November 22, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In the case of the restaurant business, only about 20% of head chefs are women, according to 2016 U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

Those who run kitchens know the job requires planning menus, prepping ingredients, hiring staff, ordering supplies, putting in long hours with few breaks, pleasing customers, investing time and money, and creating opportunities to grow. And a passion for food.

As head baker, chef, certified sommelier, and owner of Farine + Four, Ellie Pegler knows full well the hard work running a business requires. Before launching her organic bakery-cafe near 30th and Leavenworth streets, the Lincoln, Nebraska, native trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York and worked at some of the city’s top restaurants.

She moved back to Nebraska to open Farine + Four, which offers an assortment of sweet and savory baked goods, breakfast and lunch fare, coffee drinks, chocolate bonbons, and more. The business, which turns two in January, fills a void in the local culinary scene, said Pegler, who also produces baguettes, buns, croissants, and other baked goods for more than a dozen restaurants around town.

Pegler is among a growing number of women restaurateurs. Between 2007 and 2012, women-owned restaurants increased by 40 percent, according to the National Restaurant Association. The data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 Survey of Business Owners. A 2017 report has not yet been released.

Although many women co-own or manage restaurants, the restaurant business is a traditionally male-dominated field. In Omaha, where the food scene continues to diversify and gain national attention, there are a number of women-owned restaurants, bars, bakeries, coffeeshops, and cafes. Running a successful restaurant can be tough for anyone, but women face unique challenges. Some argue that women restaurateurs have a harder time obtaining startup capital and getting recognition. There are other hurdles, too.

Pegler, who started working in professional kitchens as a teenager, said women in the restaurant industry too often are not taken as seriously as men. Confident, assertive women, particularly those in leadership roles, are sometimes seen as angry or mean. She’s had to deal with male employees who questioned her authority and resisted taking direction from her. And, Pegler said, she’s “constantly expected to be motherly” because she’s a woman.

Popular midtown diner Lisa’s Radial Cafe is known for its hearty breakfasts, big crowds, and casual, friendly vibe. Open since 1940 at 40th and Cuming streets, the business changed hands a few times before Lisa Schembri and her family bought it in 2000, adding “Lisa’s” to the cafe’s name. When Schembri ruptured her aorta in 2003, daughter Jennifer Maguire stepped in to handle day-to-day tasks. After Schembri’s death in December 2016, the family made the decision to keep the
Radial going.

Maguire said it’s rewarding to be able to carry on the tradition. “I’ve learned a lot from my mom, but I think the most important thing I’ve learned is the value of relationships with your staff, customers, and vendors,” Maguire said. “The cafe’s success is based largely on those relationships and our
family atmosphere.”

Every job has its downsides—but for women, it’s especially tough. Women in the restaurant business are held to a higher standard, Maguire said. “We have to work twice as hard to prove to our male counterparts that we have what it takes, and we have to be likable while doing it.”

But being a woman-owned business also has its advantages. There are resources available for female entrepreneurs, including becoming a certified woman-owned business, which can help bring visibility and lead to opportunities for growth and networking.

The culinary world can be even more difficult for women of color. Big Mama’s Kitchen and Catering founder Patricia Barron opened her soul food restaurant in north Omaha when she was 65. Her age, along with her race and gender, put her in the position of having to shatter several glass ceilings at once.

Barron died in March 2018, but her family continues to run the business. Daughter Gladys Harrison, former manager and now owner, said her mom’s plan to start a restaurant was met with pushback from lenders, who thought she was too old to start a business and, despite decades of cooking and catering, lacked experience.

In 2007, Barron realized her dream of opening a restaurant. Her made-from-scratch soul food dishes, sweet potato desserts, and warm personality drew customers. Business took off in 2008 when Big Mama’s Kitchen was featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. The restaurant also appeared on the Travel Channel and Sundance Channel.

Big Mama’s will soon move from 45th Street and Bedford Avenue to its new home in the Highlander Accelerator Building, a commercial and community center at 30th and Parker streets. Harrison is excited to be a part of the revitalized north Omaha neighborhood and to fulfill a promise she made to her mom. “She said, ‘Gladys, that’s your charge, to take the restaurant to the next level.’”

Many new restaurants fail in the first year. Keeping Big Mama’s Kitchen going for 12 years brings Harrison and her family a sense of accomplishment and pride. While obstacles exist, those who are persistent, creative, willing to embrace technology, and prepared to work hard, Harrison said,
can succeed.

She urged aspiring restaurateurs to sign up for entrepreneurial classes, explore mentorships and apprenticeships, and learn how to write a business plan and market themselves. “This is the time for women,” Harrison said. “I encourage any woman—whatever you want to do, do it.”


Visit farineandfour.com, @lisasradialcafe on Facebook, and bigmamaskitchen.com for information about the featured restaurants.

This article was printed in the December 2019/January 2020 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.