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Food is inherently a celebration of diversity in cultures, palettes, rituals, and more. That’s why it comes as no surprise that the restaurant industry is considered one of the most diverse segments of our economy. About half of all restaurant employees are POC, and women make up 54% of all restaurant workers. However, as within many industries, the industry becomes a sea of sameness the higher up the org chart you go, and both women & POC are underrepresented in restaurant leadership. This International Women’s Day, we take a closer look at ways we can push for more equity within food and celebrate the #WomeninFood who keep the restaurant industry running.
We’ve already established that the restaurant worker population is over half non-white and majority female. However, there’s still a lot of work to do to ensure representation is consistent across all levels of expertise. Gerry Fernandez, president and founder of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance, explains, “If you’re at a restaurant, you see lots of women and people of color. As you go higher, lots of white men.”
Let’s look at some statistics to get a complete view:
Many socio-economic forces contribute to the lack of women leaders within the restaurant industry. According to Joanna James, Director and Producer of A Fine Line, a film about the lack of women in restaurant industry leadership, “...what prevents more women from getting into leadership across all industries is really the same set of issues: lack of media coverage, lack of access to capital, lack of access to affordable, accessible childcare… We need to transform this out-of-touch work culture.” To synthesize, a push for women in leadership positions more broadly is a push for women in restaurant industry leadership – a rising tide would lift all boats.
Since we know that this isn’t just a restaurant industry problem, let’s gain a 360-degree view of the gender breakdown in corporate leadership:
As we push for more accurate gender representation within leadership - both restaurant and otherwise, it’s critical that we think intersectionally and also push for more accurate ethnic representation in leadership.
To create equal opportunity in restaurant leadership positions, we must first look at the big picture: what cultural and socio-economic factors contribute to inequity? Understanding racial injustice and gender equality takes time—but education is the first (most important) step in creating an equal opportunity workplace. Check out some resources here and here for a comprehensive, deep-dive on these issues. For today, we’ll dig into actionable steps your business can take to move the needle—including the importance of adequate training, the implications of visibility, and the power of inclusivity.
Why is it that, in many industries, education & outside learning end when you join the workforce? We can’t expect entry-level restaurant employees to gain all the skills they need to climb the ladder towards leadership in their day-to-day roles. If you are a restaurant leader, you know that many of the skills necessary to do your job well – from staffing inventory management to finances – had to be learned while working at a restaurant or beforehand in school. Consider providing your entry-level employees with access to courses on various topics within the restaurant industry, from money to inventory to staffing – they’ll be likely to stay at your establishment, and you’ll foster a culture of learning & leadership amongst your team.
According to McKinsey’s 2021 Women in the Workplace Study, women represent nearly half of the entry-level positions in the food and beverage manufacturing and distribution sector. Still, female representation drops to 20% at the C-suite level. McKinsey describes this phenomenon as the “broken rung” – or the inability to climb the ladder from entry-level to manager-level. To fix the broken rung, companies (within the restaurant industry and more broadly) should focus on:
Do you allow your entry-level employees to work on restaurant initiatives outside of their day-to-day responsibilities? Focusing on & celebrating diversity within your team could lead to more creative & relevant innovations for your customers. Why not provide your team with the opportunity to have their voice heard outside of the day-to-day by setting up menu audits, item innovation brainstorm sessions, and potential tensions within your restaurant that could use solutions. If they’re on the front line, they’re closer to your customer and could help you make your restaurant more catered to the audience.
Shannon and her family once had the traditional American diet: see Cheetos, Coca-Cola, processed and fast food. She balanced parenting and a busy corporate career while her husband also juggled his real estate profession and family life. “We thought we were too busy to focus on cooking homemade meals and ate out constantly.” After their third of four children was born with some “quirky” health problems, they began looking at their family’s diet. Fast-forward a few years, they all went gluten-free and began reaping the benefits of this lifestyle shift. Eventually, Shannon left her corporate career and started a business focused on spreading what she & her family learned about nutrition with her community. “Our kids were ultimately the ones that pushed us into taking that leap and starting Vibe. Vibe Foods is definitely a family affair- our whole family is involved in one way or another. Our mission is to provide delicious food that is amazing for your body! Our whole menu is gluten-free and dairy-free. We have smoothie bowls, acai bowls, wellness shots, local and organic kombucha on tap, an organic raw and cold-pressed juice line and juice cleanses, soft-serve made with flax milk using only dates as the sweetener, organic bone broths, healthy superfood lemonades, loads of smoothies with super cool and clean ingredients, and amazing warm drinks like superfood coffees and lattes.” You can support Shannon & Vibe by visiting one of their four brick & mortar locations or placing an order online here.
