How some chefs are working to create a more diverse and inclusive industry and workforce

More and more, officials at the top of every industry are being asked to answer a tough question: Why doesn’t the company executive team reflect the many faces of its employees or the constituents it serves?

by Jody Shee

In ways, restaurants have championed diversity more than other industries simply because they have always hired from the diverse pool of employees in the neighborhoods they serve, according to Edward Lee, chef/partner/owner of three restaurants in Louisville, Kentucky and two in the Washington D.C. area. “We already have diverse environments, but not equal environments. Diversity doesn’t always equal equality.”

Some 47 percent of restaurant employees are minorities, compared to 36 percent in the overall U.S. labor force, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey. But up the ladder of success, the winners begin to look more and more similar.

“Most industries in the U.S. for generations, and mainly in creative fields, have been dominated by people with money and power, and those people tend to be of one culture and tend to be men,” Lee says. Thus, media attention, awards and resulting funding for the next project have not been equally distributed to women and minorities, making success more difficult.

Clear benefits

US FOODS – WFF Dallas 2018
Foodservice distributor US Foods, Rosemont, Illinois, with 25,000 employees, has sent women to the WFF Annual Leadership Development Conference for the past seven years.

Diversity in boardrooms and on committees makes good business sense. According to McKinsey & Co.’s “Delivering Through Diversity January 2018” report, companies in the top quartile for gender diversity and those in the top quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity on executive teams were respectively 21 and 33 percent more likely to have industry-leading profitability.

That’s because gender and ethnically diverse teams are more creative, productive and more capable of finding solutions to difficult tasks, says Gerry Fernandez, president and co-founder of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Alliance, Providence, Rhode Island.

“The most important aspect of diversity is thought, perspective and experience,” he says. “To illustrate, you wouldn’t put plumbers in a room to make the decisions for electricians and architects.”

The growth of diversity in the workplace was predicted decades ago by observing the population census data, which has long shown faster minority growth and lower growth among whites, Fernandez says. “If the population is more black, brown and immigrant, the workforce has to go the same direction.”

As a younger, more multicultural generation comes into power, both as consumers and as employees, they are demanding inclusive cultures. Add to that the current low unemployment rate, and employees will leave a company quickly in favor of a more inclusive one down the street that better meets their ideals, Fernandez says.

Intentional efforts

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The James Beard Foundation, New York, has had a women’s entrepreneurial program for six years.

Well-thought-out and orchestrated diversity and inclusion programs emerging throughout the industry could turn 2019 into the year that moves foodservice toward measurable improvement. Operators, suppliers and contract management companies have all stepped up.

Foodservice distributor US Foods, Rosemont, Illinois, with 25,000 employees, has sent women to the WFF Annual Leadership Development Conference for the past seven years and even holds meetings there for its women a day ahead of the official conference kickoff. But recently, the company has developed a more formal journey toward diversity and inclusiveness with a new strategy and roadmap, says Alyson Margulies (pictured above), vice president of talent management and organizational effectiveness.

The company recently brought in external thought leaders to discuss with the executive team what inclusion looks like at their level. It compared its diversity numbers with other companies and implemented Respectful Workplace training by a third party that includes foundational information, a code of conduct and an official company policy. Already 1,200 directors and above have participated in the training, and in 2019, the rest of the employees will participate.

Employee resource groups are part of US Foods’ new grand plan. The company asked affinity groups to come together, form a leadership team and devise a team mission to include plans for self-development as well as community outreach. Eight groups came out of the process (women, blacks, Latino/Hispanics, Asians, veterans, generational, LGBTQ and administrative professionals). Each group has an executive sponsor from the senior leadership team along with an activity budget, Margulies says.

Contract management company Sodexo, Gaithersburg, Maryland, has a similar affinity group program with nine teams called business resource groups. Theirs are similar, but also include Native Americans and those with disabilities. These groups all have guidelines, clear leadership and governance and are platforms for professional and business development and community outreach, says Rohini Anand, senior vice president, corporate responsibility and global chief diversity officer.

