COVID-19 disrupted all workers, but none more so than women, especially mothers and women of color.

A panel of women chef-restaurateurs, all founding members of the industry’s new Let’s Talk Womxn initiative, shared their insights on how other women can achieve success, particularly now as the country rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic.

National Restaurant Association President & CEO Tom Bené moderated the panel, which featured Rohini Dey, owner-operator of Vermilion, Chicago; Phoenix’s Charleen Badman of FnB restaurant; Lexington, Ky.’s Ouita Michel of Ouita Michel Family of Restaurants; Anne Quatrano of Atlanta’s Star Provisions restaurants; and Jill Weber of Philadelphia’s Sojourn Philly Restaurant Group.

Facing the pandemic’s challenges

They talked about parity, and about how corporate partners and male counterparts could act as allies. They also addressed the challenges they faced during the pandemic, and what the future looks like for women looking to start and restart their careers.

Bené, noting that 61% of women have worked in restaurants and owned 1 in 3 restaurants prior to the pandemic, said that COVID-19 disrupted all workers, but none more so than women, especially mothers and women of color, who were severely impacted. He cited McKinsey and Company’s 2020 Women in the Workplace study, which found that during the pandemic nearly 1 in 4 women left or contemplated taking a leave of absence from their workplace.

The numbers, he said, are staggering, especially for an industry that has a high percentage of women employees. The food services and accommodation sector was one of the hardest hit last year, with more than 25% of jobs impacted. Drivers behind the changes included women having to spend more time supporting family during the pandemic.

“That's one reason why I believe the leadership lessons from these entrepreneurs are applicable to all industries,” he said. “We want all industries and policymakers to see this movement as an opportunity to take stock and make tangible investments in building workplaces that are more equitable for everyone.

“Women are agents of change in our businesses, homes and communities. If we empower them, we’ll see far-reaching benefits in leadership and in our industry.”

Building visibility, growing their voices

Dey said the goal of Let’s Talk Womxn, created in 2020, is to help women operators build their visibility, bargaining power, and tackle economic and political action.

“Whether it's economic collaboration, or to use our voices to advocate for regulation, get an op-ed published, meet with a governor, or apply for grant funding, we have each other to draw on as a source of strength,” she said. “We think we’re just at the beginning of our journey, and that there's plenty we can do by combining our voices.”

Michel, who owns seven restaurants, agreed with Dey, saying the group’s founding was essential, particularly from an emotional standpoint, when everyone was isolated and anxious and had to navigate applying for PPP loans. “We walked each other through the process, made sure we were able to talk with other restaurant owners and members of the Small Business Administration, people who could help. We made sure everyone knew how to get their applications ready and provided encouragement.”

Lessons learned

The panelists said forming Let’s Talk Womxn taught them three important lessons.

  1. Communication = connectivity. Chef Quatrano said that getting support from people around you, talking to others in the industry who are experiencing the same things you are is uplifting. Supporting each other is so important, she said.
  1. It’s OK to answer each other’s questions. Even a once-a-month phone call can cover a lot of ground. Talking about everything from PPP loans to getting COVID-19 vaccinations for employees to talking about the labor shortage are key to survival and success.
  1. There’s strength in numbers. Form a collective voice and use it. If 22,000 people say they’re using a certain plumber, laundry service, or supplier, your collective voice becomes more powerful. Think about how to use that power effectively, and how much stronger it can make you.

Bené asked Weber to share her biggest lesson from the last year, the thing that will help her and other women as the industry recovers.

Staying calm and positive are the things that have gotten her through.

“As long as we have our health and each other, we’re OK,” she said. “My advice is to take a deep breath, think about things, meet with fellow restaurant owners, and try to put a plan forward. Take things a step at a time. You don’t have to change the world tomorrow. As long as we believe in ourselves—and we clearly do—we can keep moving forward.”