women in the workforce

What It Takes to Make It in the Food Industry

Ten women who run their own culinary businesses on finding success in a notoriously precarious industry.

Stephanie Hart of Brown Sugar Bakery. Illustration: Rachelle Baker
Stephanie Hart of Brown Sugar Bakery. Illustration: Rachelle Baker

The food industry is a difficult one to break into. The pressure of owning a small restaurant includes long hours, pivoting, and constant uncertainty. For women, starting a restaurant also comes with a higher level of skepticism owing to a long-standing culture of misogyny that persists in the industry. That said, many have overcome these obstacles and opened successful eateries that represent their culture, honor their communities, and fulfill their lifelong ambitions.

The Cut talked to ten women who run their own restaurants, bakeries, and catering businesses about their passion for the food they make, what they had to go through to get to where they are, and the triumphs of running their own business.

“Even my chef friends and cook friends said, ‘You don’t want to get into this, it’s the hardest thing ever.’”

—Susan Kim, owner of Doshi in New York City

In my 20s, I was working behind the scenes and running the business side of restaurants, but I was thinking about transitioning to be a cook. There was just that little voice in my head [spurring me], and that voice became louder. Initially, I was discouraged not only by family, but even my chef friends and cook friends and back-of-the-house friends were like, “You don’t want to get into this, it’s the hardest thing ever.” When I made that leap into the kitchen, it was a sigh of relief. I’m home, I found my people, I felt so gratified.

I moved to New York five years ago to help open Agern, a [Claus] Meyer Danish restaurant. I was thinking about the concept of Doshi for years. It’s from the Korean word doshirak, or “packed meals.” I remember when I was in school, all the kids put their doshiraks around the heaters in the room to keep them from getting cold in the winter. It’s something that you’re doing for yourself, a gift for yourself, and that was the ethos I wanted to extend into my own business. In the unprecedented times of the world being shut down, I was like, Do it, try it. I’ve always been scrappy as fuck. I thought, If I need to do other things while I do this, like taking other jobs, whether it’s styling and stuff like that, I will do it. This is what I’m going to do, I’m going to go forth, but it was absolutely with fear. I needed equipment and materials, but with that I was like, “We can put it on credit cards.” I’ve never experienced the generosity that I’ve experienced with the people in New York, like, “I’m gonna help you run these numbers, let me offer you my space, let me offer you my wholesale accounts.” I don’t own a brick-and-mortar store and people often offer up their spaces, so I have the elimination of rent, which is a huge relief. I want to scale up, but it scares me. I want to be a part of everything I make.

I think about the sandwich that broke the Fyre Festival more often than I should, because the person making that sandwich probably didn’t have the intention of it being bad. I need a growth process that makes sense to me. My parents are now over the moon and so excited and one of the biggest cheerleaders for me. I don’t know what it means to be Korean American except that I’m evolving, and with that so is the food.

“When I hire, I want to hire people and pay them what they’re worth plus more.”

—Doris Hồ-Kane, owner of Bạn Bè
in New York City

I have a journal from 2001 that says “Vietnamese bakery” in it. I was working in fashion. After I had my first baby, the priorities didn’t really line up with my ethos in life anymore. I decided that New York City hadn’t had a proper introduction to Vietnamese desserts. I guess the larger picture is Asian American representation. I’ve always been proud to be Asian American. A lot of kids have stories where they were bullied for bringing food that smelled funny, or you know, they were ashamed to eat their food at school, but I was never that kid. I was always that kid that was like, Whatevs. My dad is still not over the fact that I’m not a doctor or a lawyer. He needs to see the receipts, but my mom is super encouraging. She is such a creative woman, and I’m trying to bring her into the fold. With Vietnamese American women, there’s a lot of stranger intimacy. When I came to New York City, I didn’t have that community, and I didn’t have that comfort. So I feel like a lot of these women are coming to Bạn Bè for that. I feel like that’s why they’re so enthusiastic.

I’m 40. I feel like all of the frightening things that I had to go through were definitely in my 20s and 30s and now I just feel like, If it doesn’t work out, it’s okay, we’ll be fine. It is all funded from cookie-tin sales, 100 percent. During the summer, I kept on closing my wait list after 200 people would sign on, but then I would have a secondary wait list of people that were wait-listed for the wait list. So from there, I decided to start a Google doc where people could sign up, and I left it open indefinitely. Now, almost a year later, we’re approaching 10,000 names, and I keep on going through the list.

