing Edible Art and opening Twisted Soul: “…Back then I was the one and only [black female chef/owner], and here we are almost 20 years later, and some of the doors are still closed, from acquiring the financing to our food, which was something that was looked down upon. Now I think we’re coming into an age with the food is starting to get its respect. And with the food getting respect, the chefs, you have to give ’em credit.”
Malika Jacobs, Co-founder and Co-owner: Kingmakers, Columbus, OH and Indianapolis, IN
Working in the service industry since the age of 16, Malika Jacobs envisioned a place where everyone’s voice was heard and employees could find themselves in a career rather than just a job. In 2014 she and her business partner opened the first location of Kingmakers, a board game parlor that serves gaming-friendly drinks and snacks.
Jacobs and her partner have created a space that is inclusive to all, staff and guests alike. With the merging of two typically male-dominated industries, gaming and restaurants, it was important to build a team that makes all guests feel comfortable and welcomed, no matter their level of gaming experience. “The majority of the leadership team that has always been at Kingmakers is made up of women. I think that’s always been an important part of what we do,” Jacobs says.
The customer experience is everything and the leadership team knows that a passionate and engaged staff (known at Kingmakers as “Board Game Sommeliers”) is key to making that happen. They hire staff a bit unconventionally, bringing on people who have never worked in a restaurant before. “We get a chance to really work from the ground up in building people that don’t have any negative stereotypes about the service industry,” Jacobs explains. Through clear processes, expectations, and communication, they are able to build a team that is passionate about gaming, service, and creating a warm and welcoming space.
“Play is for fun, but play is also really necessary and connecting and allows people to get off their devices and just do something new and get out of their comfort zone. All things that people, I think, are craving.”
Beverly Kim, Chef and Co-owner: Parachute and Wherewithall, Chicago, IL
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While working as the Executive Chef at Opera just a few years after graduating from college in 2000, Kim received a resume from a chef named John Clark. “It was serendipitous,” she told Michelin in 2019. “I hadn’t slept for 30 days. The [former] executive chef had left and I didn’t have a sous chef and I was running this whole restaurant.”
In 2014, Kim and Clark, now married and with a young child and living on $32,000 a year, decided to take the leap and open a restaurant of their own with a loan from Kim’s mother. In May, they opened Parachute which earned them a Michelin star just two years later in 2016 and a James Beard Award in 2019.
The couple now owns a second restaurant they opened in 2019, Wherewithall, and they offer healthcare benefits to staff at both locations, including therapy services and paid time off. They also utilize a human resources program that includes regular staff reviews, strict rules for employees on workplace nondiscrimination and harassment, and time limits on shifts to prevent staff burnout.
Both these initiatives offer their staff a path to success in the restaurant industry without the typical struggles and hurdles that Kim and Clark faced themselves. Kim told Michelin: “It does cost a lot of money but all of these things are really important to change the dining landscape. And we aren’t asking the customers for help—I know it’s a trend, but I feel like it’s our obligation to do it. It’s part of our core values.”
Andrea LaFazia, Catering and Events Manager: Troop, Providence, RI
Twelve years ago, Andrea LaFazia was the owner of an environmentally-friendly cleaning business when the broader conversation around locally-sourced farm-fresh foods was starting to happen. She began running a food co-op out of her house. “It was so satisfying and I was so excited, but I was also learning more and more how difficult it was […] to get the food. And so I wanted to find a way to make things easier and more accessible. The only way I could think of doing that was to work in restaurants.”
LaFazia enrolled in culinary school and later purchased a small farm-to-table restaurant called The Locals in “not the hippest area,” where most restaurants like this tend to pop up. “We were teaching people in the neighborhood about farm food and tried to make everything not intimidating or out of reach for anyone.”
When she closed her restaurant she continued to work in kitchens, mainly farm to table, and eventually landed at Troop as the Brunch and Lunch Manager, later taking over catering and events full time. What she loves most about being in the restaurant industry is providing hospitality and sharing important moments in guests’ lives, and the management team at Troop gives their staff the freedom and autonomy to thrive and do just that, which includes participating in a local International Women’s Day event themselves this year.
