The Restaurant Industry Needs to Step Up for Women. We Asked Four Leaders How to Do It.

The Restaurant Industry Needs to Step Up for Women. We Asked Four Leaders How to Do It.
Samantha Fung

By Samantha Fung

When I was 16, my 21-year-old coworker at a well-known fast-food chain asked for my phone number. He assured me he would only use it to trade shifts. Later that night, he texted me, asking what I was doing. My managers also used code names based on menu items to “rate” female customers.

When my friend was 22, she served at a steakhouse that mandated short dresses and heels. When she was 23, the manager asked her to put on makeup in one of her first shifts at a breakfast grill. She promptly quit.

These accounts may not shock you. The internet holds countless stories of inappropriate behavior that female restaurant workers have endured.

Things don't always improve once you're the boss, either. Women-owned restaurants often have their accomplishments overlooked. Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of New York City's Dirt Candy, is vocal about culinary lists and awards that leave out female chefs.

She has a point. Female restaurateurs have made invaluable contributions to the food & beverage space. Women fill more than half of restaurant positions in the U.S.. The industry needs to do better to take care of its workers. We spoke to 4 women restaurant leaders about their philosophies on leveling the playing field.

Make the Restaurant Workplace Better For Women

Take a look at your own biases

Kelly McCutcheon, VP of People at Hopdoddy Burger Bar, knows what it's like to be underestimated. At her first job as a server, she tried to show a new hire how to make a side salad.

“The chef came running around and said, 'What are you doing? YOU don't teach anybody anything.' That was the moment that I was like, 'Oh, I have something to prove,'” says McCutcheon. “I turned to him in that moment and said, 'Name any item on that menu.'” She proceeded to list step-by-step how the item was made.

Quote about old school restaurant management

Alison Edginton is the Manager of Training & New Can Openings at Smalls Sliders, an American burger QSR in Louisiana. When she was the first female GM in a past role, she managed an all-female waitstaff. She admitted she had misconceptions about working with young women at the start.

“I was pretty much raised by an all-male management structure...The language that I was surrounded by when I was young is shocking to me now,” says Edginton. “It's things like that that [explain] why there are so many recurring issues in the restaurant industry. Because somebody taught somebody that person's crazy, or she's going to cry, or she's really dramatic...Is she dramatic, or are you withholding information that she needs?”

Most of us have good intentions. We don't purposely aim to offend others with our comments or behavior. But, we all tend to make assumptions about people depending on how they look or speak.

You and your team probably have biases. Consider attending workshops with your team. Look for groups like The Multicultural Food & Hospitality Alliance that run webinars and seminars. When you recognize that you may judge someone based on their looks, take a second to remind yourself to look deeper.

Set core values

Acknowledging your implicit bias and taking steps to address them is step one. Your next step is to signal to your staff (and customers) what you stand for. Hopdoddy Burger Bar defined its values by identifying common traits of star team members. They then boiled them down from 60 characteristics to 4 core values.

At Smalls Sliders, they use an acronym to remember their core values: SWEAT. These values should inform your team's decisions - from the day-to-day to the big picture.

“Create a space where it's easy to do the right thing because it's established, it's set up for you, you have everything you need at your disposal, and you're focusing on the right things,” explains Laura Bien, Director of Operation Services at Salt & Straw, a 30-location ice cream chain based in Portland.

Once you decide on your core values, shout them from the rooftops. Salt & Straw uses an internal communication platform called The Dot. Anyone can praise colleagues for displaying their values ("Saltie Salutes").

When you come up with characteristics you want in a team, you also discover what you don't want. “[Restaurant operators] need to make sure that the behaviors they want to see within their four walls are seen, and the ones that they don't are not seen. The minute they let that stuff slide, the minute the negative behaviors will creep in. You can set policies all day, but if you don't live those policies, it's just a piece of paper,” says Shanlee Kasson, VP of Operations Integration at Teriyaki Madness. The QSR franchise started in Seattle and serves up Asian-inspired bowls and appetizers.

Set and enforce sexual harassment policies

Speaking of behaviors you won't tolerate, make it clear to your staff, vendors, and customers that any harassment won't be tolerated. The hospitality industry had a reckoning when a group of women exposed abuse from prominent chefs. The most notorious is Mario Batali of Food Network fame, who had numerous sexual harassment allegations made against him in 2017. That same year, TV chefs John Besh and Johnny Iuzzini added themselves to the list of accused abusers. Most of these incidents don't make headlines. They happen in pantries and dining rooms across the country.