I’m hitting a point where I feel like I need to expand help, like employees. But it’s been hard to figure that out, because I don’t have an investor. Working in a capitalist world is very hard. When I hire, I want to hire people and pay them what they’re worth plus more. I also want to be able to spend time with them so that we can grow together and not just delegate. I want to take it slowly and eventually have a space where people can come in and be exposed to these desserts and see representation in food and dessert, as well as moving part of my archive into the space so that people can come in when it’s safe, to go through and look at books and research materials.

“I hate that my business is driven through Instagram.”

—Lexie Park, owner of Nünchi in Los Angeles

Nünchi derives from a Korean word that doesn’t have a direct translation, but means having awareness and the ability to read a room. I wanted to create a setting where we could talk about and experience food in a different way. It was just me playing around with food and wanting to switch my career from being in fashion my whole life. Jelly is such an interesting texture and conversation starter, and in Asian food it’s really common. I knew it was something that people either love or hate, and I feel that way about myself. I played with whatever I found interesting from the farmers’ market, or had these crazy ideas for dinners with my friends. Then I started posting it on Instagram. My partner started jotting down my ideas and eventually made an Excel spreadsheet, and that’s really how I got started, because I’m such a Pisces dreamer. I felt a lot of discouragement from my peers, because I’m trying to make my art a business, and chefs in the culinary world would say I’m not trained. It was self-funded. Luckily, I was pretty profitable from the beginning. I’m trying to expand and not just be this “jelly lady.” That was not my intention at all. I just knew I wanted to create a brand. I think once I launched my website it felt more real. I hate that my business is driven through Instagram. This month, I hit 205 cakes. Humberto Leon, my boss when I was working at Opening Ceremony, asked me to make him something for Chifa. Jelly corn has been something that everyone wants to [post on] Instagram. I honestly couldn’t tell you what will happen next. I hope to open up my own shop one day.

“Fundraising was quite embarrassing restaurants are notoriously a bad investment.”

—Clare de Boer, Jess Shadbolt, Annie Shi, co-owners of King in New York City

Annie: I’d been working in finance at J.P. Morgan. We all met in London, and we decided to open in New York because it was a way of dining that we hadn’t really seen here, but is more common elsewhere. At the heart of King is an ever-changing menu. We were not fully funded until three months after opening. We didn’t even have a dishwasher the first night. Hiring was a complete mystery. We’ve obviously grown since that. There was a moment of, like, Oh, wow, we’ve been open now for three years. This is incredible. And then COVID hits and everything goes out the window. It’s like starting from scratch again.

Clare: After I graduated, I worked at Goldman Sachs, and I started catering on the weekends while I was there, because I didn’t really like my job. Then I got my first bonus check, resigned, and went to cooking school. It was a bit uncertain when we first started. We were doing pop-ups, but you realize down the line that it’s very expensive doing temporary restaurants. After the first year, we came to this location in Soho. Fundraising was quite embarrassing. We had about 15 investors to start off — we took a lot of small checks. Restaurants are notoriously a bad investment. Annie had a lot of connections here — one of her professors at Yale repeatedly invested and bailed us out during COVID. That was what got us off to start. We didn’t have anything to lose, we didn’t have reputations to uphold. We also knew we’d be successful, because we’re doing something that’s very much been tried and tested in Europe.

Jess: I’d been working at L’Oréal for some years, but I transitioned because I always loved restaurants. It wasn’t our intention to open a corner spot in Soho, but as soon as we saw the space it really determined what we were going to create, and the space became a part of the narrative. We all connected through a mutual love and appreciation of good food and great wine and love of restaurants. We went into this with a real understanding that it was going to be something we were proud of, and we never questioned it ourselves. People around us were very supportive of that. When we first started, I had a very clear idea of what the dining room would sound like at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. We want to continue in this wonderful vein. Our head chef, Sadie, had never worked in a kitchen before, and now she is leading the team and that’s what we want to continue to do.

“Starting a business was nowhere near as scary as the last year has been with the pandemic.”