Troop will be setting up the bar along with a local brewery and most of the women who work at the restaurant will be participating in some way, either through bartending or their independent artistic ventures. This is made possible by the support that management and the owners at Troop show their staff not only as employees, but as people. “I think because everyone here has such a full and passionate life outside of their work-life, they bring so much more to the table when they’re here. [Management is] supportive here to the point of attending anything that’s happening outside of here with their staff members. They’ve done a really great job of understanding that you need your people to be happy.”
Sophia Roe, Wellness Advocate and Personal Chef, New York City
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Though she never intended to be a chef, cooking was a throughline in Sophia Roe’s life that was there to lift her up and save her in hard times. As a child, when her mom left her home alone for a week, Roe learned how to make pancakes to feed herself. When she tore her ACL, lost her track scholarship, and had to drop out of college, a job at a Vietnamese restaurant helped her get back on her feet.
That restaurant job convinced her to give culinary school a try, so she and her boyfriend at the time moved to Las Vegas. She eventually left school (and the boyfriend) before graduating, returning to her home state of Florida. Back home, she landed a job as a private chef for a wealthy couple that she calls “pure joy.”
While working for the couple Roe was diagnosed with a cluster tumor that required a partial hysterectomy at 23 years old, setting her on the path to becoming a wellness advocate. She admits that she initially took an extreme and unhealthy approach to wellness at first, and now teaches people how to live well within reason. “I feel good when I have a big buttery bowl of popcorn, and I feel equally as good when I’m on a 3-day juice cleanse. This, for me, is balance,” she told Good American.
Roe now openly speaks and writes about her traumatic childhood experiences, including eight years in foster care and her health issues, as part of her wellness advocacy. She is currently writing her first book, scheduled for release in early 2021.
Regina Lester, Owner, and Lindsay Houle, GM / Events Manager: The Dorrance, Providence, RI
Regina Lester initially left her job at a law firm as a need and a desire to be home with her children during the day. She landed a job at a family restaurant and fell in love with the industry. “I feel like everyone has at one time or another [has worked in a restaurant]. It literally gets in your blood or it doesn’t,” she says.
Lester eventually left that restaurant to work at a large fine-dining chain, where she was one of only two female servers, and then to a restaurant called Federal Reserve. Lester and her husband had plans to open a restaurant eventually on a small scale, but in 2010 when the lease was up at Federal Reserve and the then-owner decided not to renew, they took over the space which holds up to 375 guests and renamed it The Dorrance.
While they were gearing up to open, Lindsay Houle had just moved back home after completing a food and beverage-focused internship at Disney and was applying for jobs. “It just happened to work out that The Dorrance was opening that fall. So I applied here over the summer and helped get everything together in the months leading up to us opening.” She adds, “Coming from college and having this be my first ‘big girl job’ after college. I didn’t really have to go through what some other women do where they’re working within more of a boys club. I always had a badass female boss.”
Lester, who experienced more of the “boys club” culture in working both in law and at the fine-dining chain says she still experiences it even as an owner, though to a lesser degree. “Opening [The Dorrance], I didn’t really have any expectations. I just wiped the slate clean and thought, let’s go and do this. I do find that you’re treated differently when people say, ‘Oh, you’re the owner?’ Which still bothers me to this day. Whether a woman does it or a man does it. But we are in a great position where we are in charge and we’re kind of like, ‘Yeah we’re bad*ss b*tches.’”
Irene Li, Chef and Co-owner: Mei Mei, Boston, MA
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Mei Mei is a sibling-owned restaurant born from the family’s food truck in 2012. With the two oldest siblings now in advisory roles, Irene Li is the one running the show day-to-day. With no formal restaurant training, this career path was not one Li initially imagined for herself. As the restaurant’s website says, “Her life experiences range from organic farming to prison education and many things in between, and while she never expected a life in the restaurant industry, her desire to create change and to care for those around her remains constant.”
