Jessica Kruebbe.
Carolina Skinner.
Valade’s joined Denny’s as CEO in June 2022.
Christine Lorusso.
Tammy Calhoun.
Mary Jane Riva.
Jan Barnett.
Roberta C. Frierson.
Cai Palmiter.
Dawn Petite.
Jessica Kruebbe.
Erica Holland-Toll.
Brandy Blackwell.
Say Hello to WiRL

Say Hello to WiRL

It’s not a secret top positions at restaurants, from ownership stakes to executive chef roles, have historically been male-dominated. The barriers to entry are complex; not only are women up against internal biases and access to the right networking opportunities, they also have to contend with an industry with long hours and late nights, making it even more difficult for those who choose to have children and don’t have a partner to share the load with. That’s juxtaposed with the societal expectation women excel at being home cooks, according to traditional gender norms—which have thankfully been challenged within the past couple decades. (Lucky for me—I barely know how to make mac & cheese.)


Breaking the glass ceiling into the upper echelons of restaurant chains is something only a few women can claim, and this gender disparity is rooted in societal norms, stereotypes, and systemic biases. Efforts to address the disparities include mentorship programs, advocacy for equal opportunities and gender-inclusive hiring policies, women-centric culinary schools, industry awards and recognition, financial support and incentive programs, educational outreach, collaboration initiatives, and more.

But there seems to be room for more opportunity when it comes to a national society/networking group to support, educate, and uplift women in restaurant leadership—which is why FSR and our sister publication, QSR, are creating one. The idea was sparked when our editorial director, Danny Klein, had the idea to host an hour-long networking event at our September Atlanta-based conferences, QSR Evolution and the NextGen Summit. It was originally ideated as a five-person panel that soon became a 10-leader roundtable.

That morphed into a 25-person meetup to a 50-person one. We decided then to make it 75. Seventy-five became 100. Ultimately, we had to cap it at 155 restaurant leaders to keep the fire marshal from crashing the party. Even then, we had to turn people away at the door, which was both frustrating and inspiring. We knew there was a need we had tapped into, and we’re expanding upon that one-hour get-together by launching a fresh platform—Women in Restaurant Leadership, or WiRL.

WiRL will have programming throughout the year, including webinars, downloadable content, and more to be announced, plus an annual one-day conference this February in Nashville with speakers and educational sessions, dinner, and networking opportunities we’re calling “The Together Summit.” Our aim is to create a safe environment for women to connect, learn from one another, create mentorship opportunities, and gather career advancement advice and tips.

We’re excited to launch this, and know this is just the beginning. Registration opened this week and will have limited spots. So sign up today!

In honor of launching this initiative at FSR and QSR, we asked women leaders from around the industry two questions: “If you could offer advice to a woman starting in this industry looking to grow her career, what would it be?” And, “How do you balance career, personal life, and passions? Is there such a thing as balance?”

Here were their answers:

Caroline Skinner

Chief operating officer, Tupelo Honey

1. First, find a company with a growth trajectory and growth mindset. If your company is stagnant, your career will likely follow that same path. Second, embrace opportunities to learn outside your comfort zone. This might mean working cross-departmentally, putting on an apron if you’re accustomed to front-of-the-house, or just asking a colleague if they can teach you something new.

And lastly, don’t opt yourself out of opportunities just because you haven’t followed the traditional “career ladder.” As someone who has jumped from HR to operations, more than once in my career, being humble enough to know what you don’t know, willing to learn from and work alongside front-line leaders, and never ever considering yourself “above” learning something new, can allow you to step into roles that you might not be “qualified” for on paper. Humility to learn and dedication to work hard can give you an edge over even the most qualified candidate. 

2. Career, personal, and passions will always ebb and flow in priority. Will it ever be perfectly balanced 100 percent of the time? Probably not. At times you will have to choose one priority over another, and it’s important to have a workplace and family support system that understands that.

However, as a guiding principle you MUST define for yourself UPFRONT the moments that fulfill you most and prioritize them—protect them. No one will do that for you. Being present for the things that REALLY matter, means sometimes letting go of the little areas of “perfection” that ultimately just fill up your calendar and take time away from your most important priorities. Your time is an investment, and you have to treat it that way.

Reserve Your Spot for the Women in Restaurant Leadership Summit Today!

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Kelli Valade

CEO, Denny’s

1. I started my career in the restaurant industry at 16 years old, working as a hostess at a small, local restaurant, where I immediately felt a connection to the team, my bosses, and the customers we served. It was there that the people around me saw something in me. They took a chance on me, gave me feedback, and told me I could do something bigger. They opened my eyes to a whole new world of opportunity. 

That’s what’s so great about the restaurant industry. There are so many paths and opportunities to learn and grow. It’s important not to shy away from taking on something new or outside your comfort zone. Opportunities came to me because I didn’t let my current job function define me. I was always trying to learn across functions and be a good business partner. To this day, I’m constantly listening, learning, and growing. Feedback comes in all forms and from lots of different directions. It’s important not to filter the feedback you receive, using it to see how you can make yourself even better. You have to take those learning moments and make sure you do something with them. And when you see something in someone, tell them.

