Mental health, gratitude take center stage at first in-person WFF since 2019

More than 2,000 people attended the Women's Foodservice Forum Leadership Conference, which also focused on diversity and compassion.
Women's Foodservice Forum Leadership Conference
Photo courtesy Women's Foodservice Forum

For Margaret Farrington, director of operations at First Watch, attending her first Women’s Foodservice Forum Leadership Conference this week has been an empowering experience.

“You really believe you can do more and there are like-minded people,” Farrington said after lunch Monday, during the three-day conference in Dallas. “You think you’re all alone.”

Farrington was one of 2,032 in-person attendees (plus 779 virtual ones) from more than 270 restaurants, suppliers and other foodservice- related companies who came to Dallas this week for the first in-person WFF Leadership Conference since 2019, according to conference organizers. Thirty percent of those attendees, like Farrington, attended the event for the first time.

“Women have faced many challenges over the last two years, and WFF has adapted and innovated to provide new solutions,” WFF President and CEO Therese Gearhart said. “More than ever, women deserve time to invest in themselves and build the future they desire the most.”

With the pandemic fully in mind, sessions focused on topics such as mental health, gratitude, emotional labor, vulnerability, leadership, diversity and compassion.

The last two years amplified the importance of mental health as a concern on par with physical health for employers and employees. Keynote speaker Joanne Palombo McCallie, a women’s basketball coach who has steered teams from the University of Maine, Michigan State and Duke to championships, led off the conference by revealing that she suffered from bipolar disorder for most of her life.

Coach P, as she is known, had to keep silent about it when she suffered her first episode, but has since become a mental health advocate. Following her address, she moderated a panel of restaurant human relations executives to discuss how employers can better address mental health issues among their workforce.

Wendy’s Chief People Officer Coley O’Brien said the burger chain is taking a holistic approach to employee wellness. Wendy’s has a new training program that sensitizes managers to mental health issues among workers and empowers them to take action. Burnout, isolation and depression have all increased during the pandemic and its aftermath, O’Brien said.

Chick-fil-A adopted a program called Abound that gives workers access to a wellness coach for health concerns, and provides help to all workers across the quick-service chain for issues ranging from stress, financial problems, caregiving challenges and more, said Libby Wanamaker, VP of Talent Experience for the chicken chain.

Increased stress since the pandemic began pushed people to come to the conference for relief, many attendees said.

“I signed up because the last two years have been so stressful,” said Heather Dexter, KFC franchisee with Bowling Restaurant Group in Columbus, Ohio, and a mother of two boys. “I really hit a wall, and many times, I was the only one in my stores filling orders. I was doing everything myself. A conference that addresses stress was just what I needed,” said Dexter, who signed up as a first-timer in 2020 but couldn’t attend because the conference was canceled due to the pandemic.

Most everyone at the WFF Conference agreed that COVID had a greater impact on women in the industry because of all the roles they have to juggle.

Mary Weaver, chief food safety officer of Yum Brands, leader of a lunch networking roundtable, said it’s more important to support female leaders now than ever. Many left the industry because they couldn’t balance family demands with work demands, and “we must help them thrive or the industry will suffer,” Weaver said. “Give women the opportunity to grow and not leave restaurants.”

During the pandemic, Yum started a program called “HerStory” to encourage and support women to grow and become franchisees, Dexter said.

At the conference, WFF recognized a group of 34 Change Makers, early-career women who are identified by their companies as having high leadership potential. Danielle Walsh, senior principal team leader of the supply chain consulting group for Chick-fil-A, was selected as part of the Change Maker’s class of 2022.

Walsh has been with Chick-fil-A for 6½ years, starting as an intern and growing into a leadership position, overcoming several challenges in the process. “There were five months of uncertainty when one of our major distribution centers no longer wanted to do business with us,” she said. Walsh initiated a move to grow the chain’s own distribution network, “learning to make herself ready for opportunity,” she said.

She credits her mentors—one male and one female—for supporting her and offering WFF as a resource for helping her grow as a leader. She has attended previous conferences, but not since 2018, and was very enthusiastic to return to the 2022 live event.

Breaking down barriers for women, people of color and other under-represented groups was also a focus of discussion at the conference.

“When we talk about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, who are the voices at the table?” said speaker Sarah Culberson, an author and humanitarian. “We have to have compassion. How do we understand something we’ve never experienced? It’s not easy. We have to have the diversity at the table to move forward.”

Founded in 1989, the WFF provides research, insights and best practices to the food industry on issues of gender equity, career advancement and women in leadership. The WFF also partners with industry groups to create environments that foster a gender-diverse workforce.

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