Today’s topic is one that’s quite important, regardless of your personal feelings on the topic - women in the restaurant industry. In the stereotypically “feminine” professional kitchen environment, it can be surprisingly difficult for women to gain a foothold in what is, realistically, yet another male-dominated industry.
As such, we felt it was time to show that times are changing, and highlight some boss babes who do things right. Powerful women with a drive to better their industry for future generations, ladies who band together when necessary to create meaningful, impactful change - we love them, and we think you will, too.
Now without further ado, here are the 11 most badass women in the industry.
Viktoria Belle - The Dandelion Initiative
Viktoria’s story involves content that may make some readers uncomfortable or bring up unwanted memories. While we understand the severity of this content, the work Viktoria does is too important to not highlight - read with caution.
Those who have worked in the restaurant industry for even a year know that, like many industries, it’s one that’s none too friendly to women. Viktoria Belle learned this firsthand as a sexual assault survivor working in the food service industry. Upon discovering how empowering and safe a well-run kitchen could actually be, Belle knew it was time for change - and that’s how The Dandelion Initiative began.
The Dandelion Initiative is a federally incorporated non-profit, self-described as a “grassroots intersectional feminist organization, by survivors for survivors.” It’s run by a diverse and powerful group of women and trans folk alike who work to educate and empower survivors. It’s an organization rooted in the 2SLGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities with a focus on educating people in all spaces, though specifically in bars and restaurants.
The next step for the Dandelion Initiative? Creating and filling more spaces for their Safer Bars and Spaces training to raise the bar for the service industry and create safe spaces for people of all walks of life.
Kelly Southworth - LifeOfAServer (Formerly StaffVibe)
Something you discover quickly in the food service industry is that people who’ve worked in the field know the struggles, while those who haven’t generally just… don’t understand. It can be frustrating when trying to bond to discover that your experiences aren’t, in fact, universal, and actually pretty niche!
That’s where Life of a Server comes into play. Founded by Kelly Southworth in 2015, Life of a Server (formerly StaffVibe) is a place for servers and food service pros to meet and mingle. Whether you want to network and make new friends, find equipment for your shop, look for new jobs, or even try and find love, Life of a Server is made for the front of house, by the front of house.
Lisa Kates - Building Roots
Food insecurity is a very real struggle for millions of people across the globe on a daily basis. In fact, it’s more likely than not that a number of the chefs you’ve met in your life have developed a love for food through their own insecurities (speaking from experience, here). This is where Toronto’s Lisa Kates comes into the picture.
She began as a barista, eventually moving on to own a catering company (alongside several other successful ventures). As time progressed, she began to volunteer in Ottawa at Operation Come Home - a center for support that aims to ensure homeless youth can build their lives and escape homelessness. As Kates worked with Operation Come Home, she found their garden and started the Food Matters Program.
The program started as a simple matter of collecting food from the garden and feeding the nearby youth, but since then it’s grown into something so much more. Building Roots was founded in 2013 as a way to address food insecurity and the lack of agricultural space and fresh food in Toronto. Since then, they’ve built support networks for social cohesion and begun to address other large issues in their community.
This is a bit of a standout on this list, for one reason - Cannon Green is a restaurant run almost entirely by women. Rather than highlighting a single boss babe, we felt it more than important to highlight a business that does things right.
The front of house is primarily comprised of women, as is the admin, sales, and events teams; there are a handful of men on staff, but the majority of work is accomplished by women. The final interview question for prospective employees is simple, yet vital - “Do you have the ability to take direction from females?"
And perhaps the most important distinction to make about Cannon Green is that they’re dedicated to creating an atmosphere unlike many others in the industry; one that’s welcoming and safe to people of all walks of life, and that doesn’t allow for the walk-in breakdowns so common in this field of work.
Head Chef Amalia Scatena studied under James Beard nominee Melissa Green (another boss woman in the industry) and learned quite a bit from the experience. She learned that support and mentorship create an environment that’s more welcoming and productive than the usual kitchen hierarchy of chaos and machismo. There is a zero-tolerance policy on harassment, verbal or physical, and the staff follows Scatena’s primary rule - “Build people up, don’t tear them down.”
Pashon Murray - Detroit Dirt
Dirt is vital to the food service industry, no matter how much we may care to argue. While it’s ultimately washed off and hidden, without dirt, there would be no mirepoix nor pommes frites (french fries). This is a truth that Pashon Murray discovered growing up in Michigan.
The agriculture industry is one of the state’s largest forms of revenue, but those who live in the larger cities like Detroit have often never seen the agricultural process. Murray’s passion for sustainability and waste reduction eventually led her to create Detroit Dirt in 2010. Detroit Dirt collects food waste (a major issue in the industry) from restaurants and corporations alike (including General Motors and Shinola), selling it to urban farmers around Detroit.
