Over 14,000 restaurants open every year, yet women are underrepresented as managers, chefs, and investors. Should we fix that because “it’s the right thing to do” or because we’re seeking to “level the playing field” in a male-dominated industry? Why should men surrender their dominance just to make room for women…because society says so? Sign of the times? How about because if you don’t, your restaurant won’t be as competitive – for real dollars – as one that does!
According to Bridget Brennan, in her book Why She Buys, “Gender is the most important determinant of how a person views the world and everything in it. It’s more powerful than age, income, race, or geography”. Jana Matthews of Entrepreneur Magazine says, “women account for 85 percent of all purchases and drive 70 to 80 percent of all consumer spending.” If society is made up of 50% women, can any business thrive if it’s created only (or mostly) by men or without significant influence from women?
Over the past 17 years, we’ve been engaged to introduce fast casual restaurant components to three different national convenience store chains. In our research we learned that women patronize – and enjoy patronizing – stores like Pennsylvania-based Wawa, Oklahoma-based QuikTrip, and Texas-based Buc-ee’s. Safety while at a gas-station was the most important component. When the gas pump area is well lit and clean, it implies that someone is constantly monitoring (read: patrolling) the area. When the windows were clear of marketing signage and the gas-pumping-patrons can see inside, it meant that the pumper could also been seen from inside, reducing the likelihood of being robbed by another random patron (or at least it felt that way to them). My wife can attest that she has no problem pulling off a highway to fill up at QT because the bathrooms are clean, the cashier is elevated (like an all-seeing sentinel), and the food – while not gourmet by any means – at least looks fresh and well cared for. When we stop for gas at a roadside BP or Exxon or Chevron, we get gas and get out. If my wife has to pee, I have to go inside the store with her…and there is NO lingering for anything else. If she wants a drink, I need to get it while she’s in the loo so we can bolt for the car when she’s done. The men that sit/stand behind the bulletproof glass have no idea that the women feel this way, and when we educate them, they snicker and shake their heads. When I bring up the ubiquitous “wet floor” sign and the smell of Pine Sol used to clean the bathrooms, they say the sign is positioned to deter false slip-and-fall claims and Pine Sol “smells clean” to the owner. End of story. It’s about THEIR convenience not the customers’. When I say, “women don’t want to shop here”, they shrug their shoulders, “so what?”. When I say, “if women are 50% of the population, and they make 85% of all purchasing decisions (ie – most men won’t go there if their spouse won’t go there), don’t you think you should listen and accommodate?” They just look puzzled.
I bring up convenience stores because the illustration rings a little truer in than when discussing restaurants, where discomfort is less obvious. Most restaurant designers and the funders who approve or deny restaurant designs, are still men. They view the practice of making restaurants attractive to both genders as an act of appeasing women instead of co-developing something that appeals unilaterally. Purse hooks under the bar and scented candles in a bathroom are about as far as they get. What happens to the rest of the aesthetic and vibe for the new restaurant? You end up with MMA fighting on bar TVs, bar stools without backs, sinks without hot water, sticky tables, wet bathroom counters with no place to drop a purse, server stations in sight lines, impertinent instructions to employees posted in plain sight with scotch tape, hard to read menus, light bulbs out, Led Zeppelin on the playlist, and uncomfortably large portions in the entrée section. Don’t get me wrong – men like to be comfortable too. Watch a man at a bar without a footrest and you’ll see him stretch his foot to another stool to rest it on, whereas women are often ok tucking their legs under their stool and keeping their feet to themselves. But men will go wherever they’re welcome…so if the joint is a tad girly, the men are ok so long as their female counterpart is comfortable.
Beyond developing the concept, restaurants are still cesspools of rampant male misogynistic behavior, especially in the presence of women co-workers. They often don’t seem to see their comments and behaviors as offensive. Perhaps each generation’s sense of empathy improves as the wages of their sins are exacted upon them through cancel culture and social media…or just a strategically shared video recording of questionable behavior. The presence of women managers and the participation of women co-owners is vital for baking in concepts and brand filters to resonate with a broader audience and quash non-brand-enhancing behavior. Without this presence, efforts are mostly lip service aimed at compliance…which is damn tough to make stick if no one on the team is personally vested. We are getting better… probably because, more and more, women refuse to tolerate it, and (rarely noticed by men) women are better at processing “what just happened” and responding in a measured way. But whatever is making us better at understanding each other and treating each other with more respect, it is simply not happening fast enough.
Some would argue that women don’t need men around, but I can tell you that the few restaurants I’ve consulted for that are both 100% woman-owned AND have 90%+ women work groups can downright be hostile to the few men that work there. Mansplaining is not just a man thing. A cluster of women can isolate, demoralize, and ostracize a man just as fast – or faster – than any cluster of men…probably because the last 50 years hasn’t been pounding women to go easy on men the way society has been pounding it into men’s skulls…and society has not equipped men to stand their ground in an acceptable way when outnumbered by women. But that scenario seems pretty rare.
What isn’t pretty rare is the male-dominated decision process that goes into how a restaurant is developed, launched, and run. It’s easy to see that a restaurant’s ability to attract women as customers, and win them over as regulars, is critical to its survival and competitive advantage…so why are so few women involved in structuring the business, defining its core values, positioning it for maximum appeal, and delivering the brand through daily ops?
The makeup of the group of decision makers that brings a restaurant to life and keep it running into the future should be 50/50 women to men. If possible, given the power of women as decision influencers and makers, 60/40 might be even better. That’s not to say that an all-woman or all-male company can’t do well, but as competition for diners gets stiffer, the likelihood that a restaurant will succeed based on myopic, single-sex, dumb-luck thinking is shrinking. In 1972, a carpet bagger with a good dough recipe could drop into Anytown, USA, launch his Pizzeria for the cost of the equipment and furniture, sexually harass all the unsuspecting women and girls who work there over the next 10 years, have dirty bathrooms, poor signage, no purse hooks, and thrive without any consequences. Today, serving ok food in an ok environment with ok service and an ok culture means your restaurant is dead before it gets started, forget whether you’ve successfully purged it of bad behavior. If your development team and operating team don’t include a significant percentage of women to co-create and co-steer the business, you just won’t be in business very long.