Mentorship is important. I’ve had many mentors in my career, and over the years I have built my own personal board of directors made up of people who I reach out to for different reasons. Build a network of mentors who will be honest and teach you what you don’t know, while also supporting and encouraging you in your journey. Really strong mentors are colleagues and peers, lifetime friends, family members, and advocates for you, and they hold you accountable for the things you’re trying to work on. They help you celebrate the wins, while pushing you to constantly be better.

2. We all face challenges trying to juggle the responsibilities for our jobs and our home life, plus the pressures of everyday life, and it’s easy to end up feeling stressed and off-balance. Unfortunately, too often when we’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, or lonely, we choose to stay silent and pretend that we’re OK. Staying silent about how you’re feeling is not OK. You have to be willing to speak up and ask for help when you need it, and as leaders, we have to be open to having new and different conversations with our teams that prioritize mental fitness and overall empowered well-being. By creating a safe place to have candid conversations about how we are feeling, we can create more compassionate and mentally-healthy workplaces for everyone, everywhere.

Reserve Your Spot for the Women in Restaurant Leadership Summit Today!

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Christine Lorusso

Senior director of digital marketing, Firebirds Wood Fired Grill

1.The restaurant industry provides a unique opportunity to learn about every aspect of a business, from operations to purchasing to marketing. Take it all in, ask all the questions, and never be afraid to let your voice be heard.

2. It can be hard to establish a work/life balance, especially in an industry where business runs 12–14 hour days, seven days a week. If you surround yourself with the right partners, colleagues, and support system, it is absolutely possible. I’m especially thankful to work for a company that puts its people first and values the importance of family.

Reserve Your Spot for the Women in Restaurant Leadership Summit Today!

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Tammy Calhoun

Vice president of learning and new restaurant openings, Firebirds Wood Fired Grill

1.I’d encourage women starting out to learn about the industry as a whole—not only their organization or their subject area. Know your stuff, don’t blindly accept the status quo, and always look for new and improved ways of doing things. “The way we’ve always done it” isn’t always the best way, and you need to think differently to earn a seat at the table. Get involved in organizations like CHART (Council of Hotel and Restaurant Trainers) to spread your wings, learn how to improve your skillset, and network with people in your industry. Lastly, embrace and elevate your professionalism by perfecting your poker face and learning to stay calm under pressure.

2. Yes, balance exists, but we can only create it for ourselves. Nobody else will do it for us. It’s up to us to set boundaries, acknowledge when our plates are full, and learn that it’s OK to say “no.” It’s about protecting and respecting ourselves and our priorities rather than giving in to our people-pleasing tendencies. It takes practice.

Reserve Your Spot for the Women in Restaurant Leadership Summit Today!

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Mary Jane Riva

CEO, Pizza Factory

1.Go slow. Surround yourself with people you trust, respect, and are not just “yes people.” Trust your gut but don’t assume anything. Seek out a mentor within the industry to bounce ideas off of. Collaboration is key.

2. Balance is like a teeter totter—the business is at one end and your personal is at the other end. Up and down, and finding balance is tough because that means even distribution. I find it hard to balance too long because aren’t there always ups and downs?  

Reserve Your Spot for the Women in Restaurant Leadership Summit Today!

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Jan Barnett

Chief marketing officer, Rock N Roll Sushi

1. Three pieces of advice I share with other women starting in this industry and looking to grow in her career are: one, enjoy the journey, celebrate your successes, and learn from those initiatives that didn’t go as planned while also putting them in your rearview mirror, because life is truly too short to dwell on the negative. Find your champions or mentors who help you learn and grow over the course of your career while you seek out others to champion yourself, and be their biggest cheerleader. The true meaning of “pay it forward;” never stop learning. Always be curious. This industry is continuously evolving, and new opportunities are always just around the corner. It’s never boring. Embrace change and seek out new ways to innovate and grow your brand or your client’s business. 

2. I come from a generation that lived to work and I do envy the younger generations who have taught me the importance of working to live. I literally do schedule time in my calendar for my passions, which might be eyebrow-raising to some, but it’s a necessity for me. I used to focus only on setting professional goals but have come to learn the importance of setting personal goals as well, including spending more time with family and friends. Learning to say “no” took time to embrace, but I’ve learned to do so to things that are insignificant to me and my goals. I’m still learning that I don’t need to wait for the right moment or opportunity but instead to live fully for today each and every day. 

Reserve Your Spot for the Women in Restaurant Leadership Summit Today!

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Roberta C. Frierson

SVP, information technology and digital strategy, Bar Louie

1. Be confident in your abilities, believe in yourself, and trust you have what it takes to succeed. Don’t let any self-doubt hold you back from pursuing your goals. This field is constantly evolving and it’s important that you stay up to date, so you must embrace continuous learning and not be afraid to ask questions. Build your network with other women in this industry, this can open new opportunities for mentorship and support. Above all, always support and empower other women.

2. I think there is such a thing as balance. The problem is always defining your “balance.” I believe that finding your perfect balance is an ongoing process that changes over time and may require some adjustments during different periods of your life. I have found that for me to consistently have balance, I must be fully present. When I am at work, I am fully engaged in the tasks at hand, and likewise, when I am with my family or pursuing my passions, I am fully present and work to minimize any distractions. I also prioritize my self-care and make time for activities that rejuvenate me.

