How women continue to rise in restaurant industry

Role models in the industry add value to organizations, help future female leaders

In the corporate environment, there’s a push currently to make the c-suite more inclusive. Advocates want to see more women in leadership along with equal and fairer pay. The restaurant industry itself has benefited from female leaders. Many women have risen to the highest ranks and have paved the way for a more diverse landscape. Yet, there’s much more work to be done, particularly in light of the #metoo movement and women banding together to call for such inclusion.

Two female leaders, Kat Cole and Carin Stutz, rose through the ranks quickly and easily come to mind as examples. (And there are many more.) After starting at Hooters, Kat Cole rose through the ranks, becoming vice president in 1995, and then moving to Focus Brands’ Cinnabon in 2010. She became Group president in 2015, and then Focus Brands promoted Cole to COO and president in 2017. An episode of CBS’ “Undercover Boss” brought her story into the spotlight,showing her raw passion, work ethic and tough leadership style.

Likewise, Carin Stutz has taken on turnaround scenarios, entrusted to salvage the roughest of restaurant situations. Her tenure at Brinker was her longest. There, she worked at Applebee’s as executive vice president from 1999 to 2007; then,as president of Global Business Development from 2009 to 2011. She followed that up with stints as president and CEO of Cosi (2012), a fast-casual chain that’s still looking to turn its business around. Stutz also served as president of McAlister’s Deli (2014) and EVP and COO of Red Robin (2016).

Now, she’s taken the helm at Native Foods, a fast-casual chain of restaurants featuring plant-based menus. The chain operates 13 restaurants, mostly in the West and Midwest. Her skills and tenacity bode well for Native Foods as she takes on the CEO role.

Kat Cole, Focus Brands president, is a female leader that comes to mind when talking about female empowerment in restaurants. Photo by Cinnabon.
Kat Cole, Focus Brands president, is a leader that comes to mind when talking about female empowerment in restaurants. Photo by Cinnabon.

Powerful common traits differ from common perceptions

“Ancora Imparo” is Italian for “Yet, I am learning.” Shannon Salupo, corporate beverage manager of Quaker Steak & Lube, embraces the phrase. “When I am receiving feedback from my co-workers or our restaurant operators on a program that I have created or an initiative on which I’m working, I listen closely and work to make any necessary changes.”

Empathy, relationship building and the ability to connect with and influence others are common traits of female executives that can help them rise through the ranks. These attributes and skills reinforce the element of pushback in a male-dominated world. Female executives like Cole and Stutz have cast away old norms that can impede females from assuming top leadership roles at companies.

Female executives perform at least as competently as their male counterparts, and in some cases more so, according to a study by Harvard Business Review. In 2012 and this year, the results were consistent. However, the publication also cites data that only 4.9 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 2.0 percent of S&P 500 CEOs are women.

Statistics and die-hard norms cut against the grain of reality. Says Harvard Business Review, “Women are perceived by their managers—particularly their male managers—to be slightly more effective than men at every hierarchical level and in virtually every functional area of the organization.” That includes the traditional male bastions of IT, operations, and legal.”


As a collective, women empower each other, shift attitudes

In this new age, and strengthened by the effectiveness of female leadership, many women are forming collectives and rising together. There are ways that female executives can further opportunities for other women. “Mentor other women coming up (through the ranks), and share your experiences,” says Simma Lieberman, an authority on workplace inclusion and president of Simma Lieberman Associates. “Bring up the names of other talented women when it is time for promotion or new projects.”

Quaker Steak’s Salupo says she was made aware of the search to fill her current position by a former supervisor who went to work for Travel Centers of America, the operator and franchisor of Quaker Steak & Lube. “She reached out to me to share the opportunity for the corporate beverage manager position,” says Salupo. “It was very unexpected as our relationship was very professional… she knew of the successful results I had shown in that previous role. She saw something in me.”

Liebermann says it’s important to prevent others from taking credit for a woman’s work at a company. It’s, a practice that has been historically pervasive. Advancement is just as important in the restaurant industry as it is in every other market. Furthermore, women in leadership positions can change attitudes and norms quickly. They can advance female empowerment in restaurant industry c-suites.

Action speaks louder than words

Also, there are ways that these leaders can push for change and shift the paradigm from within restaurant companies. Lieberman suggests the following, in her own words:

  • Include women in pre-meeting meetings.
  • Learn and use different ways to access people’s brilliance and not just one way.
  • Ask female leaders and everyone else what they need to achieve their full potential.
  • Don’t speak for all female leaders or assume you know what they think.
  • Women in leadership needed as the industry navigates disruptive, challenging times

According to Harvard Business Review, women scored better than men in 18 out of 20 capabilities. At a time when the restaurant industry needs fresh and bold thinking, strong financial results and employee retention, the evaluation of women in leadership is reassuring. Women score better in “bold leadership,” “drives for results” and “develops others.” This great aptitude can only help the restaurant industry.

When women show strength, they can be perceived negatively. But when taken together, strength and empathy are skills that often form the impetus of a fast-rising female star. “Women in foodservice and many industries often face a double-edged sword,” suggests Salupo. “If they are kind and nurturing they are often not perceived as strong leaders. When they attempt to take charge, they can be viewed as aggressive or inflexible.”

Driving female empowerment in restaurant industry

Inside restaurants, as in the corporate environment, women deserve the support they need to succeed. It’s clear that a more inclusive workplace benefits everyone, including customers and financial stakeholders. The restaurant industry is already an extremely diverse employer, having many workers from all walks of life. However, it’s one that can still challenge itself to do better.


Dawn Sweeney, the president of the National Restaurant Association, is retiring after 12 years of service. During her tenure, many of the association’s management ranks have been filled by female associates, and she has increased association membership by 50 percent. At the same time, more restaurant chains are promoting women to leadership ranks.

The restaurant industry can continue to push the envelope on female empowerment. This starts with an earnest effort of female executives who have risen to the highest ranks in a male-dominated world. They’ll usher in this change, not just by example, but by bringing up the next ranks of female leaders.

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