Little King Subs is the classic Nebraska sub shop. With 8 locations across Omaha, Lincoln, and Grand Island, Little King has served locals across Nebraska for over 50 years. Their secret to success is quality: Little King only uses fresh deli-style meats and cheeses – just like you’d find in NYC. They slice their meats in front of your eyes right when you order – not in some processing plant like the other guys. They offer fresh Swiss, American, and provolone cheeses (sliced-to-order, of course) – not “yellow” and “white” cheese squares. And every Little King sub is served fresh – “Little King knows it’s impossible to prepackage freshness and flavor.” Joanne’s location at 108th Street is regarded as the top Little King location. You can support Joanne by visiting her Little King location at 5055 S 108th St, or ordering online here.
Husband-and-wife team Gabriel and Sarah Ayala are seasoned restaurateurs known for Dragonfly, SafeHouse, and Blackfinn. In late 2020 after COVID-19 delays, they debuted Wake ‘n’ Bacon, described as the most Instagrammable brunch spot in Chicago; the restaurant is a “boozy café” with a menu that includes “extensive” CBD add-ons. Sarah is half Chinese and half Taiwanese, and her husband is half Argentine and half El Salvadorian – their multicultural backgrounds led the two to riff on many “classic” brunch items using the flavors and techniques of those cuisines resulting in an eccentric, delicious menu. Sarah turned COVID-19 challenges into strengths by innovating on their delivery packaging, menu items, and process to ensure Wake ‘N’ Bacon is as delicious at home as it is in store. You can support Sarah by ordering from Wake ‘N’ Bacon directly here.
A serial entrepreneur, Chrysi Arnaki of Argo Greek Cuisine is no stranger to starting a business from scratch. She’s worked in an eclectic mix of industries from law to dog breeding, aesthetics to real estate. Born and raised in Greece, she always had a deep reverence for food. Her mother was “the best cook she’s ever known. Better than the professionals. She turned me into a foodie by the time I was a teenager.” In her twenties, Chrysi traveled the globe from Zimbabwe to Jamaica to Thailand, grabbing a cookbook from every place she traveled. Chrysi moved from Greece to Canada, where she met her husband, who just so happened to be a fantastic cook. Between his skills in the kitchen and her entrepreneurial talents, they came together to create Argo Greek Cuisine in Vancouver. You can support Argo Greek Cuisine by ordering from the restaurant on Skip the Dishes, Uber Eats, Doordash, or their own online ordering platform. Chrysi’s picks? “The chicken souvlaki, roast lamb, and calamari. You’ll love it.”
In 2013, Mery Yim and her husband Claudio Ricci turned their dreams into a reality by opening Greek Fusion. Inspired by the concept of “ghirerie”, the traditional Greek food places, they managed to combine the classic Hellenic street food with the new trends of the Italian catering sector. "After seeing that tastes in Italy were diversifying and people were opening up to new experiences such as fusion, we realized that there was a great potential to be exploited.” Greek Fusion's menu boasts a wide selection ranging from traditional recipes, such as pita, souvlaki and moussaka, to vegetarian reinterpretations and typical wines and spirits. “When we started, there were no more than 150 to 200 establishments in Italy offering our type of cuisine, so we didn't have a lot of competition, which made us an almost exclusive brand.” If you are in Milan, you can support Mery and Claudio by ordering food from one of their three locations.
The team at Otter sends a major shoutout to all Women in Food this International Women’s Day. From hosts to servers to general managers and owners – thank you for all you do to make the culture of food as great as it is today. As we look ahead, we hope to see continued progress towards equal gender & ethnic representation in leadership: throughout the restaurant industry and beyond. Knowing that 80% of workers want to work for a company that values diversity, equity and inclusion, and 64% of buyers are more likely to purchase from companies they view as inclusive and diverse, a step towards equity could also result in a boost for your bottomline and hiring efforts. If you’re a restaurant leader, consider implementing education programs, mentorship initiatives, and an inclusive work culture that celebrates restaurant professionals of all backgrounds. In the meantime, let’s “Cheers!” to all the #WomeninFood who never let obstacles, odds, or challenges stop them –– we celebrate you today & every day.