Li lives that philosophy every day in her restaurant and with her staff. With the help of Rethink Restaurants, she created an “open-book” style of management. Her staff knows everything about how the business runs which gives them insight into how to manage their finances, run a hospitality business of their own, and gives full transparency on payroll to avoid wage discrimination.
In addition to business transparency, Li is an advocate for affordable sustainability and locally sourced products. She’s expanded a local agriculture network in New England, which she initially started at Cornell as a college student, to help build stronger relationships between local farms and family-owned businesses. “It’s a lot of small fish working together in a big pond,” she told Bustle in 2017. “I try to get people really excited about thinking about the families and the people who are involved in creating their food.”
Li is the winner of multiple awards and accolades, including both the Forbes and Zagat 30 Under 30 lists, the Bustle Upstart Awards, and a three-time semifinalist James Beard Rising Star Chef nominee.
Natalie Dennen, Co-owner, and Alexis Moniello, Director of Operations: Bayberry Beer Hall, Providence, RI
In 2017 Natalie Dennen and her husband Tom opened Bayberry Beer Hall, inspired by the German beer halls they visited in Munich. Though neither had previous experience in the restaurant industry, they had a passion for hospitality that pulled them into the business. “I am passionately driven and love helping and loving people. To me there is no other industry that allows me to check those boxes better than the restaurant industry,” Dennen says.
Alexis Moniello is Bayberry’s current Director of Operations, joining the team after moving her way through the industry from a busser at her aunt’s restaurant to General Manager at Momofuku’s Ssäm Bar. “I left New York this year, for Providence. I’m thrilled to have landed with the Bayberry Beer Hall and Bayberry Garden* teams, who remind me of the curiosity that pulled me into the industry and keeps me here,” she says. (*A second location slated to open in 2020.)
Both Dennen and Moniello note the community aspect of the restaurant business, both with guests and staff, as one of their favorite things about the restaurant industry and they are always looking for ways to support the community and their Bayberry family.
To this point, Dennen says “Our staff… you will never hear me say they work for me because our staff is so much better than that. These people stand beside us. They contribute in ways that make our business even stronger and better than I could have dreamed.” Moniello adds that part of the evolution and struggle in this industry is to make sure those employees to make or break the guest experience are treated as such. “With tight margins, how do we make sure we are offering living wages and quality of life to our staff? How can we make sure our staff can afford to dine in their own workplaces and join in the communities they are helping build? This keeps me up at night,” she says.
Jody Williams and Rita Sodi, Chefs and Co-owners: Via Carota, Bar Pisellino, I Sodi, and Buvette, New York City
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A week after former fashion designer Rita Sodi opened her first restaurant, I Sodi, in 2008 chef Jody Williams stopped by for a meal. Williams was so blown away by the food, she told the New York Times, she had to meet the owner. “She was at the end of the bar eating lamb chops, so I went over and introduced myself.” The two hit it off instantly.
Two years later, Williams opened Buvette just around the corner, which now boasts additional locations in Paris and Tokyo. In 2014 the couple, now married, opened their first venture together, Via Carota, and five years later they opened a bar just across the street called Bar Pisellino – that same year they were named New York City’s Best Chefs by the James Beard Foundation.
Though all their restaurants have varying cuisines, they are all connected by Williams and Sodi’s desire to make good, simple food that is locally sourced and sustainable. Sodi is still part owner of her family’s farm near where she grew up, north of Florence, where they grow and press olives into olive oil that she sells seasonally at I Sodi. The couple is currently working on a fifth concept that strays from the Italian/European styles of their other restaurants. The yet-to-be-named restaurant that draws inspiration from the Shakers, an American religious sect, and their philosophy of “simplicity, utility, and honesty.”
