In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, we talked to six female restaurant owners who are transforming the Boston food scene about their challenges, their triumphs, the state of gender roles in the workplace during the Me Too era — and why they love what they do.
Next Step Soul Food Cafe
Next Step Soul Food Cafe is the rare Boston restaurant serving traditional Southern fare and soul food classics. It’s also the culmination of several generations’ worth of hard work by the women in chef Michelle White’s family.
When White decided to retire from early childhood education, she was looking for something to do and saw an opportunity. White, 51, ran a family child care for 30 years; she inherited the business from her mother, Annie, 75. But the two have always cooked, together and well, particularly the dishes Annie grew up with in South Carolina.
“We’ve always been surrounded by Southern food,” Michelle White says. “The thought of only one or two places [serving it locally] was discouraging. That’s the reason we got into it.” They knew there was demand: Every year more and more people would show up at their place for Thanksgiving, and the guests all told them they needed to open a restaurant.
So White enrolled in Community Servings’ Teaching Kitchen program “with a whole bunch of 20-year-olds,” she says, “and graduated top of my class.”
Next Step Soul Food Cafe opened in the fall of 2016. “We took a leap of faith,” White says.
The Codman Square restaurant is where to come for all the classic dishes and more: “all the old-school favorites people are really yearning for,” White says. You’ll find chitterlings, smothered pork chops, fried chicken; collards, mac and cheese, candied yams; and sweet potato pie that flies off the shelves. There’s also always some kind of soup, made with plenty of vegetables.
The 34-seat restaurant is an extension of the Whites’ home, and of the nurturing environment they created in the child-care industry. One of her brothers works there, too; there are five siblings in the clan, with White in the middle. “Having a restaurant I feel like is an extension of my mother’s kitchen, it’s just got more tables and chairs,” she says. “She’s like, ‘This is what I’m going to make tomorrow,’ and people say, ‘I’ll be there.’ ”
It’s also a way to carry on matrilineal tradition. Both of White’s grandmothers were from Charleston, avid gardeners who passed their love of vegetables on to their children and grandchildren. They were excellent cooks, White says: “One made the best beans and okra, and the other made the best fried chicken and fish. You just made sure you made it to both of their homes, a couple of miles within each other. The women in my family, both on my mother’s and father’s side, ran their own households because their husbands died early. They not only provided for their own families but for anybody else that stopped by. My mother kept up with that tradition. I definitely do that.”
What’s it like to run a restaurant with your mother, anyway? White laughs. “It’s really good. I’m the boss, but she’s the empress.”
657 Washington St., Dorchester, 617-415-6456
The menu at Saltie Girl, restaurateur Kathy Sidell’s sliver of a Back Bay seafood bar, deftly grafts New England and Spain. You can get your tapas bar on via a long list of tinned seafood (mussels or eels? anchovies or sardines? It’s so hard to decide), or indulge in oysters, chowder made with three kinds of clams, and lobster rolls. Then there are clever crudo compositions, toasts topped in crab and avocado, over-the-top concoctions like fried lobster and waffles, and more. It’s a splurge, but it’s worth it.
Sidell opened Saltie Girl in 2016, adding it to her portfolio of Met group restaurants. (It’s located right by Met Back Bay.) In January, she joined forces with sister Stephanie Sokolove of Stephanie’s Restaurant Group to create Sidell Hospitality, with eight restaurants in total. (Their father, Jack Sidell, financed restaurants like Biba, Hamersley’s, and Olives back in the day.)
It was a no-brainer for the sisters to join forces, Sidell says. “It makes sense on so many levels: personally as siblings, professionally as two businesswomen with a strong likemindedness.” She handles the day-to-day business, Sidell says, with Sokolove weighing in frequently on key decisions.
Sidell remembers eating at Stephanie’s more than 20 years ago, when Sokolove first opened it and Sidell was working in the film industry. She considered her sister a role model. “She was, 1000 percent. There were few women doing what she did whose restaurants had that volume. It’s just silly numbers.”
The restaurant business may have a reputation for being tough on women, but it’s nothing compared to film, Sidell says: Now that was brutal. “The independence and the freedom as a woman had a lot to do with my choice to go into the restaurant business,” she says. “There’s nothing like running your own business. There’s enormous pressure financially, and the accountability and responsibility are quite intense, but it comes with kind of living and dying by your own vision.”
