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 percent of all restaurant workers
- 71 percent of servers nationwide
- 41 percent of fine dining bartenders (although 55 percent of family-style restaurant bartenders—at a lower earning level)
- 19 percent of chef positions
Whether it’s 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.
10 Inspiring Women in the Restaurant Industry
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.”
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.