“It’s really no different on this level than it is in the Supreme Court,” explains Margot McCormack, owner of popular Nashville restaurant mainstays Marché Artisan Foods and Margot Cafe, when asked if Music City’s restaurant culture has a “boys’ club” vibe. “I would listen to my male counterparts talking about ‘their people,’ ‘their men’ under them, and they were 100% worse than I was — throwing, cussing, grabbing — just really horrible, horrible things, and yet they were cool, and everyone wanted to work for them.”
Margot was one of 12 women who gathered at a recent StyleBlueprint event at Barcelona Wine Bar in Edgehill Village. The women — some of Nashville’s premier female chefs, restaurateurs and hospitality professionals — were treated to an amazing spread created by Barcelona Executive Chef Margaret LaVetty, and in a spirit of unity, the group offered thoughtful responses to the curious questions posed by StyleBlueprint Cofounder Elizabeth Fox.
“I had high standards, and I had a look — I’d look people in the eye — and I’d say, ‘What are you doing?'” Margot continues. “I had employees when I was in New York who used to cover their penises when I’d talk to them — they were afraid for their manhood, and I’m like, ‘I’m just asking you where the green beans are!'”
Amidst laughter tempered with some sobering realities of what it’s currently like to work in Nashville’s hospitality industry, the group shared first-hand accounts, insider info, useful suggestions and a general spirit of camaraderie over the two hours we were together. As the women enjoyed their meals, which included options like harissa & kalamata deviled eggs, olive oil cake with sea salt flakes, and traditional potato tortilla, the conversation ran the gamut — touching on key topics that are greatly impacting their businesses. From lack of parking and affordable housing to employee poaching and, yes, even bachelorette parties, these women each brought insightful responses to every question posed.
As the topic turned to finding — and, more importantly, keeping — reliable staff, Nashville restaurant legend Deb Paquette, owner of Etch and etc., shed a realistic light on the challenge: “Last week, I worked 80 hours, and I’m 62 [years old].” Putting in that much time on the line in her kitchen is a by-product of that challenge as she and many others are forced to step in where there’s an employee void. “I’m working more these days because I’m taking up the slack of the employee who doesn’t want to challenge themselves,” Deb adds.
It’s not always the fact that employees aren’t looking for a challenge, though, as it is that they’re being lured away by bigger paychecks — enticing offers made by outside entities with deeper pockets and fewer scruples. Employee poaching is a definite pain point, one that wiped out Sarah Gavigan’s entire staff in one fell swoop, all of whom were lured away by a 45% increase in pay. “This happens in every major city, so that’s what we have to battle,” she explains. Her solution? A salaried — not hourly — staff, and the delivery of a staff meal to welcome all new restaurants when they come to town, which she delivers with a stern warning: “Do not steal my workers.”
Despite the staffing challenges, most of the women in attendance were in agreement that business is going pretty well, which isn’t surprising, really. After all, Music City is the place to be, right? In fact, in 2017, Nashville had a record-setting year, welcoming 14.5 million visitors to town. “I am busy, and everyone I talk to is busy, and there seems to be more business coming,” Margot says, with most of the room nodding in agreement.
But not all tourism dollars are created equal.
“We’re serving three kinds of people: travelers, tourists and locals. [Tourists] are getting sh*tty in Music City,” Sarah says, an observation easily noted by the hoards of tourists exploring downtown atop a pedal tavern. Meanwhile, travelers, by Sarah’s definition, have deeper pockets and a passion to experience the local cuisine. Think tourists on pedal taverns versus travelers in pursuit of an authentic Nashville dining experience …
Regardless of what type of people are visiting Nashville and what sort of money they are choosing to spend or save, as tourism numbers continue to climb, and restaurants continue to open, there’s no shortage of options for any palate or price point. “The tourism association is pushing travelers and tourists out in the city — [the tourists] are coming to East Nashville, they’re going to Germantown. They’re not just on Broadway anymore,” explains Bascha Satin, Education Chair at the Greater Nashville Hospitality Association. “The downtown scene has always been huge, but it’s not just about pink cowboy boots and straw cowboy hats anymore. We are getting intelligent humans, we are getting people with money who want to come to Nashville because we do have other things now. We have fine restaurants, we have art galleries, and it’s not all centered in downtown.”
With so much going on in Nashville’s restaurant scene, it’s a fair question to ask at what point do we max out — both for restaurant owners and consumers? At StyleBlueprint, we spotlight new restaurants fairly frequently, and the list is always astounding, and as many places open, so also do many close. “It is a constant cycle — [there are] constantly openings and closings,” Sarah explains. “I would love to say that saturation point is the answer, but it is a culmination of a million decisions: the wrong neighborhood, the wrong marketing campaign, an employee who sued you … ”
Rather than focus on the closures, though, we prefer to celebrate the openings and the sustained prosperity of many long-standing establishments. And surrounded by such brilliant, talented, driven women, we see them — and their willingness to train the next crop of chefs, the next crop of them — as the key ingredients of the success stories. “If you want to learn, if you are excited and passionate about this, that’s it,” Margot says of her willingness to nurture new talent. “I don’t care if you know how to hold a knife; I can teach that. I can’t teach having a heart and being passionate.”
“As long as everyone stays strong and works hard,” Deb adds, “we are only going to get better.”
A tremendous thanks to Barcelona’s Drew McConnell, Chef Margaret LaVetty and the entire Barcelona Wine Bar team who created an amazing feast in a delightful setting for this very special event. Click HERE to see the entire menu of what was served.
Thank you to Leila Grossman of Grannis Photography for the beautiful photos of the event.
And lastly, a very special thanks to all who attended our lunch (in alphabetical order):
- Katie Coss, Executive Chef, Husk
- Crystal De Luna-Bogan, Chef & Co-Founder, The Grilled Cheeserie Melt Shop + Food Trucks
- Sarah Gavigan, Executive Chef & Owner, Otaku Ramen, Little Octopus, POP and Pop To-G0
- Stephanie Gilmore, Fresh Hospitality
- Margaret LaVetty, Executive Chef, Barcelona
- Margot McCormack, Chef & Co-Owner, Margot Café and Marché Artisan Foods
- Mollie Murphree, Operating Partner of Fresh Hospitality
- Deb Paquette, Chef & Owner, Etch and etc.
- Bascha Satin, Board Member, Greater Nashville Hospitality Association
- Shawney Severns, CDC, Fin & Pearl
- Nina Singto, Chef & Owner, Thai Esane
- Samantha Spector, Community + Marketing Director – POP, Little Octopus, Otaku Ramen Pop TOGO