Reserve Your Spot for the Women in Restaurant Leadership Summit Today!

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Cai Palmiter

VP of marketing, JINYA Holdings

1. For women entering the restaurant industry, my advice would be to embrace bravery and never view being a woman as a weakness. When faced with challenges or tasks you’re unsure about, don’t hesitate to seek guidance. A strong support system is invaluable. Surround yourself with people who understand the demands of the business and will provide encouragement and support at every stage. Seek out mentorship, have confidence in your abilities, and remain open to continuous learning and adaptation.

Building a robust network within the industry, cultivating positive relationships, and maintaining your passion for the work are also critical for advancing your career. Keep in mind that while the industry may be vast, it often becomes a close-knit community, especially when dealing with account representatives, vendors, and key players who frequently cross paths.

2. Balancing a career, personal life, and passions is an ongoing dynamic process. While achieving perfect balance may be challenging, establishing priorities, and effectively managing your time can help. Make sure to allocate time for yourself and your loved ones, set clear boundaries, and communicate your needs to maintain a healthy equilibrium. Keep in mind that what works best may evolve over time, so be open to change. Ultimately, the goal is to find happiness in both your professional and personal life.

Reserve Your Spot for the Women in Restaurant Leadership Summit Today!

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Dawn Petite

Dawn Petite

President, Friendly’s Restaurants

1. When I was new to the business world and starting my own family, I realized that the key to managing both successfully was to be efficient in both my personal and work life. I transitioned from working relentlessly with no boundaries and feeling frustrated because I couldn’t find time for anything else to working diligently on the right priorities consistently and not stressing over minor details.

2. I categorize my priorities into different buckets, which include a mix of personal and work-related commitments. My critically important bucket might include board meetings or crucial projects with deadlines, but it also incorporates personal priorities like family vacations, this week’s football game, dance performances, or birthday dinners. These commitments are non-negotiable and are firmly scheduled. 

I’ve learned to seek assistance when it makes sense. If hiring someone to help with cleaning my house or ordering groceries online for delivery frees up more time for important matters, why not? They’re often more skilled at those tasks, and it’s worth the investment.

Reserve Your Spot for the Women in Restaurant Leadership Summit Today!

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Jessica Kruebbe

Senior marketing manager, Milkshake Concepts

1. When embarking on a new professional venture, the most invaluable trait you can possess is teachability. Stay steadfast in your convictions but be malleable and willing to grow. Whether you’re interacting with a brand-new intern or a seasoned executive, there’s always an opportunity to gain insights that will contribute to your professional and personal growth.

2. Balancing a career, personal life, and passions is an ongoing endeavor, and attaining a flawless equilibrium can be challenging. In my own life, I give precedence to these three aspects, but I also allow myself some flexibility and understanding when I fall short. I identify the non-negotiables beyond my professional obligations such as faith, self-care, and cherished time with friends and place them at the forefront of my priorities. It’s worth noting that this balance may evolve in the future, especially as my circumstances change. Ask me again when I’m married with kids! I may not be as optimistic. 

Reserve Your Spot for the Women in Restaurant Leadership Summit Today!

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Erica Holland-Toll

Culinary director, The Culinary Edge

1.Patience and curiosity. The foodservice industry is so broad and there is so much to learn… whether you started out of college, or fell in love with foodservice at your first summer job, or moved into the business with a similar job, different industry role—the job you started with will not be the job you end in.

You change, times change, the work changes. Be patient with yourself as you move through life—whether it’s marriage or kids or menopause—there is always joy to be found in this broad and ever-evolving industry.

2. Once I had a child, I would laugh at the idea of balance! How could that ever be a thing? There is never enough time. A partner? A child? A career? Me? Now we are all a bit older, and I’ve learned that, for me, it’s not the balance, it’s the see-saw that matters. From hour to hour, day to day, success is about being there when and where you need to be—whether it’s for your kids, your partner, yourself, your work. The constant push and pull, the up and down, the give and take—it’s life. What makes your success possible are the teams you build around yourself—your family (home) team, your work (away) team, your (core) team. Building teams that have your back no matter what you need, or where you go, or who you are taking care of is the key to making the ride possible, and dare I say, enjoyable?

Reserve Your Spot for the Women in Restaurant Leadership Summit Today!

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Brandy Blackwell

VP, marketing, Another Broken Egg Cafe

1. Surround yourself with a great leader, mentor and team. Embrace and welcome the tough challenges. Say ‘YES’ to all opportunities, especially the ones that seem the most difficult. Be bold, be a risk-taker, and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s where the greatest growth occurs.

2. “Work-life balance” can mean very different things to different people, but we all need it to be the best version of ourselves. I am a believer that if you love what you do, your job will be one of your passions, but it should never be your only passion. A quote by Anne Lamott summarizes it well, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”

Reserve Your Spot for the Women in Restaurant Leadership Summit Today!

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Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, Leader Insights, NextGen Casual, Slideshow