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Women restaurant owners get chance to rant about tipping, food costs and how to keep businesses alive

Members of Let's Talk Womxn from across the country got up on a literal soapbox during the National Restaurant Show to make their voices heard.
Among those on the soapbox were Rohini Dey, left, introducing Josie Smith Malave, Julia Shell, center, and Valeri Lucks. | Photos by Lisa Jennings

Women restaurant operators gathered at the Chicago restaurant Vermilion on Monday to rant. Literally.

They were invited to stand on an actual soapbox (perhaps it was a wine crate) and to rant about whatever challenges they face today as business owners. Among the topics that came up: the tip credit, high food costs, the challenges of delivery and the need for a path to legal immigration. The group was part of Let’s Talk Womxn, a nonprofit founded during the heat of the pandemic and led by Rohini Dey, owner of Vermilion. The organization is 120 strong in Chicago, and has spread across the U.S.

Dey is a believer in bringing together female independent operators to share and build each other up, and to ensure they have a voice. So the event during the National Restaurant Show on Monday was meant to do just that: Give women operators a chance to speak out.

One of the rules: no bullshit.

Valeri Lucks, for example, managing partner of Honeypie Cafe, which operates six restaurants in Milwaukee, spoke about the tip credit and how using a subminimum wage has created a system she calls racist and sexist, saying it contributes to disparities in pay—especially between the front and back of the house.

Wisconsin still uses a sub-minimum wage of $2.33 an hour, she said. “Which is nuts.”

So during the pandemic, her company raised wages based on skill, knowledge and responsibility, “like an actual job,” she said. “You have control over that. You do not have control over someone deciding you were not cute enough to tip, or you didn’t smile enough.”

Her group still uses tipping, but they pool tips across the house (since they no longer use the tip credit).

“I would like to see more in the industry use this model, because if we all jump together, it would be easier to talk about it, to pressure our legislatures to change the laws,” she said.

Josie Smith Malave, owner of Bubbles & Pearls in Miami, shared how the pandemic gutted the industry but allowed resourceful people to rise to the top. Now there’s a second residual wave of challenges with the cost of doing business increasing, especially labor.

 “Of course we want to pay everyone,” she said. Those who work in and around restaurants need to make a living. “But how do we create win-win?”

Malave said she’s planning to close her restaurant, renovate it and reopen as a private dinner club and cafe for the community.

“That [traditional] model does not work anymore,” she said. “You don’t have to go a year with your numbers decreasing for you to see. Look at your bottom line. It tells you everything you need to know. We need to get out of that survival, ‘we survived the pandemic’ mode. We have to thrive now, and thriving requires creativity.”

Taylor Mason of Taylor’s Tacos in Chicago talked about how she has made it work with the addition of catering and an event space.

“It’s difficult to scale. It’s hard AF,” she said. “I love giving back, I love community, I love connection. But that don’t make no money. So I’m trying to figure out how to fuse the two together. How can we make it so the people who give real service and real hospitality make money?”

After sharing a story about a breakfast sandwich order for delivery that went horribly wrong, she said she is germinating the idea of starting a women-owned delivery service run by “bad ass women” who get the job done and put care into delivering food.

Lisa Gutierrez , co-owner of the four-unit Dos Hermanos Tacos in Columbus, Ohio, ranted about “why the fuck food costs so much.”

Her brand began as a food truck, which was a struggle, especially after the pandemic when the supply chain was hindered. Promised rebates from vendors came late or not at all.

“Why did we start that way? Why is there not capital for people like me,” she said. “Why do I have to get a CFO that’s a different color than myself to go to the table and negotiate with the people who sell us the food?”

Julia Shell, who operates The Dandy Shell and several other concepts in Chicago, offered advice about how to make it all work using the acronym PAID, which stands for Plan, Automate where you can, Innovate and Delegate.

“How do we make it all work in our daily lives without going insane? We need time for ourselves, not feeling guilty if we take time for ourselves,” she said. “You can’t be everywhere all the time.”

Dey, meanwhile, had her own rants on several topics. She also called for an end to the American tradition of tipping, and for a means to legal immigration, saying immigrants are the backbone of the restaurant industry.

“If we had any sense, we’d legalize all of them today,” she said.

Dey also spoke out against pretentious Eurocentric restaurants that serve “tiny little morsels of overly finessed food with absolute utter lack of flavor, excessive pretentiousness and overpriced to the hilt,” she said. “The more little tweezering you do, and the more you charge, the better you will be reviewed.”

Sitting through those three hour dinners is exhausting, and you come home craving ramen or a burger, something that offers solace.

“Why do we letting this happen to ourselves? It’s almost like a Stockholm syndrome of dining.”

She also criticized media-based “best restaurant” lists, often created by young journalists without any actual knowledge of the restaurants they are ranking.

“There has to be a better model to figure out what’s good and what’s not,” she said.

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