How to Support Women in the Restaurant Industry
Beyond the 10 women highlight here, there are thousands of women that dedicate countless hours to the industry we love. If you want to do more to build up the women who work tirelessly in restaurants to serve us every day, here are few ways you can support them:
- Spend money at women-owned and operated businesses
- Follow and engage with women-owned businesses on social media
- Mentor women that you work with
- Give women the accolades that they deserve
- Call out harassment and inequality anywhere you see it
Whether it’s buying a coffee from a woman-owned coffee shop or giving praise to a colleague that handled a problem with ease, everyone can do their part in ensuring that we create a more gender-balanced industry for future restaurant employees.
10 Inspiring Women in the Restaurant Industry: 2019 List
From small-town restaurants to major hospitality groups, these women are doing their part in making the restaurant industry a more inclusive, diverse environment.
1. Ellin Lin — CEO and Co-founder of High Street Hospitality Group
With Ellin Lin leading the pack at High Street Hospitality, she ensures that women are given equal opportunity in all areas of her business. Tools for career growth at all levels at the group’s restaurants—Fork Restaurant, A.Kitchen, and High Street—include mentoring, training, and formal coaching programs. The group focuses on hiring from within, but Lin told Skift Table that they provide aid for new recruits who are entering the industry for the first time.
“It’s great you make people know you are there to support them, but it’s not that easy,” Lin said. “So we’ve looked at all different programs. For example, one of our chefs believes if you’re bringing in young CIA grads to a new city, you have to indoctrinate them into adult life and find that family support system, because it doesn’t really exist for them.”
In addition to healthcare, job listings for restaurants in the group tout “an open environment where mutual respect to all members is essential.” More benefits that are often unheard of in the industry are also offered to workers: 401(k), transportation, and a women’s roundtable to help support careers of all staff—where men are welcome, too.
This type of progress in the restaurant industry means that women will have an equal opportunity to benefits, a stable environment, and growth at work.
2. Angela Dimayuga — Creative Director of Food and Culture at The Standard
Since joining The Standard as creative director of food and culture, Angela Dimayuga has pioneered the intersection of art, food, beverage, and culture—cementing the hotel as one of the most creatively diverse spots for a memorable experience.
One of her first projects was launching the hotel’s “Chefs Stand Up” dinner series, which directly benefits the ACLU’s immigrant rights project, defending immigrants against discrimination. The series took place at the end of 2018 and included a series of nine pop-up dinners across The Standard’s locations in Miami Beach, New York, and Los Angeles. Each established or emerging chef created special menus for their evenings and put on their own art display.
“The Standard can be a place for us now—it can continue to be a place to work and play, but most folks also trying to push the envelope.” – Angela Dimayuga
Beyond the positive impact the project made on the ACLU, the first dinner had a special theme: women.
On October 18, Portland-based chef Naomi Pomeroy used her night at The Standard to highlight recipes from leading female chefs. “I thought, why not celebrate using recipes directly from women that I love and respect, through their passionate tale of food from other cultures,” she told Vogue. Drawing inspiration from four chefs with diverse cooking styles—Diana Kennedy (Mexican), Madhur Jaffrey (Indian), Paula Wolfert (Mediterranean) and Edna Lewis (Southern)—Pomeroy dished up a menu including Caesar salad, scallop ceviche, duck curry with mango chutney, flatbread, Cretan greens, and black-eyed peas.
Dimayuga using her platform to build up women is only one way that she’s bringing a breath of fresh air to the industry. “Now that I have a larger platform, The Standard can be a place for us now—it can continue to be a place to work and play, but most folks also trying to push the envelope,” said Dimayuga in Vogue. “I look forward to sharing the space with more women, more QTPOC, to celebrate immigrants and marginalized folks that would normally not see themselves represented.”
3. Kate Dickson — Owner of Bywater
After beginning her career as a hostess at a restaurant in Martha’s Vineyard, Kate Dickson knew she was destined for the fast-paced chaos of the restaurant industry. Today, she owns Bywater—a restaurant and bar located in Warren, RI that serves up fresh, local fare.
