10 Stories of Inspiring Women From the Restaurant Industry You Need to Know
The restaurant industry today has more women in management and ownership positions than any other industry.
Here is but a small sample of the industry’s outstanding women leaders — past and present — who have helped to pave the way for all who follow.
1. Kat Cole
Kat Cole got her first job in the industry as a hostess at a chain restaurant while in high school. Today she is Group President at FOCUS Brands Inc.®, which oversees Cinnabon, following her four year tenure as President and CEO of Cinnabon.
“I love that feeling of community that permeates the industry. It’s the people, the development, and the actual function of providing hospitality to people in our communities.”
2. Ruth Fertel
After seeing the high-end Chris Steak House for sale in the classifieds in 1965, Ruth Fertel — a divorced mother of two and Tulane University lab technician at the time — convinced a local bank to give her the money needed to buy the business. Fertel renamed the business Ruth’s Chris Steak House and got to work learning everything , including how to butcher meat.
In 1976, she began to franchise the restaurant while continuing to open more herself. In February of 2015, Ruth’s Chris opened its 144th restaurant.
“The restaurant staff was expecting me to fail, just like the others who had bought the restaurant before me, especially since I was a woman. Actually I never had a doubt that I would make it.”
Source: National Women’s History Museum
3. Julia Stewart
Julia Stewart went from being a server at her local IHOP as a teenager to being the CEO of DineEquity, which oversees IHOP and is America’s largest casual dining company, with over 3,600 locations worldwide and 200,00 team members.
“I’m very blessed that I’m living the American dream.”
4. Cristeta Comerford
Cristeta Comerford moved from the Philippines to the United States at age 23 and became the first female executive chef of the White House in 2005, a position she still holds to this day.
5. Hattie Burr
Hattie Burr served as editor of The Woman Suffrage Cookbook (1886), which was initially created as a fundraising mechanism for Massachusetts suffragists and became a powerful tool for giving women a voice during a time of transition. The book used the common language of cooking to communicate with women from all classes about not only food and domesticity, but also the women’s right to vote.
Source: Emily Contois
6. Cat Cora
Cat Cora is the first female Iron Chef in the Food Network franchise’s history, earning the title in 2005. She since has used her platform to become heavily involved in philanthropy.
“Even when you have doubts, take that step. Take chances. Mistakes are never a failure — they can be turned into wisdom.”
7. The Harvey Girls
In the 1870s, English immigrant Fred Harvey began opening the Harvey House restaurants — often called America’s first restaurant chain — where travelers could buy good, reasonably priced food served in an elegant setting. At first, the company hired male waiters, but it soon opened opportunities to women.
Harvey waitresses — made famous by the 1946 Judy Garland movie “The Harvey Girls” — contributed much more than labor, spearheading the movement of young women away from the home and into self-sufficient employment.
Source: The Source
8. Edna Lewis
The granddaughter of a freed slave, Edna Lewis opened Café Nicholson in Manhattan’s East Side during the 1940s. Lewis became a local legend for her simple, Southern cooking, and for being a female & African American chef, a rarity at the time.
Lewis cooked for celebrities including Marlon Brando, Howard Hughes, Salvador Dali, Eleanor Roosevelt and Truman Capote. She also wrote three cookbooks.
Source: Edna Lewis Foundation
9. Grace E. Smith & Dawn Sweeney, former and current National Restaurant Association leaders
Grace Smith opened Toledo, Ohio’s Smith’s Cafeteria in 1916 with her sister. The restaurant was an instant success, serving over 1,100 customers on their first day and becoming known for its cleanliness, service and quality.
In 1940, Grace Smith became the first female President of the 12,000-member National Restaurant Association, which was 90 percent male at the time.
Today, Dawn Sweeney leads the National Restaurant Association as President and CEO, a position she’s held for more than seven years. The Association represents an industry of one million restaurants and 14 million employees.
Source: Toledo Blade