Let’s Talk Womxn Unites Restaurant Owners for Post-Pandemic Support

Led by the women who run The Kitchen, Bake Me Happy and Freedom a la Cart, Central Ohio restaurateurs are banding together for camaraderie and advice.

Donna Marbury
Let’s Talk Womxn Columbus co-hosts (from left) Wendy Miller Pugh, Anne Boninsegna and Paula Haines at Bake Me Happy

The Kitchen’s Anne Boninsegna and her business partner, Jen Lindsey, run an atypical restaurant. During The Kitchen’s participatory dining experiences in German Village, patrons work together to prepare that night’s feast. Guests chop, stir and sauté together before sitting down to the meal they created. Cultivating teamwork is key.

But on March 15, 2020, The Kitchen’s communal dinners came to a halt.

“It still brings tears to my eyes. I remember watching TV, texting with my business partner, and I said, ‘What’s going to happen?’” Boninsegna says, recalling the moment that March day when Gov. Mike DeWine announced that all Ohio bars and restaurants would close to in-person patrons due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I let about three minutes go by, took a big, deep breath. And we just set out to use the business model we had in the best possible way we could,” Boninsegna says. She and Lindsey pivoted to delivering at-home meal kits to their customers.

Since 2020, it has been a sink-or-swim environment for many restaurant owners, as the effects of the pandemic continue to hit the industry. Many restaurants have struggled to return to pre-pandemic sales numbers, even as diners are excited to eat out again. The James Beard Foundation found that 1 percent of restaurants closed indefinitely due to pandemic pressures—nearly 5,000 restaurants nationwide.

Challenges created by the pandemic have often impacted women entrepreneurs even harder as a lack of financial, business and at-home support can leave women-owned establishments vulnerable.

“Most women owners of restaurants or food-centered businesses tend to be isolated. They don’t have an IT division, HR or legal counsel sometimes,” says Rohini Dey, owner of Vermilion in Chicago, a former World Bank economist and founder/former trustee of the James Beard Foundation Women’s Leadership Program.

Dey can be seen at the judge’s table on many of Food Network’s competitions but also is an advocate for women in the restaurant industry. In 2020, she launched Let’s Talk Womxn to address the business and wellness issues that women-led food ventures have been facing due to the pandemic. “If you are wrestling with all these issues singlehandedly, it can be very terrifying, especially during that period,” she says.

“When the pandemic hit, we knew we had to pivot quickly, as closing was not an option for us,” says Wendy Miller Pugh, who owns Bake Me Happy with her wife, Letha Pugh. “The gluten-free community depends on us to feed them safely, and we knew we had to be there for them, at the very least.”

Paula Haines, CEO of Freedom a la Cart, can relate to Miller Pugh’s situation. The social enterprise was working to open its Downtown brick-and-mortar café when the pandemic hit. Foregoing in-person operations wasn’t a viable option, Haines says, as Freedom also serves as a training space for women who are survivors of sex trafficking.

“The community really supported us as a business and as an organization. So, I’m very grateful for that. But [before Let’s Talk Womxn,] there wasn’t a space for restaurant owners to talk to other restaurant owners,” Haines says.

Currently in 14 cities with nearly 600 members, Let’s Talk Womxn gathers non-male entrepreneurs to discuss topics ranging from employee wages and food supply shortages to funding and capital. Each city’s group is led locally, with Boninsegna, Haines and Miller Pugh serving as Columbus co-hosts. The trio leads monthly Zoom calls with a group of nearly 30 area entrepreneurs.

Haines says that the informal Zoom calls are important as restaurants continue to restabilize after the pandemic’s seismic changes. “One of our recent meetings, we talked transparently about what we’re paying staff. It’s not information that we’re going to share beyond those who attended that meeting, but it was a safe place for discussion,” she says.

The road to entrepreneurship has always been tougher for women, but Dey says that in the restaurant industry, even the path to top roles is often exclusively paved for men.

Though women represent nearly half of workers in restaurants, only 20 percent of women in the industry rise to the top as chefs or head chefs, according to a 2021 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And in Ohio, while nearly half of restaurants are run by women who own at least 50 percent of the business, only 34 percent are majority-owned by women, according to the National Restaurant Association—statistics that are in line with national figures.

Financial support is a huge barrier for women, Boninsegna says, including immigrant and minority women who want to take the leap into food entrepreneurship. “It’s a really risky business to get into if you don’t have any means or a business partner,” she says.

In September, Let’s Talk Womxn Columbus hosted a meetup as a part of Dey’s national tour to check the temperature on how women-led establishments are faring across the country. During her Columbus visit, women from all across Ohio attended the event, seeking camaraderie and advice for keeping their businesses afloat. Dey says she is hoping to see more women in leadership positions who have the capital and support to become owners if they choose.

“This is not just about women putting on aprons and cooking for you,” Dey says. “My mantra is all about ownership.”

Women-led eateries deserve more attention for their impact, Miller Pugh adds, which is another area where Let’s Talk Womxn may be able to help.

“I would love to see more of our Let’s Talk Womxn members get their stories out there so people can see these creative, passionate and amazing people who make chocolate, waffles, salsa, baked goods, coffee and delicious food; who have built these businesses from the ground up mostly by themselves,” Miller Pugh says. “That’s why I think [the organization] is important—we need each other to grow and succeed and help each other along the way. There is something special and very fierce about the bonds women can make with each other.”

This story is from the November 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.