Female Foodies: Savory Advice from Leaders On Making It In Foodservice

Ricky Eisen, founder of Between The Bread, says her greatest leadership lesson is to delegate.

Ricky Eisen, founder of Between The Bread, says her greatest leadership lesson is to delegate.

Simple is better than fussy. And teamwork is better than going it alone.

Those have been the mantras and core of the leadership ethic for nearly four decades of Ricky Eisen, founder of Between the Bread Hospitality Group, a New York-based food company with three stores and one catering location.

Since opening her first site in New York in 1979, Eisen says she strives to create food that “is very fresh, and we do not fuss. The food stands for itself.”

At a time when foodies appearing on culinary reality TV shows seem to add more and more complications to every bite, Eisen says, her brand is “very green, very local, very clean.”

As a manager of more than 100 employees, Eisen says her greatest leadership lesson is, “I don’t know everything.”  To be a successful leader, Eisen says, ‘You need a good trusted team around you so you can move forward. No jealousies. “

“In a recent report released by the National Restaurant Association, women-owned restaurant businesses grew three times faster  than the overall restaurant industry in the 5-year period of 2007 to 2012, increasing by 40 percent,” according to Jonha Richman in SmallBizTrends. During the same five-year period, the total number of restaurant businesses in the U.S. rose about 12 percent.”

Richman writes, “Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association said, ‘Women are playing an integral role in the growth and diversity of the restaurant industry. There are more women in restaurant management and ownership positions than virtually any other industry.’”

Women and food seem to be a natural fit, though Eisen says she personally does not see as many young women going into careers in the food business.

“According to National Restaurant Association research, 61 percent of adult women have worked in a restaurant at some point in their lives, and women-owned restaurant businesses are growing at a faster rate than restaurants overall,” Richman writes.

Making it to the C-suite of a foodservice company is less common for women and minorities.

Making it to the C-suite of a foodservice company is less common for women & minorities #leanintogether

“While restaurants make up the most diverse workforce in the nation, that diversity rarely reaches management and C-suite positions,” writes Nicole Duncan in QSR Magazine. “According to a 2014 survey by the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance, ethnic and racial minorities account for half of all hourly employees, while women account for 52 percent. But these numbers drop significantly for advanced positions: Minorities and women comprise only 31 percent and 29 percent, respectively, of all general manager positions. At the corporate level, minority representation is even sparser: Only 8 percent of corporate executives are minorities.”

Women’s Foodservice Forums, the industry’s leadership development organization, recently partnered with Kenexa, a company focused on employee research and workforce performance,  for a “study designed to identify the competencies, characteristics, choices and career paths of women who have succeeded in achieving C-level positions within the foodservice sector. Rich Products Corporation, a $3.3 billion family-owned global food supplier to the foodservice, in-store bakery and retail marketplaces, provided a significant grant to fund the research,” according to WFF.

The findings of the report revealed, “Women in the top spots didn’t get there by accident. Most set their sights on the top spots early in their careers by establishing career goals and following personal development plans. Their career decisions were intentional and they purposely sought and accepted greater responsibility, despite potential career risks,” according to the WFF study.

“Our results showed key differences in the ambition level of those who reach the top positions compared with those who had not. Respondents at the C-level knew they wanted to get to the top and did specific things to get there. As a result, they often passed through the first two career levels in much less time than those who did not advance  to the C-suite.”

Key characteristics for women who aim for the C-Suite in foodservice include these factors, the study revealed:

Women who aim for the C-Suite in foodservice share some common characteristics #womenleaders

  • Deliver results. Understand how to achieve goals initially through individual performance and then through others

  • Know critical business functions. Develop financial and operational understanding of the business

  • Learn to build. Build networks and find senior level advocates to help further position as an Emerging Leader within the organization

  • Develop broad knowledge. Establish cross-functional and stretch work assignments to enable greater learning and exposure

  • Establish purpose. Use development plans to guide overall career path aspirations

Eisen says she never felt at a disadvantage as a woman in the foodservice industry. “I think the food business was one of the first to be inclusive of women,” she says. “Women and men are both welcome in the industry.”

Still, Eisen says she was not prepared for thea mount of hours and hard work it took to establish herself in the business. Another key lessons she learned was :If you don’t delegate, you die. The work is overwhelming.”

To be a successful leader, Eisen says, ‘You need a good trusted team around you so you can move forward. No Jealousies. “

She adds, “ If you have an idea and own an idea, you have to share it and accept the help from those around you. “

For the future, the National Restaurant Association predicts for the coming year more women entering into the food business.

“A workforce made up of people from all backgrounds has always been a cornerstone of the restaurant industry. It is also an industry in which workers who begin their careers in entry level positions regularly climb the ladder, often to restaurant ownership. In recent years women- and minority-owned restaurants have experienced faster growth than the overall industry, and that trend is expected to continue.”

Small catering companies and very specific niche food start-ups are trending, according to Barb Stuckey, President and Chief Innovation Officer at Mattson, writing in Forbes. “Because women are more likely to be the primary shopper for groceries, these female business owners told me they feel they have a unique perspective on the specific needs of women and the challenges they face in feeding their families.”

One of those companies is Ezro, founded by Erica Huss and Zoe Sakoutis, Stuckey Writes.  Their new company “makes a pre-natal biscuit, which they see as a more natural, enjoyable delivery system for the vitamins and minerals a pregnant woman needs.”

“So would their company be different if it was run by a man?” she asks.

“Well, it wouldn’t be a pre-natal biscuit company!” Sakoutis responded.

Funding can also be difficult to secure, according to the entrepreneurs Stuckey interviewed.

Jill Litwin, creator of Peas of Mind, “a kids’ frozen food company that has reinvented classic foods like french fries, and Tater Tots, with versions made from healthier ingredients that deliver a serving of vegetables.” told Litwin, “I wouldn’t say that I have been a knowing recipient of gender discrimination in the grocery industry. But I can recall several times during important phone calls or meetings when the male party felt like he needed to slow down his speech or over-explain. I have never been able to pinpoint if this is due to my gender or age or something else. Regardless, it feels as if I’m being talked down to.”

Still, some women leaders in the food service industry advise to keep pushing forward without focusing on gender differences.

Flo Gibson, head of Food and Brand at Gousto, told Laura Dunn at Huffington Post: “The best advice that I would give women is not to even question how being a woman might affect your success. There are aspects of the food industry that are of course a bit outdated (as with a lot of industries). However, I would encourage woman to teach the people around them about what has to change, communicate and not be afraid to speak up. Support one another and each other voices. I have an amazing network of women around me, within and outside of work, and I would have not got as far as I have without them.”

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com