Of course, Sidell says, she’s heard the horror stories from women friends who came up through the business as chefs and general managers. Being an entrepreneur offered the chance to build a different culture. “It was my intent to build an environment that felt really positive and nurturing,” she says. “I think I’ve been successful at that.”
281 Dartmouth St., Back Bay, Boston, 617-267-0691, www.saltiegirl.com
Sarma has been charming Somerville residents since it opened in 2013, serving a menu of mezze such as seven-layer hummus with falafel crackers, lamb kofte sliders, and mussel tagines. The flavors may remind diners of Oleana, where chef-owner Cassie Piuma spent 11 formative years working with now-business partner Ana Sortun. “She’s the greatest mentor of all time,” Piuma says.
Although there were many kitchens in which she was the only woman, it was never really a factor for her. “You worked hard, you worked fast, you kept your head down and focused on work and moved up in the world,” Piuma says. “In my kitchen, I want to support women, to lift them up and help them in any way I can, but I care more about a cook that is positive and can do a great job. I don’t care what parts you’re working with. It’s more important that you’re a good person and a good cook.”
In addition to running a restaurant, Piuma is also a mother. “With both my daughters, I was there right until the end, pregnant as heck, still expediting and doing whatever you have to do,” she says. Restaurants aren’t exactly known for their generous maternity-leave policies. It’s a challenge to strike a balance, weighing the needs for all parties, she says: Eight weeks isn’t long enough for a new mother, but it’s a very long time for a kitchen to do without a valuable member.
“It’s something we’re still trying to navigate as a business,” she says. Open conversations between managers and staff are critical, before and after the baby is born. “I want to be the type of chef and business owner and human being that supports women having children in this business. I don’t think you should have to sacrifice your career in the kitchen.”
Like everything, being a chef and a mother has its ups and downs. “Some days I feel like a rock star. I accomplish more in a morning than most people do in a day,” Piuma says. “But some days I feel totally and utterly defeated and struggle to meet my own super-high standards. But if there’s one thing the kitchen has taught me, it’s persistence. Don’t beat yourself up. Just get back up and do it better tomorrow.”
249 Pearl St., Somerville, 617-764-4464, www.sarmarestaurant.com
On weekend mornings outside Porter Square, it might seem like everyone you know is lined up outside Bagelsaurus. The queue snakes down the block with the huddled hungry waiting for chewy bagels (black olive is a must), usually served toasted, smeared with beet hummus and honey rosemary cream cheese.
One person might be at home, though: owner Mary Ting Hyatt, mom to a 5-month-old baby boy. Since opening in 2014, Hyatt has scaled from six to 18 employees. Now, she has a team in place that allows her to confidently leave the shop from time to time.
“I took a real maternity leave,” she says.
Supportive mentors helped show her the way.
“I feel lucky to be in this city in a lot of ways. I have amazing female role models. [The majority of people I’ve worked with] have been women,” she says, like Christy Timon at Clear Flour Bread, Rachel Miller Munzer at Hungry Mother, and Rachel Kelsey at Cutty’s.
And the tide keeps turning, and perception has changed with it. Female-run kitchens are becoming the norm.
“I think we’re seeing a lot more women [restaurant] owners,” Hyatt says. “I think people’s perception of the restaurant industry has changed from the macho, bro-y culture. . . . I think men and women are more interested in supporting and going to restaurants run by female chefs and working for women who are chefs. That might be a big change: men being interested in working for a woman and being mentored by a woman is a big step that didn’t exist as much 10 years ago.”
And while she’s grateful for time off, she wants to extend the same benefit to front-line colleagues down the road.
“If someone was to leave for three months, you need to hire someone to fill the spot. The shop can’t run with one less person, as opposed to a larger company. The margins can be very small. And you can’t pay someone for that absence,” she says.
But she’s working on a solution.
“[I wish we could] all agree on a process in which we put a little extra for those kinds of programs, built into the price. I wish we could. It makes [restaurants] skew toward a young crew, and it would be great to support people throughout their lives.”