Home to one of the top culinary arts colleges in the country, the foodie hub of Providence isn’t immune to the power imbalance of the restaurant industry. When she moved back to the city after hostessing on Martha’s Vineyard, Dickson says harassment at her new job was “just part of the shift.”
“It never occurred to me to say anything about it. At the same time, I was fairly lucky that I never felt threatened—I felt in control of the transactions taking place,” she says. “But I was definitely wary of it by the time I left to work in fine dining. I put up with a lot in fine dining, too; there’s more money being thrown around and the harassment is more subtle, but it’s often worse.”
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, Dickson says. “After several years dodging unwelcome touching and laughing off explicit jokes, personal questions, inappropriate invitations, I decided that if I ever ran my own place, patrons would be made aware of the different dynamic.”
As for ensuring that women feel empowered at Bywater, Dickson says she’s still learning. It takes big steps – like developing a handbook that outlines policies of non-discrimination and zero tolerance for harassment – and little things, like stocking the employee bathroom with tampons and bobby pins.
“Don’t let anyone intimidate you into staying in a role you’ve outgrown, even if it means taking a risk.” – Kate Dickson
“There’s a new shift in the power dynamic in restaurants and that is fairly loaded when it comes to the gender imbalance, too, when most of the front of house staff are female,” says Dickson. “We’re here to serve you, absolutely, but we’re not servants,” she says.
Dickson credits her leadership to the women she worked for growing up in the industry. “I was really lucky to see women in leadership roles in many of my first food jobs: Lynn Williams at Seven Stars Bakery, who was balancing new babies and a growing business; Jennifer Matta at Bacaro, who was 20-something when it opened and yet just had so much natural authority, really made you want to be better at your job; and Lisa Harrison at Persimmon, who worked a nine-to-five job in journalism every day and then ran the Persimmon dining room at night. She was always on, always energetic, the perfect hostess, literally. She had an inspiring work ethic and attitude.”
Her advice for women that want to enter the restaurant industry? Know what you don’t know.
“Always be up for learning something new. Don’t let anyone intimidate you into staying in a role you’ve outgrown, even if it means taking a risk. In terms of business ownership? Well, be prepared to work 100 hours a week and do some crazy financial gymnastics,” Dickson says. “I think it helps to know beforehand if you’re equipped to handle that level of stress. Some people aren’t. I think women are particularly adapted to it, though. We’re systems thinkers and we can prioritize, rationalize, and move on, very quickly. I’ve enjoyed learning about myself by how I approach challenges and anxieties in this business. Oh, and: bubble baths!”
4. Allison Kave — Co-Founder of Butter and Scotch
After owning her own pie company and bartending for years, Allison Kave knew exactly how she’d run her own business when she eventually opened a place of her own in 2015.
Operating under the motto “established by women, for everyone,” Kave uses her 15 years of experience in the restaurant industry to lead the female-dominated team at Butter and Scotch in Brooklyn, NY. The Instagram-worthy desserts are a hit in the neighborhood, receiving accolades from industry giants like Eater, Thrillist, and The New Yorker.
“We are women-owned and all of our managers are women,” Kave says about the bar and bakery she owns with business partner Keavy Landreth. “Our menu has a very strong and overt feminist theme, and we’ve been known as a space that is inclusive and diverse.”
With a cocktail menu filled with names like “Stop Telling Women to Smile” and “Women and Their Demons,” it’s no surprise that empowering women is a central concept at the eclectic eatery. All of the bar’s cocktails are women-themed, and specialty drinks have $1 of their price donated to Planned Parenthood.
“We’ve worked hard to create a culture where our team feels comfortable coming to us with feedback, suggestions, requests, and ideas.” – Allison Kave
As for the pressures of the industry, she’s aware that it’s not all rainbows and sprinkles.
“Restaurants can inherently have intense, pressured moments,” she explains. “But we’ve worked hard to create a culture where our team feels comfortable coming to us with feedback, suggestions, requests, and ideas.”