In the U.S. and Canada, Sodexo has 160,000 employees divided among 13,000 client sites. To ensure that diversity and inclusion reach to the unit level, the company has a suite of training available to each, and the topic is frequently addressed in the Daily Huddle. Before the start of work, the general manager of each location holds a 20- to 30-minute staff meeting on any number of topics, Anand says. In three cities where Sodexo has school accounts, the staff receives anti-bullying training, enabling them to address bullying when they spot it.

Prospects for women

Lee initiative mentees
Mentees of the LEE Initiative

Almost half of culinary school graduates are women, but only about 6 or 7 percent of executive chefs are women.

Women may be the most glaringly under-represented group in the upper ranks of foodservice. Initiatives to change that are popping up all over the industry.

By 2025, Sodexo intends for women to represent at least 40 percent of its senior leadership staff globally. Currently that number is at 33 percent. To ensure that all senior executives understand the value of reaching that goal, 10 percent of their annual bonus is impacted by their progress toward meeting it.

“Diversity means a more innovative outcome. If you surround yourself with only like-minded people, you get variations of the same,” Anand says. Sodexo is one of 230 companies selected for the 2019 Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index, which distinguishes companies committed to transparency in gender reporting and advancing women’s equality.

The James Beard Foundation, New York, has had a women’s entrepreneurial program for six years. It recently shifted the program from internships to identifying and paying for 20 women chefs from around the country to attend a week of programming at entrepreneurship-focused Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The curriculum includes such topics as how to read a profit-and-loss statement, dealing with human resources, how to create alternate streams of revenue and more, says Mitchell Davis (pictured opposite left), chief strategy officer. The program already has 40 program alumni.

Davis points out that almost half of culinary school graduates are women, but only about 6 or 7 percent of executive chefs are women. “Somewhere between an equal beginning and the top of the career, we lose almost 100 percent of women. We’re trying to find a way to support them in the beginning, middle and end of the career they have checked out of,” he says.

From its women’s entrepreneurial program revision, last year the association launched a smaller-scale local program called Owning It, bringing lessons from the larger national group to major cities to not only cover important business topics, but to create a women chef network in those cities.

In his own region, two years ago restaurant owner Lee set out to make a difference by creating a path to success for minorities. He co-developed The LEE Initiative, a 10-month intense mentorship for five women at a time from Kentucky and the surrounding area, not only to immerse them in all things culinary but also in entrepreneurship. His goal is to create the next generation of leaders, chefs, owners and activists. “When it’s their time to be the next great chefs and owners, they will understand that success financially alone isn’t enough. They need a form of activism on whatever the issue of the day is. They will take it head on. Success is not selfish, it’s communal,” Lee says.

Lindsey and Lee
Lindsey Ofcacek (left) and Edward Lee

He hired Lindsey Ofcacek as managing director and co-founder of The LEE Initiative. She also serves as wine and beverage director for Lee’s 610 Magnolia, Louisville, Kentucky. “I’ve been in the restaurant industry for 20 years in almost every position front to back of the house,” Ofcacek says. They settled on the women’s focus as they pondered what they could do to counter the restaurant industry sexual abuse atrocities.

Lee and Ofcacek look for five women who have been in the industry for two to three years who plan to become an executive chef or owner. Among their opportunities, they spend two weeks paired with a successful woman chef somewhere in the country to mentor them. They spend time at a local smallbatch bourbon whiskey producer as well as a local artisan ice cream company. They also receive media training with Wagstaff Worldwide and cook dinner at the James Beard House. This year they will attend the FAB Symposium in Charleston, South Carolina, for two days of educational and inspirational workshops taught by and for women in the hospitality industry.

While the program is small, Lee hopes it will serve as an example. “If others see what’s happening in our community, they can replicate it for their community in their state,” he says.

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