WFF at 35: Progress made, more to accomplish

Attendees of this year’s Women’s Foodservice Forum Leadership Conference heralded the advances (and made the business case) for moving women into leadership roles. But there’s still work to do.
Katty Kay WFF
Journalist Katty Kay told WFF attendees how to unlock the "confidence code." | Photo by Heather Lalley

Denny’s CEO Kelli Valade attended her first Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF) Leadership Conference in 1994, just five years after the group’s inception.

At the time, Valade was a 24-year-old restaurant consultant, and the WFF’s flagship annual event was held in a barn, with a headcount of about 30 women. Valade recalled constructing a “glass ceiling” there out of newspaper and string.

WFF celebrated its 35th anniversary this week at the sprawling Hilton Anatole in Dallas, bringing together about 3,000 women and other allies with careers in all aspects of foodservice, from restaurants to suppliers to distributors and more, to attend professional and personal development sessions while networking with those who’ve shared some of the same struggles in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

“It’s advice, it’s friendships,” Valade said. “It’s cherished, lifelong mentors, family. But it’s also when business happens.”

If you look at the numbers, the industry has come a long way in bolstering the presence of women in the c-suite.

In just the last week or so, we’ve seen Heather Neary named CEO of Taco John’s, Denise Nelsen become Smashburger’s CEO and Jennifer Schuler take the helm at Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream. Last month, El Pollo Loco hired Yum Brands veteran Liz Williams to be its leader, and Suzie Tsai was promoted to CEO of Bonchon U.S. earlier this year.

“Companies who employ more women outperform their competitors by every measure of profitability,” journalist Katty Kay told WFF attendees Tuesday in a keynote address on building confidence. “This isn’t a nice, p.c., let’s-be-nice-to-women issue. This is a bottom-line issue.”

Meradith Brammer, director of brand marketing for Fuzzy’s Taco Shop, was honored among a group of Change Makers at this year’s conference, a group identified as emerging leaders within their brands.

“I was shocked I was nominated, but also, hey, I do a good job,” Brammer said. “So, I need to take credit and be proud of everything I’ve done the past five years for this brand.”

Having women as mentors and now, mentoring others, has been key to her professional growth, she said.

“It really helps to have a woman as a mentor because they are literally in her shoes,” Brammer said. “And so they kind of walk the world differently than men. And men just don’t know what it takes to be a woman. And I mean that very respectfully because we don’t know what it means to be a man either. So, I definitely have looked up to all the mentors that I’ve had in the past and I just can’t say enough about my current supervisor. She’s amazing.”

As senior project manager in Early Talent Programs for Chick-fil-A, Jeanette Rogers oversees internship programs for the chicken chain, working to develop a pipeline of future talent for the brand.

“I’m trying to make sure that we’re exposing our young women leaders to different areas of the business,” Rogers said. “I’ve just been so excited to see the number of women growing in the area of supply chain.”

It’s her fifth year attending the WFF event. This year, she’s one of 41 in-person attendees from Chick-fil-A, along with a half dozen logging in to watch sessions remotely. The chain has been working hard to promote the conference not just to those in the corporate office, but to store-level employees as well, she said.

“For me, it has just been the networking,” she said. “Meeting different women within the business.”

Plus, she added, she’s inspired each year by the mainstage speeches.

“Every year I say, ‘Oh, that’s going to be my mantra,’” she said. “Every year.”

Valade is heartened to see companies investing in nurturing women leaders but also recognizes some of the setbacks that happened during the pandemic, with some women pulling out of the workforce all together.

But she’s witnessing another important trend: “There’s also a transition for a lot of more-senior leaders,” Valade said, citing the retirement of former Denny’s CEO John Miller in 2022 that led to her taking the top spot at the family dining chain. “There’s just a changing of the guard. There’s an aging-out of some the current CEOs that have been in roles, the ones that we all know and are fantastic at it. You’ll see CEOs being a little bit younger and they’re ready for their turn. So, I think there’s potential. We have a ways to go but I think there’s potential.”

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