Kave credits the women in the New York City food industry for relieving some of that pressure every now and then. “I have a bunch of women friends who also own dessert businesses, and we love to get together every couple of months to eat nachos, drink beer, and laugh, complain, get advice, and give advice,” she says. “It’s totally casual but also such a rewarding way to get and give support to other women who are in the same boat.”
Kave’s advice to women entering the industry? “Let the adversity fuel you.”
“Every time a person walks in the door and acts surprised to discover I’m the owner—and yes that still happens—I’m reminded that what we’re doing is still exceptional, and it shouldn’t be,” she says. “I take that raging fire and let it motivate me to keep going.”
5. Clare Reichenbach — CEO of the James Beard Foundation
In the midst of the restaurant industry’s #MeToo controversies, the James Beard Foundation brought in a new CEO: Clare Reichenbach. 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,” Reichenbach told Food Newsfeed. “Supporting women in the culinary industry has been a long-standing objective of the foundation. 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.“
By prioritizing promoting an industry culture that supports women—and inclusion more broadly—the Foundation will focus on hard work, integrity, results, and caring for everyone.
6. Stephanie Izard – Top Chef winner and Executive Chef at Girl & the Goat
After being named the first female winner of Top Chef in 2008, Stephanie Izard took her talents to Chicago. Working with the Boka Restaurant Group, they opened Girl & the Goat in 2010. Since the beginning of the partnership, two more restaurants have opened: Little Goat and Duck Duck Goat, both located in Chicago.
The scary next step for Izard? Moving out of her comfort zone.
Boka and Izard are taking their business outside of Chicago for the first time, with an opening in Los Angeles slated for summer 2019. The key to such a successful relationship is trust, according to Izard and the restaurant group. As for the lack of women in restaurant kitchens across the country, Izard notes that lack of talent is not the issue.
“The restaurant industry is gaining more female chefs all the time which is great. I honestly think part of it is balancing life and being a chef is hard for everyone, but as a woman, it can be an even bigger challenge to balance family with career,” she says. “It certainly is not because of the lack of talent—there are amazing female chefs in the field.”
7. Orla LaScola — Wine Director and Partner at The Proprietor’s Bar & Table
What began as a job to supplement wages while working as a journalist, Orla LaScola is now a 24-year restaurant industry veteran as the wine director and partner at The Proprietor’s Bar & Table on Nantucket, a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. The cuisine’s international inspiration attracts vacationers throughout the spring, summer, and fall, and celebrates family-style dining with local produce and protein.
After beginning her career in the industry when the same restaurant was called American Seasons, LaScola now owns the business with her husband, Mike. Their partnership is what has helped the couple lead a successful team by modeling mutual respect for each other.
“Don’t be the one who holds yourself back.” – Orla LaScola
“The ethos of business filters from the top down, so [Mike and I] treat each other with respect and that then is standard for everyone else,” she says. “At the end of the day, though there is no better management style than working with and beside your team. When you know how people work and what is causing dissatisfaction in a team, you can react quickly and keep our business strong and running well.”
With her mother as the main influence in her career, LaScola has always led her team with the intention to take chances and never play it safe.
Her advice to women entering the industry? “Be excited about what you’re doing, don’t expect things to happen for you, go out there and look for help and make your idea a reality,” she says. “Don’t be the one who holds yourself back.”
8. Shannon White — CEO of BRG Hospitality
When John Besh was hit with one of the most high-profile harassment headlines in 2017, Shannon White stepped in as CEO of BRG Hospitality. Working her way up from a server at Domenica, BRG’s Italian restaurant in downtown New Orleans, White was a manager before she found a role in operations. With a six-month-old baby and BRG’s name on the line, she took on her new role as CEO with a focus on repairing and rebuilding the company that she loves.
