Alpana Singh wants to see more female restaurateurs—women with the attitude and initiative to take ownership of opportunities.
Tell her she can’t do something and Alpana Singh embarks on a mission to prove her mettle. Not that she needs anyone to fuel her fire—her accomplishments are a testament to self-motivation. At 26, she became the youngest woman to pass the final level of the Master Sommelier exam, and in December 2012 she opened The Boarding House, Chicago’s first Master Sommelier–owned restaurant.
A hands-on operator, Singh, 38, now owns two restaurants, ran her first marathon last year, and says her next big run may be for public office.
Within days of opening Seven Lions, Singh talked with FSR about her newest concept and the significance of being a female restaurateur. “We are in an industry where women have made such an important contribution, but we don’t see it reflected in ownership. We see female chefs; we see female managers; but we don’t often see female restaurateurs,” Singh says.
To change that, her advice to women is simple: “Show up for everything. Offer to do tasks that may not seem within your purview, just volunteer for everything.”
It helps to work in a culture that encourages growth and empowers employees, certainly the case at The Boarding House, staffed entirely with female managers, and at Seven Lions, where women and men alike hold leadership roles.
Regardless of gender, Singh says, preparing to own a restaurant requires a willingness to do it all and an eagerness to master every aspect of the business. “Volunteer to learn the numbers, because at the end of the day, running a restaurant is about numbers. Whether it’s learning to do the payroll or reviewing invoices or attending meetings, it’s about learning the back end of the business.
“Sometimes we get a little ahead of ourselves and think, ‘I’m too good to learn how to run the door or too good to bus tables,’ and really that’s what ownership is all about. It’s getting your hands dirty in every aspect of the operation.”
The first order of business, she acknowledges, is to find mentors you can learn from, and she has had her share of outstanding teachers and opportunities—from Chef Jean JoHo who brought her to Chicago to work at Everest to the years she spent working for Rich Melman at Lettuce Entertain You. More recently she’s developed a professional friendship with John Coletti, managing partner of Gibson’s Restaurant Group, and she’s found inspiration in women like Maguy Le Coze, owner of Le Bernardin, and Shelley Lindgren from A16 in San Francisco.