It's no secret that the New York City's restaurant industry is a veritable old boys' club, bubbling over disproportionately with moneyed male entrepreneurs. Despite male-owned small businesses outnumbering female-owned small businesses almost 2 to 1, a figure especially magnified in the restaurant sector, a handful of enterprising New York women are giving the Mario Batalis and Danny Meyerses of the world a run for their money.
Nicole Ponseca, owner of Maharlika in the East Village, Anita Lo, owner and chef of the award-winning Annisa in the West Village, and Jennifer Sant'anna Hill, owner and chef of 508 GastroBrewery in Soho, are just three of a growing collective of women who have established highly successful and lucrative restaurant businesses in the Big Apple despite the odds.
In fact, according to these women, it was these odds that inspired them to double their efforts and build game-changing establishments in one of the world's most competitive culinary industry, adopting a fierce "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality.
"Seriously, what industry is not male-dominated?" says Ponseca, 35. "I was never part of the boys' club, but a woman in business has two choices -- take it personally and let it take you down, or take it in stride and keep moving, no matter what. Women entrepreneurs like Paula Deen, Alice Waters, Lidia Bastianach have made tremendous strides and inspire me to work harder, do more."
Ponseca, who describes herself as the "founder, owner, director, server and dishwasher" of the perenially packed Maharlika, credits her restaurant's success to meeting the demand for a largely untapped market -- authentic, upscale Filipino cuisine in New York -- and working harder than anyone else to do it right. Even if this meant working two jobs, trekking across the Philippines to learn the cuisine from an artisanal perspective and spending countless hours studying the existing Filipino restaurants across the United States -- all the while being advised that she should simply "settle down and find a nice man."
Despite the naysayers, Ponseca persevered. Although Maharlika no longer monopolizes the Filipino restaurant scene, Ponseca's restaurant is arguably the city's most popular Filipino eatery and bar, with rave reviews from The New York Times and other publications.
Similarly, award-winning restaurant Annisa (which means "women" in Arabic), has helped to reinvigorate and redefine Noveau American cuisine thanks to Lo's passion and creativity.
The 45-year-old is considered by many as one of the pioneer female entrepreneurs in the restaurant industry and as one of New York's most powerful women. With numerous accolades under her belt, including the title of "Best Chef" by Food & Wine and The Village Voice, winning the Iron Chef in 2005 after defeating none other than Mario Batali, plus founding two restaurants (including Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, which she left in 2010 to focus on running Annisa), Lo has proven that women in the industry are not just excellent in the kitchen, but are strong businesswomen.
But Lo's success hasn't come without its difficulties. Having worked in establishments in both Paris and New York, she admits that a male-dominated fine dining industry, both locally and globally, can sometimes be disheartening.
"This was what I wanted and needed to do, so I stuck with it," Lo says. "But in some kitchens, it was very isolating being the only woman."
The uphill battle doesn't start or end in the kitchen, either. Women entrepreneurs can struggle even on a basic funding level. Not only are women often more reluctant than men to apply for loans for "fear of rejection," but even upon application, it has proven to be more difficult for women to obtain financial backing for their small businesses from investors. This could potentially be linked to the discrimination and judgment women are subjected to due to their perceived role as "primary caretakers," according to a report conducted by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, which focused mainly on the fine dining sector of the industry.
Although women currently own only 26 percent of all restaurant businesses in the United States, according to the National Restaurant Association, times are changing, says Diane L. Tomb, president of the National Association of Women Business Owners.
"Yes, there is gender discrimination in the restaurant industry -- and other industries like construction, advertising, media buying, pharmaceutical -- the list goes on," Tomb says. "But it's getting better than it used to be and it will continue to get better. What's great these days is that there's much more support and resources available to help women entrepreneurs in the restaurant industry than ever before."
NAWBO, for example, is an organization that supports women business owners with mentor access, funding advice, networking opportunities and advocation for women's issues on a national level. The association currently has over 7,000 members across the country -- all of whom are women business owners. Similarly, the New York Women's Culinary Alliance was established specifically to support local female restaurateurs through networking events and education. The Alliance currently boasts over 200 members.
"With all of these resources, support systems and opportunities offered, I encourage women in any industry to just go for it," Tomb says. "There's no better time in America's history to be a female entrepreneur."
Her sentiments are echoed by Jennifer Sant'anna Hill, whose generally positive experiences as a restaurateur and chef (she received her formal training at Mario Batali's Lupa and Del Posto under the tutelage of both male and female chefs) led her to open her own establishment in the Carribean, and then later, the popular 508 GastroBrewery in New York with her husband, Anderson.
"During my externship [at Lupa], I was trained by all female sous chefs, who at the time worked under Mark Ladner," says Hill, 36. "It might have just been that way randomly, or maybe it's still that way, but I really loved it -- they were so skilled and really took the time out to teach me things."
"At 508, we get a majority of female externs and I assume it's because they would like to work with a female chef as well."
Although Sant'anna Hill, like Ponseca and Lo, has suffered her fair share of woe working in a male-dominated industry -- "old-timer purveyors sometimes asked for the chef, and were somewhat sarcastic when they saw me," she recalls -- her experience juggling her role as a restaurateur, chef, and most importantly wife and mother to the 16-month-old Neve, has been ultimately very rewarding.
Although Lo admits she's been unable to find that balance in her career, the Top Chef said she also feels enormously fulfilled in running Annisa, and encourages other women to be just as driven.
"Don't settle," Lo says. "Follow your passion and stick to it. Ultimately, we are in the business of making people happy. That is a great reward."
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