Women workers are especially at risk in the restaurant scene. The industry has the highest rates of sexual harassment claims. Female staff also reported more harassment from guests and managers during the pandemic.

Keep your team members safe. Before someone crosses a line, it should be obvious what the line is. Everyone should know how to report these incidents and the consequences of them. Create an environment of trust where staff knows who to turn to. Staff should feel comfortable confiding in an authority figure. Sexual harassment is a crime, and outcomes for offenders need to be clear.

Build trust with open communication

2 female restaurant staff sitting around a laptop

Leo Weekly published a survey of women in hospitality. They all reported hesitating to be open with their bosses. They worried their bosses would schedule them for bad shifts, fire them, or even harm them. Everyone wins when employees are comfortable bringing up issues before they get worse.

“I knew enough to correct when I misstepped and to openly acknowledge that I misstepped. Make it an open conversation because vulnerability is not a weakness. If you can show this and offer that transparency and honesty to everybody, it levels that playing field," says Alison Edginton.

It's not just about waiting for staff to come to talk to you. Ask them for feedback. Check with female employees about how you can help them reach their full potential. Chef Dominique Crenn suggests asking about the team's gender equality in exit interviews. Restaurant communication apps can help you get there.

Provide equal opportunities

How much of your workforce is female? And how many of those women work in the FOH rather than the BOH? If women are not applying for positions, ask yourself why. Is there something in the hiring or recruiting process that leaves women out?

Union Square Hospitality Group sees a candidate's potential and culture fit as important as skills and experience. There's a tendency in the restaurant business to put women in the dining room and men in the kitchen. This separation isn't always helpful. At Smalls Sliders, they combat this by training every hire on every position. There are female cooks and male cashiers. At Hopdoddy, they use an open kitchen concept so that the FOH and BOH are more integrated.

Hopdoddy also lays out a clear path to management. They have a TM (team member) to GM (general manager) program. Every recruit gets a copy of the Hopdoddy “Journey”. There is less ambiguity about how to advance in the company.

Salt & Straw is another chain that uses robust training for scoopers and managers. When the criteria for how employees rise in the ranks are clear, there is less room for favoritism or bias.

“The more guessing someone has to do, the more often they are put in a place where they may make the wrong decision. If we can remove that guesswork and have a lot of helpful documentation, and clear, easy-to-use tools...that opportunity to make the wrong decision will become less frequent,” says Laura Bien. “A lot of what I do is streamlining certain systems and processes in a way where it's easy for managers...What we want them to spend their time on is coaching or developing their team.”

Put women in leadership roles

Hiring and training practices also affect another gender gap in the industry—the wage gap. One Fair Wage found that in 2021, men in the front of the house made $3.37 more per hour than women. The gap worsens when you factor in race. Black women working in tipped positions made $5.68 less per hour than their white male colleagues. This may be partly due to women receiving promotions at a slower rate.

Women make $3.37 per hour less than men

In a study published by Yale, women at a large retail chain were 14% less likely to receive promotions than men. One of the main reasons was the management thought they had lower leadership potential. The punchline is the women earned higher performance ratings than men. This effect grew for women executives.

McKinsey's Women in the Food Industry report found less than a quarter of C-suite leaders in the sector were female. Even fewer were women of color.

Lack of confidence may be a factor. Kelly McCutcheon of Hopdoddy was offered her role of VP of People twice. She turned it down the first time because she didn't feel qualified for the job. “I was very fortunate to be given the question again, and this time I very quickly said 'Yes, absolutely!' Because it felt like I did miss out,” McCutcheon said.

Quote about having female leaders

That's why it's crucial to encourage and develop women to take leadership positions. When Salt & Straw identifies potential managers, they offer resources and coaching to help them progress. A learning management system is in the works to help staff prepare for the next step in their career. They also boast a 62% female management structure.

Laura Bien says, “I grew up at Salt & Straw in a female-driven work environment. Early on I saw that I had a female CEO, so [I thought] why couldn't I be a CEO someday? I never questioned whether I could be a director or a manager because, for the first 7 years, all my leaders were female. So it's been impactful to reflect on that and how important representation is.”

