Women in Foodservice | September 2013 | By Julie Knudson

You’ve Got to Start Somewhere

Women plant their roots in foodservice to prepare for a career climbing the ladder.

Female executives like Maryanne Rose are climbing the ladder in food service.
Maryanne Rose, president and CEO of supply chain cooperative SpenDifference, started in airport concessions before making her way into the limited-service sector. SpenDifference
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For many women in the foodservice and limited-service industries, starting off in entry-level positions—whether in a specific restaurant or a corporate office—is a natural move. But rising up the ladder through years of hard work, discipline, and a certain amount of risk-taking is often the end goal.

After more than a decade in consumer packaged goods at Kraft Foods, Cathy Hull tried her hand in quick service. “I’ve always loved food, and it was a great opportunity for me to get a nice, data-driven foundation on marketing,” she says. Though she enjoyed her experiences climbing the ladder, the job required several relocations, and “there were a lot of personal sacrifices throughout the first 15 or so years of my career, in terms of picking up and moving,” Hull says.

When a network contact reached out to her about an opportunity at Papa John’s, Hull saw the chance to hop off the relocation train. “It also gave me something new to think about, and to be challenged,” she says of the change.

Hull dove into her role at Papa John’s, working to build different components within the marketing department that had always interested her. Hull’s growing expertise made her an attractive candidate to Fazoli’s, a Lexington, Kentucky–based Italian concept, and after nearly nine years, she was recruited to take on the role of chief marketing officer.

Hull says women making their way through the foodservice industry must have a desire to continually learn and expand their horizons, no matter how many years they’ve been involved in the business—and even if they never planned to enter foodservice in the first place.

After getting a degree in nutrition, Maryanne Rose—president and CEO of Denver-based SpenDifference—came to a realization: “I was not interested in becoming a dietitian working in the basement of a hospital,” she says. Instead, Rose went into in-flight catering and airport concessions, where, without a finance background, she filled the role of controller.

“[The companies] needed someone who understood operators,” she says, adding that she was able to explain the financial side of the business to them in what she calls “plain English.”

After moving to Vicorp Restaurants—a restaurant group that owns a variety of family-style concepts—Rose worked on supply-chain purchasing and then transitioned into operations, where she focused on training and development. Her new responsibilities ranged from menu training to behavioral skill training. “I moved around where the company had a need,” she says. “I was always eager to learn.”

She later moved to Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery and focused her attention on the restaurant group’s supply chain. As she continued to delve into the discipline, Rose identified “a huge need in the industry for supply-chain expertise,” she says.

It led her to devise a way for mid-sized restaurants to gain some of the purchasing benefits enjoyed by bigger companies. She talked with the chairman of the board at Rock Bottom, and he agreed she was on to something. “He said, ‘Go ahead and see what you can do,’ and he sent me on my way,” Rose says. Her company, SpenDifference, was soon born.

Rose says her willingness to move laterally helped her career immensely as she gained more experience in the industry. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is that by moving laterally, you learn more holistically about the business,” she says, adding that understanding all perspectives—whether it’s being an operator, managing costs for the company, or training employees to serve customers—leads to better business decisions.

Working within the same company for many years can also play to women’s advantage, as Maria Brown, products and equipment manager for Papa John’s International, learned through her experience with the brand.

Though she earned her degree in a field completely unrelated to foodservice and spent time as a consultant, she soon moved to Papa John’s.

“I found out I really liked the corporate environment,” she says. As a natural relationship builder, when the opportunity to join Papa John’s came along, Brown says, it was just what she was looking for. “I’m a liaison between the restaurants and headquarters, so I get to work with everyone from delivery drivers all the way up to the founder, John Schnatter, and I really enjoy that.”

Brown’s role at Papa John’s has evolved significantly from when she started, and throughout the years, her mentoring connections have purposefully included both men and women. “I wanted a well-rounded perspective and experience,” she says. Brown continues to glean insight from several mentors, and says these relationships remain key in her ability to add to her arsenal of experience and expertise. “I’m big on observing and listening and being able to take key information,” she says. “Along the way, it has really expanded my knowledge base and it helps me build on the skills I currently have.”

As opportunities present themselves while climbing the ladder in quick service, Hull says, women must have the courage to make tough decisions and sometimes go against conventional wisdom. It’s a prospect that can be intimidating, particularly for women who are still in the early stages of building their careers.

When it comes to the fear of failure that often accompanies a new challenge or difficult decision, Rose says, it shouldn’t stop women from speaking up when they see an opportunity. “Don’t let your failures make you retreat,” she says. “I’ve learned more through my failures than I ever have through my successes.”