While Hollywood and Washington, D.C., have certainly gotten a lot of attention in terms of the march toward female empowerment in the wake of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, a spotlight has also been shined on the food and beverage industry as female employees have spoken out against harassment and unfair treatment by male co-workers. In the restaurant world, women have traditionally pulled much of the weight both in and out of the kitchen, but without receiving the attention and accolades of their male counterparts.
Two notable women-run events are aiming to change that, and the organizers of these confabs actively wish to help women in food and beverage acquire the skills and tools they need to be successful in the business. The first conference is called FAB (for “food and bev”) and is organized by Randi Weinstein, a longtime hospitality professional who started conceptualizing a conference aimed specifically at women in the restaurant and bar business several years ago. “People thought I was crazy,” she recalls. “’Why aim a conference just at women?’ they asked.”
The climate changed as she was ramping up to the first edition of FAB in Charleston in June of 2017. “The floodgates have opened since the presidential election,” Randi opines. “The marches of empowerment and the male support that came with it led to that #RiseUp moment when women finally felt that they had the voice.”
Although the FAB conference focuses on women in hospitality by bringing together successful industry pros to teach and interact with other women at all stages of their careers, Randi sees the issues in a larger light. “I look at food and beverage as not being different; we’re just the ones being put out there on the national stage. Women are seeking a primary role in all sorts of industries.”
At this year’s FAB, June 10-12, 2018, at the College of Charleston, seminars will certainly address the issues of harassment and fairness in the workplace, but it won’t be the only focus of the proceedings. “These HR people have never worked this hard,” says Randi, only half joking. “It’s crazy! The change in tolerance of the situations of people working in the industry is what has changed. They’re not as tolerant as before.” With that as a backdrop to the learning, Randi wants to show attendees that there can be every opportunity to succeed in the industry.
“I saw the hunger in the eyes of the attendees,” she recalls of FAB’s first year. “There was a genuine excitement to be in the presence of women who were succeeding. Sheryl Sandberg says something like ‘Everyone is born with a backbone.’ I believe that FAB can strengthen that backbone and let women stand up taller and straighter.”
Randi made a trip to New York City last year in preparation for the first FAB conference and invited a group of women who had already made their mark in many aspects of hospitality: in the kitchen, running restaurants, practicing law and in publishing. These women graciously made the time to come to Charleston to join other professionals from around the region to give seminars and generally make themselves available to women who might just be starting out in the business, but who aspire to rise up the ladder. It turns out that even high achievers can benefit from the support of others, and many of the NYC cadre meet regularly on their own to interact in ways they might not normally have had the chance to before FAB brought them all together.
In an effort to encourage participation by those just starting out in the industry, FAB offers scholarships for fully subsidized conference admission for women who demonstrate a passion for the business in their application. New this year is Pitch It!, a chance for women with a kernel of an idea or a fully fleshed-out concept to pitch their business plans to a panel of industry professionals. While there is no guarantee or expectation of funding to come out of Pitch It!, it will offer valuable practice in presenting, and the panel will provide feedback and advice.
Randi has a firm grasp on what she wants FAB to offer. “FAB covers the grit of the industry from starting a business to what happens later, even when you’re successful. Achievers still need hope and guidance from other women, and that’s what we want to offer.”
Two Atlanta women who have achieved much success already are Dominique Love and Elizabeth Feichter, business partners who founded the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival (AFWF) held each summer in Midtown Atlanta. As the festival reaches its eighth iteration this coming May 31 through June 3, Dominique says they felt the need to make an important statement as part of announcing their Chef Advisory Council. “Atlanta Food & Wine has a mission of shining an international spotlight on the food traditions of the South, from Texas to Washington, D.C. We care about and focus on the culinary talent that is the core of our festival. If we really want to carry the torch for Southern food and beverage culture, we need to have men and women find success so that they can be the guardians of the traditions going forward.”
Even before last year’s festival, Dominique and Elizabeth were already thinking about what they could do to empower chefs, specifically women and people of color in the business. Dominique explains, “We’re a mission-driven organization. If we don’t have the female voice at the table, then we aren’t presenting the South in the most authentic way. Women chefs are under-represented at awards shows, in the media and at food festivals. We decided not at our festival!”
In January, AFWF announced that the entire chef advisory council who assists in planning and executing the festival would be made up of women, more than 60 successful chefs, mixologists, distillers and wine professionals from around the South. “It was time for us to make a change,” shares Dominique. “We hadn’t done enough, and it was time to level the playing field. Men will still be very much involved as presenters, but we’ve noted in past events that consumers and media naturally migrated to the male chefs. We’re not trying to create divisiveness, but this one time we wanted to underscore women’s roles in the community.”
The response to the change has been very positive. Dominique says, “I’ve had a number of men who have reached out to me. Guys were saying, ‘Listen, thank you for this! I cook alongside amazing women, but they don’t get invited to these festivals.’ We also hope this helps create a pipeline for female chefs and black chefs to advance in the industry, since they don’t see role models who look like them that often on television.”
Dominique is also proud that about half of the Advisory Council represents women of color. “We know that women and African American, Latino, Indian and Asian people have long influenced our region’s epicurean traditions, but they are often under-represented in commercial kitchens, the media and even at festivals.”
Dominique continues, “There’s something great that happens when women come together to learn. We want to give them the platform to show what they’re doing to make the world more special!”
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