The one piece of advice Bien would give to business owners to further equality? “Make sure there are women at the table. Make sure there's representation of everyone...people who look different, who sound different.”

Some eateries have adopted models where everyone is required to negotiate their pay. These aren't just feel-good initiatives. Studies show that diversity is good for business too. A McKinsey study showed female managers made staff feel more supported in their work and well-being.

Shanlee Kasson of Teriyaki Madness reflects: “The female leaders that I've had in this job and in past jobs were just so dynamic that it was like, if you want that seat or if you want that role, do it.”

By removing barriers for women to receive promotions, you make room for more future female leaders.

Offer caregiver and medical benefits

To build good culture in your restaurant, give your staff the benefits they want. Benefits tailored to their needs. Restaurants have the highest percentage of single mothers compared to any other industry. So, benefits geared towards childcare can make a significant impact. Evenings and weekends may be difficult shifts for them to cover. With extra childcare support, they can take on those shifts that tend to offer higher tips. Ovenly, a women-owned bakery in New York City, provides primary and secondary caregiver benefits. Michelin-starred Parachute in Chicago also provides 12 weeks of paid maternity leave. (The FMLA requires employers to give 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave at the time of writing. But the law only applies to restaurants with 50 employees within a 75 mile radius).

You can also follow in the footsteps of restaurants that cover medical fees for women's health. Union Square Hospitality Group offers reimbursements for abortion-related travel expenses. Starbucks provides health insurance for gender-affirming procedures.

Support women who aren't your employees

If you have the means, go one step further and support other women outside of your staff. Even a small act such as using female vendors (like Salt & Straw does) goes a long way. Salt & Straw also works with The Women's Justice Project. The initiative connects women in the criminal legal system with employment opportunities.

You can go even deeper and launch your own initiative. Beverly Kim is the co-owner of Parachute and a James Beard Award recipient. After facing struggles as a working mother, she created The Abundance Setting, a non-profit for mothers in hospitality.

If you're a female restaurant owner or executive, another way to contribute is to mentor another woman. Before Hopdoddy, Kelly McCutcheon had a stint at PF Chang's, where she worked under Peggy Rubenzer.

“Not only was she a boss, but a mentor and working to develop me...We continued the mentorship and the collaboration as she went on to Shake Shack,” McCutcheon explains. “She's the person I can credit with my role here because she was offered this job when she worked for Shake Shack. When she turned it down because her mission at Shake Shack wasn't done, they said, 'Do you have anybody you can recommend?' And I was that person.” (Rubenzer is now the Chief People Officer of Whataburger).

McCutcheon believes mentorship is crucial to advancing women in the restaurant workplace: “The best advice is to mentor people who don't look like you. What comes out of that is cross-developmental mentorship, where the mentor and the mentee are both gaining as much as they're giving...That helps to create the best teams both from a leadership level and a restaurant level.”

Publicly commit to your initiatives

Once you do the work to educate yourself, install policies, and develop female staff, let people know. Your team, customers, and vendors should learn your values and initiatives. Post them on your website, social media, store signage, and the employee handbook. Lead by example to inspire other restaurants to make a difference. The C-suite at Teriyaki Madness is 50% women and the president is a woman. The restaurant group Yum! Brands has committed to achieving gender parity in their executive teams by 2030. The hospitality sector is making progress, but there's a long way to go to reach fairness and equality for women.

Let's Do Better for Female Restaurant Workers

Alison Edginton put it best when she said, “in the restaurant industry, a lot of us carry these 'daddy' management issues because we've been hurt or betrayed or let down.”

Traditional restaurant culture historically benefitted men. Its legacy still creeps through today. We can take steps to combat this. Start with assessing your own biases. Define what is and what isn't acceptable in your workplace. Create open lines of communication, so staff feel comfortable reporting problems. Make opportunities for women to develop their careers, including removing barriers to work.

We can't leave out the factors that intersect with being a woman, like race, class, sexuality, and disability. And while we focused on women, there are many difficulties that non-binary people face. These elements all influence the way people treat a restaurant worker. We've come far, but there's more progress needed to protect and empower female staff in hospitality.

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Samantha Fung
Samantha Fung

I've taken orders at a drive-thru and a golf course. I've quit a Thai restaurant after 3 shifts. I've done marketing at a Tex-Mex franchise. Now I create content about the restaurant industry.