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  • VOL 08, ISSUE 01 • WINTER 2020
Run the World?

Run the World?

Not quite yet, but these women are rocking their corner of it

Pictured above (left to right)
TOP: Beverly Kim, Nina Compton, Christine Cikowski
BOTTOM: Rita Bernhardt, Rohini Dey

Being a chef is hard. Being a female chef is even harder, which makes the success of women restaurateurs in food meccas like Chicago and New Orleans particularly thrilling. These rising stars share challenges, triumphs and why now may be the best time for women to follow their culinary passion.

Imagine if “acting like a girl” was not pejorative, but the preferred way to build a superior kitchen culture, and women-owned restaurants and award-winning female chefs were mainstream? Signs of progress are evidenced by Chicago’s Beverly Kim (Parachute), Rohini Dey (Vermilion) and Christine Cikowski (Honey Butter Fried Chicken) as well as New Orleans’ Nina Compton (Compere Lapin) and Rita Bernhardt (Domenica). All represent the slow, yet steady rise of female hospitality leadership.

As a woman who ground it out for years on her own, Kim reveals that going back to work six weeks after her son was born was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” Long, grueling hours on the job and an ever-changing lineup of babysitters at home made an indelible impression, and when she ultimately opened her own, now Michelin-starred, restaurant, she was determined to make a difference. Six months in, she offered a generous health insurance stipend to employees, and has established a four-day work week.

Bernhardt recalls when women had to make a choice. “If you were a chef, that was your whole life, but now a work-life balance is possible.”

The first chef hired by BRG’s CEO Shannon White after she took over for John Besh, Bernhardt realized she was under scrutiny, but wanted to put her imprint on Domenica. She stayed true to her own values by commanding respect without being a “typical yelling chef.”

“That isn’t who I am,” Bernhardt stresses, “and I prefer discussing improvements needed privately with an employee.”

Cutting back to 10-hour days whenever possible has made an impact: “People are much happier and more productive, and looking out for each other,” she adds.

At Honey Butter Chicken, the defining ethos is “professionalizing” the restaurant industry.

“We don’t want our employees coming into work sick because otherwise they can’t pay the electric bill,” says Cikowski. That happens frequently enough to make sick pay essential, along with health insurance, parental leave and personal time off.

“We offer this because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s actually made us financially successful,” she reveals. “There’s a huge return on investment, especially for women, and especially right now.”

Women represent 19 percent of chefs, and seven percent of head chefs
- Source: RestaurantHer

Paying the price

Professionalism may also mean eliminating tipping, an unpopular industry notion, but one Dey contends is vital. “The price we pay is unacceptable, with women exploited by customers, managers and other employees in order to get the best tips,” she says.

Primed for change

There’s a palpable sense of excitement, and no one’s contributed more than Nina Compton, the first black woman to win the James Beard award for Best Chef. At her two flawlessly executed concepts in New Orleans, Compton focuses on creating “a positive, safe environment, where team members are treated with love and respect.”

Her compelling promise: “Women are really breaking through the surface. Things will shift very soon and hopefully be an equal playing field. We all have to support each other; that's where it all begins.”