It’s been 18 years since Rohini Dey left the consulting world to open her own restaurant, Vermilion, in Chicago. Blending Indian and Latin American flavors, Vermilion was born out of Dey’s entrepreneurial drive, as well as her desire to change foodservice from the inside out. She applied her business savvy to other ventures, including the James Beard Foundation Women’s Leadership Program, which she cofounded and chaired.
When the pandemic struck, Dey established Let’s Talk Womxn, an action-oriented network of restaurateurs. In less than a year it has grown to a dozen cities and more than 350 members, and on International Women’s Day in March, it hosted Dine Together & Let’s Talk. Through the virtual event, guests in nine Let’s Talk cities could order multi-course meals from participating chefs and then join in a special Zoom conversation with restaurateurs and other leaders.
Plans are already underway for summer supper clubs, and the next national event is slated for mid-July in honor of the first Women’s Rights Convention. Let’s Talk may be a product of the pandemic, but Dey sees great potential that extends far into the future.
How did Let’s Talk Womxn begin?
It started out with me reopening my restaurant Vermilion in July. I had been closed for four months, and when I was reopening, I was lost. I didn’t know where to get toilet paper, hand sanitizer, gloves—everything was out. There were protests. It was madness. So I reached out to some women restaurateurs I knew in Chicago to see how they were doing it. It was instant alchemy for us. All of us were isolated and grappling with the same issues. It proved to be so incredibly helpful that we started doing it regularly.
Then I thought, let me try this in other cities, so I reached out in cities where I knew established restaurateurs who could invite others. We’re now in 12 cities and opening up in Miami and Houston and potentially New York next. I’ve also gotten calls from restaurateurs in Canada saying they want to do it.
How does it work locally? Nationally?
Beyond the camaraderie and cohesion, you can undertake economic initiatives at a city level, whether it’s gift baskets or meals or other things. It also helps us combine our voice to negotiate with regulators or vendors. In every city, I’ve appointed co-hosts who are on the ground corralling everything. In our monthly city sessions, we always invite co-hosts from other cities to join so that they can learn what others are doing. Every time, we walk away with 10–12 ideas that everyone can do.
Although I’ve been in restaurants for 18 years, the irony is that of the 35 women in the Chicago Let’s Talk currently, I’ve met at best only eight to 10 face-to-face. To me, that is almost criminal because we’re a rarity. We’re not [large] restaurant groups, so we don’t have the dedicated IT and HR and legal and purchasing; we do it all ourselves. And now we have each other to get advice from and also to band together. For example, we want to approach broad-line distributors together to get better rates for ourselves.
Tell us about the first Dine Together & Let’s Talk event in March.
It was a behemoth for us: nine cities and more than a hundred women restaurateurs. It was complex because you’re bringing in multiple courses and shipping it around the city in different delivery zones. But it was incredible. We were on a complete, euphoric roll and not just because of sales, but also in terms of energy and camaraderie. And the guest reception was phenomenal. In Boston, we had a little over 300 guests and in Chicago, a little over 200, with Congressman Marie Newman moderating. In Boston, it was state attorney general Maura Healey. In Philadelphia, it was Angela Duckworth, [a psychology researcher] who’s known for her TED Talks.
How will Let’s Talk evolve after the pandemic?
I intend to use Let’s Talk to help us flourish and thrive, whether it’s financial literacy or approaching funders together or brokers to buy real estate. Really, we’re bound only by our imagination and bandwidth.
The beauty of this is that because it’s not a formal entity—we’re not a foundation or an association—we have the flexibility to move really fast. I call it our “BQ model.” No. 1 is no B.S. You won’t find anybody saying, “Oh, I’m doing fabulously,” when in reality we’re bleeding. No. 2 is we move at a breakneck speed. We’d rather try and fall flat on our face than sit around pontificating. And No. 3 is no bureaucracy. We’re all peers, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a Michelin–starred restaurant or a hole-in-the-wall dive. Everyone’s voice is just the same.
What led you to first open a restaurant?
I was at the World Bank for three-plus years and then worked at McKinsey & Company for four years. I would be on the road all week eating out and expensing my meals. Back then, the end-all, be-all was French and Italian, and it still is to a large degree, although palates are becoming more adventurous. I was always irate about how Indian cuisine was misrepresented in this country. So some combination of just loving food and wanting to go entrepreneurial and thinking that fine dining in the U.S. was ridiculously Eurocentric drove me to put my money where my mouth is and start Vermilion.
Does the industry need more diversity at the leadership level?
Absolutely, and not just in the restaurant world, but also in the media—the ones who get to judge which food is good or which chef is good. It’s such a subjective thing. You’re caught in your own biases and only a fragment of reality, whether it’s around food or what people like or what’s happening next.
There’s been some progress; I do see many more diverse owners. But when it comes to the mega restaurant groups, not really. When it comes to CEOs of leading brands, not really. It’s very glacial. I believe that it’s ownership that ultimately determines power.