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‘Life is all about failures, but it’s what you do with it’: Atlanta women in hospitality industry discuss challenges

FAB Workshop is an annual workshop and networking event for women in the hospitality industry. This year’s event, taking place June 10-12 in Charleston, S.C., will see 40 panelists speak on topics such as workplace law, public relations strategy, human resources practices and business diversification, as well as sexual harassment and workplace culture. All speakers are women and include chefs, restaurateurs, attorneys, journalists and publicists.

In anticipation of the workshop, FAB Workshop has been holding mini “pop-up” workshops throughout the region, including this past Monday at Golden Eagle, a bar and restaurant in Atlanta’s Reynoldstown neighborhood. It focused on challenges that women in the hospitality industry face.

“It’s not an easy industry,” FAB Workshop founder Randi Weinstein said, addressing 70 women, including restaurateurs, service workers, food producers, public relations professionals and others whose careers revolve around food and beverage.

Panelists included four business owners from Atlanta’s food and hospitality industry: Jen Hidinger-Kendrick, Anne Quatrano, Suzi Sheffield and Nicole Wilkins.

Hidinger-Kendrick is a co-founder of the Staplehouse restaurant and the spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based nonprofit Giving Kitchen, which provides emergency relief grants and other services to restaurant workers facing crisis. Quatrano is a decorated Atlanta chef whose concepts include the flagship Bacchanalia, Star Provisions, Little Star, Floataway Cafe and W.H. Stiles Fish Camp at Ponce City Market. Sheffield is the owner of Beautiful Briny Sea, which makes small-batch spice, salt and sugar blends.Wilkins is the co-owner of Root Baking Co. She and her husband, Chris Wilkins, are moving their shop from Charleston to Atlanta’s Ponce City Market. It is expected to open in July.

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Panel moderator and Bitter Southerner co-founder Kyle Tibbs Jones opened the discussion by asking panelists to recount a crisis or failure in their lives.

For Hidinger-Kendrick, that was when her first husband, Ryan Hidinger, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The couple had been on course to open a restaurant, but news that Hidinger had six months to live changed everything. A pivotal moment came when members of the Atlanta restaurant community rallied around the couple and raised money for his medical care.

Hidinger-Kendrick called it a “light bulb moment” when she realized that no organization existed to offer financial support for restaurant industry workers in crisis. That led to the founding of the Giving Kitchen. In its five years, the nonprofit has given nearly $2 million to 1,100 recipients. In addition, it has expanded to include Athens, and it hopes to serve all of Georgia by the end of 2019 and the Southeast by 2021.

Meanwhile, Hidinger-Kendrick did finally establish the restaurant that she and her late husband envisioned. Open since the fall of 2015, Staplehouse has become the profitable arm of the Giving Kitchen and has received numerous national accolades, including being named Best New Restaurant by Bon Appetit in 2016.

She said surmounting such challenges began with “choosing to wake up every single morning and say, ‘I have a desire to do this.’ ”

Though Sheffield had run a restaurant for 17 years, it was when she launched Beautiful Briny Sea that she learned how to better negotiate as a business person. After she had agreed to develop a product for Williams-Sonoma, she realized she was in over her head. Although it was difficult to cancel the project, Sheffield said it “made me feel I was on the way to finding my business voice.”

“Life is all about failures, but it’s what you do with it,” Quatrano, a James Beard Award-winning chef, said before recounting how Abattoir, a nose-to-tail restaurant she co-owned with her husband, Clifford Harrison, and their business partner and Abattoir chef Josh Hopkins, shuttered in 2015 after seven years in business.

Quatrano found that keeping the right mind-set can play a part in bouncing back. “Never in my life has change been bad,” she said. “If you can look at change as a challenge, as something you can turn into a positive, you’ll be more successful.”

Jones broached the #MeToo movement, asking panelists whether any part of their path to entrepreneurship involved gender. All four replied in the negative.

“I never knew I couldn’t do something because I was female. I never saw gender as an obstacle,” Sheffield said. “We’re workers. It’s not about being female.”

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