1796 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 857-285-6103, www.bagelsaurus.com
When Mei Mei co-owner Irene Li was planning her upcoming wedding, she had a challenge. No, not where to find a dress or how many people to invite. She wanted to buy out a restaurant that was run by a woman.
“When I started to really think about the higher-end, fine-dining realm and which restaurants could accommodate 100-plus people, the list was very short. It was sobering to me,” Li says. “There are lots of women in Boston who get great recognition, but if we go by the numbers, there are not as many places you can bring a huge, profitable event that goes to the bottom line of a woman who owns it.”
Li didn’t plan to become a restaurateur. She attended Cornell University and focused on social justice and criminal justice reform. Today, her work is an extension of that. Employees at the mellow dumpling parlor (and food truck) that she runs with her siblings are part of an open-book profit-sharing program. They receive the company’s financial information, and they know how much is spent on ingredients and rent.
“We give them the full picture. Then, if we meet a goal, they get a profit,” she says. Employees are incentivized to monitor waste, negotiate with vendors for better prices, or to properly apportion dishes to save on food costs.
“I think that I was fortunate to come from a world where we talked a lot about inequality and about how we create empowerment for all kinds of people,” Li says. “I grew up in Brookline. I had all the advantages in education. My parents are doctors. I went to Cornell. We have an awful lot of critical thinkers at Mei Mei, which has its pros and cons, but it also means that we have a common language about certain issues. We’re also pretty far left-leaning as a group. A lot of those folks self-select and say, ‘I’m willing to take a job that doesn’t pay all that much in order to work for certain kinds of people and among certain kinds of people, to do something with a social mission when there’s not much of that.’ ”
Her kitchen is mellower than some, Li says, sometimes confusing new staffers who expect a brutal environment.
“There are different ways to run kitchens, and more people are figuring out. I don’t think it’s a purely female thing, but there is a correlation between women in the kitchen and the overall vibe being more gentle and positive,” she says.
It pays off for the customer. On a recent visit, the shop was about to close, but three hungry customers really wanted the restaurant’s signature Double Awesome: a scallion pancake drenched in runny eggs. No problem. The server even offered to cut it into thirds.
506 Park Dr., Boston, 857-250-4959, www.meimeiboston.com
Villa Mexico Cafe
After coming to the United States from Mexico, Julie King ran restaurants in Woburn and out of a Beacon Hill gas station before opening her counter-service Mexican restaurant downtown, where hordes line up for her signature tangy black salsa with peppers, tomatoes, and garlic.
She’s done so at the expense of other aspects of her life. Even now, she works 60 hours per week (down from 80 at her peak) alongside her daughter, Bessie.
“It’s pretty hard, OK? You have to get up early. You have to be involved. If you really like your business, you have to be involved in everything. That means cooking, cleaning, inventory, shopping, paying bills, and helping customers. To be a woman at the restaurant, honestly, you don’t have any life,” she says, laughing. “Especially as a small business, to be a mom, to have kids, it’s very tough. I’ve been in business 18 years now. When Bessie was in high school, it was crazy. I’d go shopping, cook, help customers, leave, pick her up, and take care of the house. I’ve been widowed 21 years. I didn’t have time to redo my life, you know?”
Today, she says, social media has helped women in ways that were unavailable when she got going.
“Technology helps you a lot,” she says. “It’s a very good thing for women who want to have a restaurant right now. The marketing is important, of course, and social media helps you a lot. We have more opportunity, more associations for women in business that will help you.”
But it’s still hard.
“When you go to the bank and see a woman in business, they don’t take you seriously. You have to make yourself be respected. You have to teach people that you know how to do business. You have to let them know you’re a professional and a serious person. It’s pretty hard to be a woman in business. You don’t have the same advantages and opportunities. Why? I still don’t know,” King says.
But success is possible. The lines out the door at her cheerful restaurant every day at lunchtime are proof.
“Women need to believe that they can do it. They need to believe in themselves, because they can!” she says. “There’s a lot of opportunity right now: in schools, in government, in the private sector, financially. You need to be prepared — and you can make your dream come true.”
121 Water St., Boston, 617-957-0725, www.villamexicocafe.us
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.