—Jamie Erickson, owner of Poppy’s in New York City

My part-time hostess job in college changed the trajectory of my entire life. One of the owners of the restaurant and my direct boss was Kimbal Musk. It was very interesting learning from him and being mentored by him. I ended up graduating early and working there full-time. They put me in a role as manager. When I moved, Kimbal remained a close friend. I learned the ropes of photo-shoot catering and drop-off catering, but at a certain point I felt like I had reached the limit of what I was going to learn. I had just gotten married and I was at a moment of, If not now, then when? There was this space in Carroll Gardens that was coveted. I texted Kimbal and he was like, “Quit Monday, I’ll give you whatever you need to start your business.” Hurricane Sandy hit right around that time, and the whole city shut down and it was this odd week where I had all this time to sit at home and gather my thoughts about it. The space we got was a turnkey, so every pot and pan and spatula was there waiting. I was in a very lucky position. I had nothing to lose then; I had no family to support. With the pandemic, I can say starting a business was nowhere near as scary as the last year has been. I remember in the beginning, Kimbal said, “Never say no to anything.” It was something that I didn’t take his advice on — he sets out for large-scale domination. I believe strongly that you do have to say no to things, and you have to know what you’re good at. That’s something that I’m focusing on a lot now, as we try to figure out and navigate what we want to get back to and what we might not want to do any more.

“I remember when I was able to pay myself $10 an hour, I thought I had made it.”

—Stephanie Hart, owner of Brown Sugar Bakery in Chicago

I had a technology company and I was traveling a lot and was getting stressed out in that world. I missed my grandmother. I looked for six months for her pineapple-coconut cake. I started baking to create this memory, to have that feeling she made me feel when I would have her cake. My daughter thought I was having a midlife crisis because I was never the baking mom before. When I started making my cakes, people would go, “Oh, nobody’s gonna buy your cake. They look like they were made at home.” But they tasted like they were made at home. And they were made with love. My inspirations are from the African American women who loved me as a child. In the beginning, I experienced every setback: people not coming to work and having to understand everybody wasn’t driven like I’m driven. I was mopping the floor and washing the dishes. Someone bought the building I was originally in and put me out, so I was baking from home for a while and I had no money at the time, so I ended up having to push my equipment down the streets myself to my new location. It was a bootstrap business. I sold a cake and used the money to buy the flour to make another cake. I remember when I was able to pay myself $10 an hour, I thought I had made it. Success is measured in different ways. I’m getting into manufacturing now. I get to help other people grow their dreams at my business. And I’m looking to use people that may be otherwise considered high-risk or not employable to manufacture products with people that look like me. That’s pretty hot, right?

“It’s a labor of love for us, from us to the community.”

—Nasya Emmanuel and her husband Tsadakeeyah, co-owners of Majani in Chicago

We started kicking around the idea of opening a restaurant in 2015. We wanted to eat something healthy. We’d have to leave our community to eat and from an economic standpoint, it was hemorrhaging money from our community. Manjani is a Swahili word that means “green.” It’s a challenge to create a menu that’s going to satiate taste buds, especially in the African American community. We had to have collard greens, mac ’n’ cheese, and okra. A lot of what we offer at the restaurant is what we cook at home. At work, it’s, “Yes, chef,” and at home, it’s, “Hey, baby.” We started saving money and developing relationships with lenders. Between the two of us, we can handle a lot. We didn’t fear losing a lot, but the pressure was on opening the restaurant and not having everything in place. The pressure was getting opened. Once we opened, the business went way beyond what we expected. It’s a labor of love for us, from us to the community.

“I talked about it a lot with my therapist. I spent all my savings. It was scary to pay the carpenter for shelves and my security deposit.”

—Leigh Altshuler, owner of Sweet Pickle Books in New York City

I’ve always loved books. I worked at the Strand for a long time. When I signed my lease, I still didn’t know what it was going to be. It was really important to me that I checked all of these boxes; that it was reminiscent of my family and my Jewish heritage and definitely of my mom. We always used to watch Crossing Delancey together growing up, and it’s about the Lower East Side, and it’s about books, and it’s about pickles. When I was little, I thought I was gonna get to Essex Street and there were going to be pickle barrels on the street. I decided on “Sweet Pickle.” I thought I could actually sell pickles. I talked about it a lot with my therapist. I spent all my savings. It was scary to pay the carpenter for shelves and my security deposit. My dad was a capital “B” businessman. He said, “Is that going to be worth it to you?” And I’m like, To invest in myself? Of course it is. The number could have been 10 bazillion, and it would have been worth it to me. I definitely have customers that I have never sold a book to. I started with 360 jars of pickles. I was like, Oh, these are going to last me a million years. Those went so fast. So fast. I had a customer come in the other day from Bay Ridge and fill his backpack with pickles. It’s just me right now, but I’m excited to give someone a proper job when I have the capability. I get emails all the time. I write everybody back and say, “Hey, as soon as I can, I’ll reach out.” And I will. I’m looking forward to that. Because I think I’m coming up on that moment.

What It Takes to Make It in the Food Industry