“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.” – Shannon White
The hospitality group overhauled its human resources department shortly after White took the helm, with the goal to centralize it and build oversight. This meant putting an anonymous complaint hotline in place to prevent further harassment in the restaurants. White and human resources are the only employees that can access the hotline so that identities are protected.
However, procedures and policies only go so far. To make real change, 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 told Food Newsfeed. “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.”
Under White’s leadership, the group is thriving—expanding to a Houston location in 2018.
9. Joanne Everett — Owner of Tortilla Flats
As a 33-year restaurant veteran, Joanne Everett wasn’t always sure the restaurant business was for her. After stints at a law firm and a diner, she decided to stick with hospitality.
In 1994, Everett began working at Tortilla Flats—a Mexican restaurant and bar in Providence, RI—and worked her way up from a server to General Manager before taking the leap to purchase the business.
“My boss had moved out of state, so all of the day-to-day operations were my responsibility. Hiring, firing, scheduling, paying the bills—I was running the show with a once a week visit from the owner,” she says. “In 2006, he approached me and my husband—who was a former server there, that’s how we met—with the opportunity to purchase the restaurant and the building that it’s in. Although making such a huge first time purchase came with a good amount of stress, it was the best decision that I ever made.”
Knowing the restaurant business was key in the process, which set Everett up for success at the helm of Tortilla Flats. Twelve years later, the restaurant continues to grow into the place she always knew it could be. As for the power dynamic in her restaurant, she says modeling for her staff is key to ensuring all team members feel empowered and respected.
“In my experiences working at and owning a local, non-chain restaurant, the front of the house has mostly been female dominated. I’ve worked with so many amazing women over the years. My kitchen staff is mostly male-dominated at this time, but I do make sure that the women that I do have in my kitchen know that they are equal, and I pay close attention to make sure they are treated respectfully,” she says. “I ran the kitchen for two years, so I was able to work side by side with my staff and build a team that helps each other whether male or female. I’m lucky that I have had the same crew for a long time and proud that when someone new does come in, they’re made to feel like part of the gang by both the front and back of the house.”
Everett’s advice for women—or anyone—entering the industry? “Set the example for your staff by working hard alongside them,” she says. “Show them that you appreciate the work they do.”
10. Liz Alpern — Chef, author, and founder of Queer Soup Night
At the start of her food industry career, Liz Alpern was begging the pastry chef at her FOH job to take her under her wing. A decade or so later, she is a business owner, author, and activist based in Brooklyn, NY.
That’s why two years ago, Alpern founded Queer Soup Night, merging her passion for cooking with her passion for bringing people together to create a nation-wide fundraising event.
“After the election in 2016, I was overwhelmed by a sense of urgency. I felt like I had to resist, and fight back against the direction things were going,” she says. “So, I did what I knew how to do. I made soup and invited everyone I knew. I wanted to be with my community, and I wanted us to do something. That’s why we made Queer Soup Night a fundraiser for local organizations.”
This urge to integrate activism with her career was a no-brainer for Alpern, who draws her inspiration for her career from women in her life that showed her how to be a great leader.
“Having worked in environments—kitchens, offices and everything in between—where the leadership is stressed and scattered, I’ve learned that I need to prioritize my own sense of calm and groundedness.” – Liz Alpern
“After my pastry stint, I worked on a Vietnamese food truck owned by a woman. I wouldn’t have known it at the time, but I certainly think that seeing my boss owning that truck showed me that I could own something too,” she says.
In a field where burnout is a regular occurrence for professionals, Alpern prioritizes her wellbeing and understands how it affects those around her.
“Whenever I’ve worked for someone who seems to be in chaos, I’ve been reminded that the leader sets the tone. If a leader is calm, the staff will be calm,” she says. “Having worked in environments—kitchens, offices and everything in between—where the leadership is stressed and scattered, I’ve learned that I need to prioritize my own sense of calm and groundedness.”
For women entering the industry and looking to find their place among the madness, Alpern offers some sound advice: “When you don’t know what to do, do what you know how to do.”