Some of Binghamton’s women restaurateurs gathered to celebrate Women’s History Month and discuss their experiences in the hospitality industry this past Tuesday.
The panel discussion, titled “Women Entrepreneurs in Binghamton Restaurants,” was organized and hosted by Stephanie Malmberg, assistant dean for distance learning and professional development at Broome Community College (BCC), and Maria Montemagno, chairperson and associate professor of the hospitality programs department at BCC. Panelists at the event included Elizabeth Hughes and Marie McKenna, co-owners of the Lost Dog Cafe & Lounge, Ely Rooney, owner of De Colores Cookies y Mas, Eugenie Zynda, co-owner of The Shop and Sara Liu, co-owner of Parlor City Vegan.
The event was intended to bolster the voices of women in the culinary arts and hospitality fields, as a resource for BCC students studying in hospitality programs and as a “counternarrative” following recent allegations against Downtown restaurant owners — with the event serving to demonstrate the possibilities that occur when women lead, according to Malmberg.
Last month, two owners of the Colonial, Yaron Kweller and Jordan Rindgen, had been arrested following a Binghamton Police Department investigation involving allegations of sexual assault.
Malmberg also sought to highlight local businesses that had adapted amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The past two years of [COVID-19] threw our wonderful local establishments curveball after curveball, and with each change in protocol and regulation, the businesses we are featuring rose to meet the evolving challenges,” Malmberg wrote in an email. “They protected the safety of their staff and guests, thought of new and innovative ways to serve our community and helped many of us at home maintain some sense of normalcy, one take-out order at a time.”
At the start of the event, hosts and panelists introduced themselves and their experiences in the restaurant industry. The panelists were asked how their management approaches have been shaped by their past experiences, and many panelists said they were influenced by their start in a male-dominated industry either as waitresses, line cooks or dishwashers.
Rooney, from De Colores Cookies y Mas, said she started out as a 16-year-old waitress and dishwasher in Houston, Texas before moving on to culinary school. Rooney said her experiences drove her to inspire change.
“You’re working in a male-dominated industry,” Rooney said. “Unfortunately, there’s going to be sexual harassment, and you know these are things you’re going to have to face. I’ve helped this change because I took the reins, and I started my own business.”
McKenna said when the Lost Dog Cafe & Lounge opened in 1994, neither herself nor Hughes had much management experience but were excited to “set the tone” in their own restaurant, having witnessed sexual harassment, women being hired based on looks and not skill and women being asked to wear clothes they were uncomfortable with.
McKenna said the restaurant community has changed from when their restaurant first opened when most of the restaurant owners and sales representatives in Binghamton were men.
“I’m not sure they knew what to do with us or how to equitably develop a relationship with us,” McKenna said. “We would often learn about great deals or opportunities from our male restaurateur friends who had strong relationships with their reps because of time spent golfing or dining together. Gradually, over the years, we have noticed more women being hired as reps from our wine, beer and food companies and we are really pleased to see that.”
McKenna listed several other women-owned restaurants that did not attend the event, including 205 Dry, PS Restaurant, Little Venice Restaurant, Cortese Restaurant, Remlik’s Grille & Oyster Bar and Water Street Brewing Co.
Zynda said she believes Binghamton now has a strong women-restaurateur community.
“It’s such a tight-knit community with lots of women and such a supportive environment where everyone knows each other,” Zynda said. “We’re going back and forth between each other’s restaurants all the time.”
Panelists were also asked what they prioritized in management. Liu said because of her background in nonprofit management and higher education, Parlor City Vegan emphasizes transparency.
“We definitely prioritize transparency and try to pay well above the industry average because we want to make sure everyone’s taken care of,” Liu said. “That’s really important for me coming from a nonprofit background.”
After the event, Rooney said De Colores Cookies y Mas tried to be a safe space for students before winter break, when allegations of sexual assault had begun to spread.
“I wanted to provide free coffee or tea to anyone who just wanted to get out of their house and comfort zone or apartment and have that be a place you could go without any obligation to buy something from us,” Rooney said. “As a mother of four kids, it was very important for us to recognize the safety they could feel as they walked through those doors.”
Hughes and McKenna wrote that it was important for Binghamton’s women entrepreneurs in restaurants to get together and discuss the problems women experience in the restaurant industry.
“As hospitality professionals, we believe in recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of everyone we interact with,” Hughes and McKenna wrote in an email. “This applies to our customers, staff and vendors. Our staff, as part of our restaurant culture, has been trained to do the same. So many of the businesses downtown have worked really hard to create dynamic, fun and safe spaces. We truly hope that people realize this and these events don’t cast a shadow over Binghamton.”
To Malmberg, the event provided an outlet for the panelists to motivate and educate those around them during Women’s History Month.
“We hope our students, faculty, staff and community members hear about the experiences of these amazing women, learn about navigating the industry as a woman and understand the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for our talented panel,” Malmberg wrote.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on 3/29/2022 at noon to add quotes from Stephanie Malmberg and adjust information that was mistakenly reported incorrectly. Pipe Dream regrets the errors.