Just last year, women crossed the 50 percent threshold in the U.S. workforce, and for the first time in history represent the majority of working Americans. Even in our own industry, more than 50 percent of restaurants are now owned by women—a statistic released by the National Restaurant Association just last month.
While women’s accomplishments in the professional and collegiate world are undeniable (for every two men earning a post-secondary degree, three women are graduating), the fact remains that only 2 percent of bosses at America’s largest companies are women.
But the restaurant industry has always been a diverse segment of the private sector and as Scott DeFife, executive vice president for policy and government affairs at the NRA, says, “The numbers are impressive—more women and individuals of diverse backgrounds are becoming restaurant entrepreneurs or are pursuing lifelong, successful careers in the industry.”
Below are eight such women. They are the leading women in the quick-service industry; those whose professional reach and industry respect extends far beyond their brands and, most importantly, beyond their gender.
President of Cinnabon
Long before she became president of Cinnabon in January, Kat Cole began her career in the restaurant industry as a hostess at Hooters when she was 17 years old. Within two years, she was training staff in Australia, and she became a vice president at the age of 26.
“I personally had unique opportunities [at Hooters] that I might not have gotten at another concept,” Cole says.
Besides presiding over Cinnabon, Cole is on the Georgia Restaurant Association’s executive committee and the Women’s Foodservice Forum’s board of directors. She says taking over Cinnabon was “exciting, but harbored with the realization of how much responsibility comes with taking over such an established brand with such a diverse franchise community.” Her primary goals as president are to grow the company’s franchise base and “protect and grow” its brand.
Coming up as a woman in the restaurant industry, Cole says she received a lot of help along the way—from men and women—who wanted to see her succeed.
“It’s amazing the amount of support I have gotten and the amount of advocates there are for young women to move up in business,” she says. “All you have to do is accept their generosity.”
Cole’s advice for young women hoping to climb through the ranks of the restaurant industry today: “Don’t make it about gender.
“If you think your success or lack thereof is about anything other than adding value to the stakeholders of the business, you are mistaken,” she says.
It’s also about figuring out ways to achieve the improbable.
“I don’t like being told why things can’t be done,” Cole says.
Chief People Officer of Panera
As chief people officer of Panera Bread, which operates about 1,450 bakery-cafes, Rebecca Fine helps oversee the hiring of about 25,000 people per year. She took the position in 2004 after working in the same capacity for Seed Restaurant Group, operator of Fazoli's Italian Restaurants.
Fine started in the restaurant industry as an hourly employee and manager, experiences she says were “invaluable in forming my leadership style and my ability to relate to the people who touch our customers every day.
“I am not afraid to jump in and help out during a breakfast or lunch rush,” Fine says, “and I have found that working side by side with our associates is the best way to learn how they really feel about working for us.”
Chairman of Winning Women and a Women’s Foodservice Forum member, Fine says she never attributed any of the obstacles she encountered in her career to her gender.
“There have been several situations where I was the only woman in the room where I wondered why that was, so I take my responsibility as a role model for other women very seriously,” she says.
Fine advises women with aspirations of climbing the ranks of the restaurant industry to prioritize their time—“Not everything on your plate carries equal weight” —as well as to “take some risks and assume challenging assignments.”
“Also, don’t take yourself too seriously, and keep a sense of humor when the going gets tough,” she says.
As an executive, Fine places high value on consensus building and collaboration. She credits her days as a volleyball player in high school and college with teaching her the importance of teamwork.
“I loved how everyone had to work together to get the win,” she says.
CEO and President of Jack in the Box
Linda Lang started out in accounting and finance at Jack in the Box 24 years ago. Now she is CEO and president of the San Diego-based chain, which has 2,200 restaurants in 19 states. During her tenure, Jack has added 200 restaurants, refranchised 738 locations, and increased franchise ownership from 25 percent to 61 percent.