“We intend to drive forward a low-carbon economy by motivating communities and industries to have a zero-waste mindset.”
All in all, Murray is driving the next generation of sustainable and environmentally-responsible practices for the food service industry, and it’s something we love to see
Ellen Marie Bennett - Hedly & Bennett
Ellen Marie Bennett, also known as “The Apron Lady,” created a multi-million-dollar food-service empire by the age of 29. Those who’ve ever searched for high-end, long-lasting aprons already know the name Hedly & Bennett at this point, as they’ve been kicking around for over ten years at this point.
The two largest struggles that chefs face when shopping for aprons are consistency and quality. While aesthetics are certainly a bonus, the primary issue is just finding an apron that will stand the test of time and not break down with heat and regular exposure to acid from ingredients. This is something that Bennett faced firsthand during her time in Michelin-starred kitchens, which is what led to the concept. Hedly & Bennett solves these issues by creating the most well-made aprons in the industry and has partnered with over 4,000 restaurants across the United States.
Since then, Bennett has used her time in the spotlight to highlight issues in the industry, hammering home that the best way for women to support women in the food service field is through patience and empathy.
Amanda Hesser - Food52
What began as Amanda Hesser’s humble blog has grown over the past decade into a one-stop-shop for foodies to swap recipes and ideas, purchase her own cookbooks, and even develop an e-commerce storefront! Hesser’s name is likely familiar to those in the industry, as she was a longtime food writer for the New York Times.
Since the company’s inception in 2009, Food52 has grown into one of the leading names in food blogs worldwide and has shown exactly how much can happen when a strong woman puts her mind to her work. (Psst - surprise, it’s literally anything).
Sara Harrel - The Veg Company
Sara Harrel has worked primarily in communications throughout her life (industry lingo for marketing, ad work, and the like). As a longtime vegetarian, she struggled with the image that veggie-based food has developed over the years. It’s a frustrating image for anyone who loves food because realistically, vegetarian or veg-based food is fully capable of being equally or more delicious than a meat-based meal.
So Harrel set out to change that image and founded The Veg Company, a group that specializes in food marketing, product development, and event planning for those in the food service industry. Since then she’s taught at George Brown College and literally rewrote the book for her course in the Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts in Toronto. This led to launching a plant-based cooking certificate program with a focus on vegan cooking - the Certificate in Vegetarian Culinary
In the following years, Harrel acquired her Red Seal and two certificates from George Brown in Food and Media and Social Media Marketing. While the business is larger than Harrel likely ever expected, it’s still her, “labor of love.”
Krystle Mobayeni - BentoBox
Running a restaurant is no small feat, and when a global pandemic is added to the picture, things get a lot harder. This is something that the food service industry discovered very quickly in the early stages of 2020, and it’s what earned BentoBox co-founder Krystle Mobayeni the Hospitality Technology Industry Heroes Award this year (2022).
For the uninformed, BentoBox is an incredibly fast-growing restaurant website design and e-commerce service that has helped countless restaurants get their feet beneath them during the pandemic. It’s been endorsed by a number of mammoth names in the industry, such as Shake Shack (among many others).
“HT’s Industry Heroes Awards acknowledge members of our restaurant technology community who truly went above and beyond in the face of closed dining rooms and lockdowns, to help restaurants pivot and continue to serve customers, support employees, and remain in business,” said Abigail Lorden, publisher of Hospitality Technology.
As a first-generation American with roots in Iran, hospitality was something that always excited Mobayeni. It allowed her to create a “bridge” with others through shared experiences and share her family’s culture. She started as a web designer, but knew that food service was where her heart lived - and it’s good she did, as since 2013, BentoBox has grown to over 4,500 restaurant clients and over $25 million raised in funding.
Jen Lesniak - SpotOn
Another Hospitality Technology 2022 award winner, Jen Lesniak was recognized as a rising star in the hospitality and food service industry for her work in helping grow small and large restaurants alike. She aims to give independent owners and operators the tools to deliver the best possible experiences in their establishments and has used technology to accomplish that goal through a full rework of SpotOn’s services.
Courtney Maxedon - Kahala Brands
And a final entry in this list is yet another winner of the Hospitality Technology 2022 Rising Star Award. (Psst - check out the full list to find even more boss babes in hospitality, food service & technology.)
One of the hardest aspects of marketing for restaurants (let alone market research) is figuring out how to reach “unknown guests.” In other words, customers who aren’t regulars; people who show up occasionally, but don’t engage consistently with your business. So Maxedon streamlined the marketing campaign of Coldstone Creamery to reach the unknown guests that had evaded previous marketing and ad campaigns.
And after a four-month pilot program, she and her team, in tandem with DataDelivers, saw an over 200% (no, that’s not a typo - two hundred percent) increase in returns on ad spend. Now if that isn’t worthy of recognition as a rising talent in the restaurant industry, I don’t know what is.