In previous decades, there have not been enough women in the franchising industry to look to for direction nor has there been a clear path to follow because so few women were in the industry. While women make up around 50 percent of the population, only 31 percent of franchises and small businesses in the U.S. are owned by women. Although 60 percent of American women have worked in the industry at some point in their life, roles for women in management, specifically in the restaurant business, have been limited.  

Having a lack of female representation in the restaurant business meant women had to begin their franchising journey without advice from women who had previously been in their shoes. Now, as the proud owner of multiple franchises across Michigan, including two Noodles & Company restaurants, I’m thrilled to share my advice for women interested in the restaurant business, so they have the tools they need to work in this incredible industry. 

Remember to be confident 

While the restaurant industry has made incredible strides to increase its diversity and inclusion, the industry is still dominated by men at the executive and upper management levels. With a small number of women to look to as examples in restaurant leadership, those entering the restaurant business should remember their unique differentiators and have confidence in themselves. Even though the room may be filled with men, women are needed at the table and their voices should be heard. It’s important for women to know their worth and exude confidence. 

Embrace “grit and grace”  

Anyone in the restaurant business will say this industry is not for the faint of heart. Women know a thing or two about perseverance and that knowledge will absolutely benefit them in the restaurant industry. The biggest lesson I have for women interested in getting involved in the business would be to have grit and grace. Working in this fast-paced and ever-evolving industry means you’ll need to be willing to roll up your sleeves, get to work and, most importantly, roll with the punches. As everyone has seen during the pandemic, the restaurant industry has experienced many ups and downs along with the economy. To succeed, I think it’s important to be wholly committed to the success of your restaurant and willing to get up 10 times after getting knocked down nine. Having this grit and grace will help us all thrive in this exciting and unpredictable industry.  

Ignore stereotypes 

Women are unfortunately, often stereotyped to be accommodating, emotional, inexperienced, followers instead of leaders, and unwilling to take charge and risks, among many other untrue beliefs. While we know that these stereotypes are categorically false, it’s hard to ignore their presence. My advice for women starting in the industry is to ignore typecasting at all costs. Don’t allow yourself to be pigeonholed into gender-specific roles and instead, show your strength and capabilities as a successful business leader.  

Get involved in all aspects of your business 

The restaurant industry, specifically the franchise side of the business, is incredibly complex with many moving parts. To be a leader, whether it’s as a franchisee or an executive, one must understand all aspects of the business from supply chain to finances to hiring. I think it’s important to learn and be involved in all aspects of restaurant operations to establish credibility and confidence from everyone in the company. Learn a bit about each role in the business, develop relationships with the team members at all levels, and be willing to get your hands dirty.  

Never stop learning 

In addition to being incredibly complex, the restaurant industry is also continuously evolving. No one could have predicted the growing popularity and need for a customer experience like curbside pickup five years ago. To keep up with, and stay ahead of trends, keep education as a top priority and never stop learning. From articles about forecasted trends to podcasts with industry leaders to books from experts who share their secrets on running a successful restaurant and franchising business, there are a number of resources to continue your education in your business acumen.  

Get a supportive mentor 

I cannot stress enough the importance of mentorship early in someone’s career, or during a transition into a new industry. Mentors provide invaluable professional advice, industry connections, and serve as a knowledgeable sounding board for new ideas. Not only that, but mentors should also be people that women can be more comfortable working with and people they feel they can be honest with about their experience in the industry. Great mentorship can come from anyone who has experience in the industry and is willing to provide coaching. In addition to looking within the restaurant and franchise industry circles, there are plenty of organizations and associations, like Women’s Foodservice Forum and Lean In, specific to the trade and not, where women can find great mentors.   

Support other women in the industry 

Networking is one of the most important business skills to master in the franchise industry, especially in the restaurant industry as it can rapidly change and evolve. Having the support of a franchise network can be beneficial as it consists of a relationship that relies on each other for success. When looking to work with a franchise brand, it is important to look for female representation and how women are supported at the company. A great example of this is Noodles & Company, which now has 50 percent of its executive leadership made up of women and women represented throughout the company according to the company’s ESG report. Finding other women in business to connect with can be an inspiring and empowering way to stay motivated during good, and trying times. The example of more women stepping up in the industry shows others that they too can achieve success and are needed in the restaurant business.  

This amazing industry has taught me so much and I could not be prouder to be a female franchisee. From my experience, we should be playing a much larger role in the restaurant business and I can’t wait for the day I’m at a table with an equal number of men and women restaurant industry leaders seated alongside me. 

Patti Neely is a Registered Dietitian & Nutritionist (RDN) by profession with over 20 years of leadership experience in the restaurant industry as a Principal Owner of multiple franchise brands, as well as some independently created concepts.

Business Advice, Fast Casual, Franchising, Outside Insights, Restaurant Operations, Story, Noodles & Company