The argument could be made that foodservice, like so many other industries, has long been a boys’ club, one in which the top leaders and innovators are, more often than not, male. And today, men continue to dominate the foodservice C-suite.
But women are on the rise, and that’s especially true in fast casual. Today, female founders lead several up-and-coming fast-casual brands across the country.
Many of them are flocking to fast casual from different fields: In a prior career, Bun Mee founder Denise Tran was an attorney; Roz Edison and Kamala Saxton were educators before they founded Marination; and Marian Cheng worked in fashion before starting Mimi Cheng’s with her sister Hannah.
Other women were restaurant veterans before launching their limited-service ventures. Chef Archna Becker of Bhojanic Market worked in fine dining and catering before setting her sights on fast casual; Christine Sfeir franchised Dunkin’ Donuts in Lebanon prior to founding Semsom Eatery; and Donna Lee of Brown Bag Seafood Co. first learned her trade as a Noodles & Co. manager and publisher for DiningOut magazine.
Regardless of their origin stories, nearly all have a drive that goes beyond the bottom line—whether it is offering healthier, affordable food; exposing consumers to new flavors and cultures; or affecting a more sustainable supply system.
“Women have to believe in themselves and surround themselves with people who believe in them,” Sfeir says. “The support ecosystem is what allows women to thrive and overcome challenges.”
Meet the 26 women building that ecosystem in fast casual.
Roz Edison & Kamala Saxton
Cofounders & co-owners • Marination
Roz Edison (pictured above) and Kamala Saxton were educators before they founded a food truck that blended Hawaiian and Korean cuisines in downtown Seattle.
“We caught the tip of the wave of a couple of flavors that Americans were opening up their palates to,” Edison says.
No longer just a food truck, Marination has grown to include three brick-and-mortar stores, the newest of which is located at Amazon’s headquarters. Each location serves a few core items and the same “aloha vibe,” but other menu offerings vary from store to store, which Edison says makes for a more fun, localized experience for guests.
Looking ahead, Marination’s sights are not set so much on unit count but impact. Edison says she and Saxton would like to establish a scholarship program for emplo yees and a restaurant incubator program called the Marination Foundation.
“We talk to people who want to start their business all the time,” she says. “So many of the skills that we learned in public education have translated over to being in a restaurant. [When] you work with a young, ambitious team, you’re constantly teaching people.”
Cofounder & CEO • Amsterdam Falafelshop
Arianne Bennett and her husband, Scott, opened their first Amsterdam Falafelshop store in a bustling Washington, D.C., neighborhood in 2004. Through company-owned and franchise stores, it has grown to four locations in the D.C. metro area and two in Boston. As the brand continues to open new shops, train staff, and consider new menu additions, Bennett says, she and Scott remain committed to bringing forth healthy, affordable food.
“Long term, we’re hoping to help a new generation of kids coming up to learn to eat fresh vegetables in a way that excites their palate,” Bennett says.
In fact, Bennett says, what excites her most about the fast-casual scene is its access to great, fresh-made food—not just pizza and subs—at all economic levels.
“A more imaginative relationship with food can temper the amount you eat and increase the quality and nutrition of what you eat. And that is good for all,” she adds.
Marian and Hannah Cheng
Cofounders & co-owners • Mimi Cheng’s
Even in New York, Marian and Hannah Cheng could never find dumplings that rivaled their mother’s. So they decided to open their own fast casual specializing in authentic Taiwanese-Chinese dumplings.
In addition to authenticity, Mimi Cheng’s is dedicated to sourcing sustainable, natural produce and meats from small farmers.
“By using quality ingredients, we are setting the bar higher and higher along with other likeminded brands, such as sweetgreen,” Marian Cheng says. “We won’t settle for anything less because we believe wholeheartedly that we are what we eat.”
Cheng says the fast-casual experience reminds her of Taipei, which is filled with mom-and-pop restaurants serving delicious food in a no-frills environment.
Cheng, who worked in fashion before opening Mimi Cheng’s, advises aspiring operators to gain restaurant experience before opening their own. Beyond that? Just be a boss.
“Be comfortable with the unknown, be resilient even when it feels impossible, and be a boss in every sense of the word,” Cheng says.