Southwest Foodservice Expo: Women Leaders Provide Inspiration to Next Generation

Sharon Van Meter, Robin Lee Allen, Estella Martinez, and Gina Puente. (photo by Caitlin Giddens)

Robin Lee Allen (Nation’s Restaurant News), Estella Martinez (Matt’s Rancho Martinez), Sharon Van Meter (SVM Productions), and Gina Puente (La Bodega Winery) prove that the restaurant industry is no longer just a man’s world. It’s theirs, too.

As part of the Southwest Foodservice Expo at the Dallas Convention Center yesterday, these four prominent women in the food and hospitality industry hosted “Providing Leadership and Inspiration to the Next Convention.” As monitor Robin Lee Allen of Nation’s Restaurant News clarified, this session was not a man bashing. Rather, the workshop served to educate women how to lead in the industry.

Today, 58% of first-line supervisors and managers are women. But this was not always the case, as Sharon Van Meter of SVM Productions lived first hand.

“Back in 1974 when I started at Le Cordon Bleu, Paris, I was blown away because I didn’t speak English, being 16 years old and dumb, and there were no girls.” Van Meter said. “There were 573 students and I was the only girl.”

Determined to beat the boys, Van Meter graduated 11th in her class and went on to become executive chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago and preside over SVM productions.

“This industry is about knowing your people and treating others the way you want to be treated,” Van Meter said. “That’s something many people believe but don’t practice. When people ask me what I learned in France, I say I learned how not to be crazy. I love what I do so I don’t need to scream and yell in the kitchen.”

Estella Martinez, co-owner of Matt’s Rancho Martinez, offered similar advice. She said women have seen more success in the food and hospitality business because they’ve developed more confidence and listen well.

“And it’s important to be approachable, which all these women are,” Martinez said. “We want to share our philosophies and inspire our employees.”

In founding La Bodega Winery, Gina Puente gained success by promoting innovation and not fearing failure. Puente said she’s seen an attitude change in women in the industry.

“There’s a greater feeling of support among women, which can be good for getting feedback,” she said. “It’s not as competitive as it was 20 years ago. A rising tide lifts all ships.”

Caitlin Giddens will be a senior at Baylor University. For the past year, she has been an editorial intern for the Wacoan Magazine.