Each March for Women’s History Month, brands and media pay special attention to showcasing and celebrating women’s unparalleled contributions across industries. However, the work of fostering female leadership needs to be a daily commitment for those in power — especially for those in the restaurant industry. No one wants to eat at, or work at, a restaurant where they don’t feel represented. Valuing equality and diversity not only sets women up for success in a typically male-dominated industry, but also breeds success for the larger team, strengthens brand reputation, and leaves a meaningful impact on guests in the age of the increasingly conscious consumer.
It’s more important than ever that diners feel their values are reflected in the restaurants they patron, so in order to succeed, the value of equality has to be a first language for all restaurant professionals. An old-school boys club culture is all too familiar in many kitchens, leaving some amazing female talent feeling left out or stagnant in their careers as they see their male counterparts perhaps being treated more favorably. Elevating more women to leadership roles can quell this bias, extending equality to all members of every team whether front or back of house. When it comes to hiring new staff or promoting from within, choosing the best, regardless of gender, proves fair treatment and leaves little room for resentment.
In addition to valuing equality, it’s critical that owners and management create teams where the rich diversity of the community is represented. If leadership teams all look, think, and act the same it can create a dominant culture where not everyone feels they belong.
Cultivating diverse leadership teams inspires greatness within newer members of a team. If folks see someone they relate to in a leadership role commanding a kitchen, leading the front of house, or breaking down the bar at the end of the night, they see a path forward and can know it’s possible for them too.
So where to start? Owners and management need to get back to hospitality basics. Get to know team members and new hires with the same care and consideration that is extended to guests of the restaurant. Put in the time and energy to learn from team members, especially women, about where they feel they excel and how they want to grow. Take all that knowledge and find roles within the company where they’ll be set up for success. Creating a culture of belonging to something greater than yourself is the key to maintaining staff retention in the high-turnover restaurant industry.
If we invest in our teams and make them our number one priority, staff takes that investment and passes it on the guest. Success is only found if team members receive the same respect we give our diners. Everyone deserves to feel comfortable and safe in our spaces, be it working the line or having a seat in the dining room. A restaurant’s reputation can only be improved by fostering an inclusive culture within its walls.
The restaurant industry is a team sport. To weather this last year of the pandemic, I relied on what we kindly refer to as “Seal Team Datz” to get through the constant pivots of 2020 and into 2021. The successes and strength we experienced last year came from a team effort. Intentionally, my team doesn’t look like me. We are inclusive of different genders, races, social identities, etc. and because of this we all bring our own unique perspectives, experiences and solutions to the table which helps us better serve our diverse community of guests.
For other female restaurateurs, it’s important to continue to reach your potential — find a mentor you admire and enlist their help and support growing your career. Get clear on your goals, find someone who has already achieved them, and learn from them. Push yourself to comfortable advocating for yourself and for the needs of other women on your team, because eventually a time will come when another female is in need of mentorship. Be open and generous with your time and talents. Mentorship is a two-way street. Established restaurateurs can benefit from a mentee’s fresh perspective and on-the-ground, start-up mentality just as much as mentee will glean from a mentor’s wealth of experience in the industry. It’s not about competition; where one woman succeeds it opens doors for more women to do the same.
For example, I look to two of my mentors, Michelle Baker and Maryann Ferenc, as models of how to be a leader for women in my restaurant group. They’ve taught me to not be afraid to try something new and to be willing to take a risk to come out on top.
In a year that has brought equity, diversity and inclusion to light more than ever before, now is not the time to sit back and merely be complacent with how far we’ve come. Now is the time to dig-in deeper, be willing change and open up to new perspectives, fostering a new restaurant culture where the talent and drive of all individuals is recognized and celebrated.
Suzanne Perry is the co-owner of Tampa Bay’s, Datz Restaurant Group, which includes three locations of the namesake Datz, a sister bakery Dough, donovan’s Modern American Meatery, Dr. BBQ from Hall of Fame Pitmaster Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe and two ghost kitchens: Cluck Yeah! and Bougie Pizza. With a keen eye for trend spotting, Suzanne has positioned her nationally-recognized restaurants as South Tampa destinations and shows no signs of slowing down as she makes plans for expansion. She credits much of her success in the restaurant industry to her military family. As a proud daughter of a Navy SEAL, Suzanne learned quickly how to pivot and adapt– key tools in the highly-charged and ever-changing restaurant industry.