How to Start a Feminist Restaurant: A Chat with Alexandra Ketchum

Just as Nursing Clio has covered #MeToo stories in academia, on the street, and in the bedroom, the movement plays out in the kitchen too. Conventional gender norms code everyday cooking as a feminine duty (and drudgery), while claiming professional food work as masculine mastery. Due to a host of additional challenges and barriers, a scant 19% of chefs are women, a number that shrinks to only 7% among head chefs.1 At the same time, women (often also low-income workers of color) make up the majority of the food industry’s precarious labor, including tipped positions.2 Even when women are chefs, less than 15% of media stories focus on them, as the vast majority profile male chefs.3

Related to such inequities, restaurants are responsible for more sexual harassment claims than any other industry.4 Furthermore, only 33% of food businesses are majority owned by women, though such ownership doesn’t necessarily make them feminist spaces. Given the current state of gender and power in the restaurant industry, I was excited to read Alexandra Ketchum’s short guide How to Start a Feminist Restaurant, published in an affordable zine format.

The DIY/DIT (Do it Together) guide is part of Alex’s public history endeavor, The Feminist Restaurant Project, which indexed and mapped more than 250 U.S. and Canadian feminist restaurants doing business in the 1970s and 1980s. Both components are part of Alex’s dissertation, Serving Up Revolution: Feminist Restaurants, Cafés, and Coffeehouses in the United States and Canada from 1972 to 1989, which she recently defended at McGill University in the Department of History — complete with a feminist soundtrack and Sourdough Chocolate Devastation Cake.

How to Start a Feminist Restaurant

With such attention to lived experience and multi-sensory detail, Alex’s work brings together feminist, environmental, and food histories to examine consumption and production at self-identified feminist restaurants. Alex writes that what makes feminist restaurants distinctly feminist is “their approach to workplace dynamics, supply sourcing, wage structures, and the ability to foster and support community,” while acknowledging that “feminism is an ideal that one is striving towards” that changes over time.5 Indeed, feminist restaurants were and are dynamic spaces for far more than simply selling food to the public.

Emily: How to Start a Feminist Restaurant is such a practical and activist complement to your dissertation and your public history project. What inspired you to the write this guide?

Alex: I was speaking with a colleague about the difficulties she was having in finding a space for her future restaurant. When she recounted the story of losing a potential location because of zoning issues, I immediately thought of the stories of former feminist restaurant founders in the 1970s and 1980s who had similar difficulties with zoning laws and obtaining liquor licenses. As I began to summarize how feminist restaurant owners of the past dealt with these issues, I realized that other hopeful restaurant founders would benefit from this information in a succinct form.

The other reason is accessibility. I believe that it is imperative that scholars make their findings accessible to the public in some form. I know that not everyone would want to read a 400 page dissertation or a jargon-filled journal article. Despite the value of those formats, they tend to limit the conversation to a small group of scholars. With all of my work, I try to find or create forums, such as The Feminist Restaurant Project or The Historical Cooking Project, or this guide, in which people can freely or cheaply access information about my research. My goal is that other people will build upon and utilize my work to help them investigate the topics they wish to understand.

Photograph of Alex Ketchum.

Emily: So glad to find another scholar who feels as strongly as I do about taking our research public! I also love how you position “defining your feminism” as step one for planning a feminist restaurant. How did you come to start the guide this way?

Alex: Feminism is a debated term and there are numerous approaches to combating sexism and social injustice. I believe that this diversity of approaches is advantageous because there is no single solution for the world’s problems. Certain intellectual and activist traditions within feminism — such as Marxist, radical, separatist, liberal, and ecofeminist — approach ideas about money, labor, and consumption differently. Understanding what feminism means to you can help guide the kinds of decisions you make, including what is on the menu, how it is priced, how workers are paid, how decisions about the restaurant are made, and so forth.

Emily: Based on your years of research, your guide summarizes key lessons for starting and sustaining an intentional feminist restaurant, many of which I think are fantastic guiding principles for starting any sort of feminist organization. What are the lessons that resonate the most with you?

Alex: While doing this research over the past seven years, I was often inspired by the ideological underpinnings of the work done by the feminist restaurant founders. Still, many of the lessons deal with the practical.

  1. Hiring an accountant and lawyer save time and money in the long run.
  2. If possible, spend significant time fundraising. Beginning your business or organization with a greater base of seed money will provide more stability. Obviously the reason many feminist restaurants did not start with much money speaks to the social inequities of North American society in the 1970s and still today.
  3. Don’t discount impermanent spaces. If you can’t afford to start a restaurant, ongoing coffeehouse nights are useful.
  4. Closure doesn’t mean failure.
  5. Compromises will happen. You can’t do it all.
  6. There will always be critics.

Emily: Your guide also acknowledges the challenges of running a feminist restaurant. For example, offering an affordable menu can contradict desires to responsibly source ingredients and pay workers living wages, finding an affordable restaurant location can contribute to gentrification, and establishing non-hierarchical work structures requires additional planning, communication, and empathy. What were the main challenges you observed for starting and sustaining feminist restaurants, and how did feminist restaurant owners deal with them?

Alex: Time and money. These two issues are not unique to feminist restaurants, but the ideological component of feminist restaurants rendered these issues more complicated. I’d like to quote Marjorie Parsons, one of the founders from Common Womon (sic) Club of Northampton, Massachusetts, which existed from 1976-1982. She stated that, “The money question was central. We were working under the tension of money … And money is a very hard issue … And it’s really painful.” She further recounted that financial matters were not the only cause of stress.

The founders wanted the restaurant to be a cultural center, host numerous events, and produce a newsletter. Being able to balance both ideological and practical needs overwhelmed the founders of many feminist restaurants as they also had to survive the regular challenges of running a small business. Numerous restaurant founders and founding collectives sacrificed their own compensation and personal lives in order to keep the restaurants running; this was not a very sustainable solution for the long term and led to burnout and eventual closure. Former feminist restaurant owners often reflected that they wished they had not tried to be everything and do everything all at once.

Emily: Your research engaged restaurants that self-identified as feminist as well as those that didn’t necessarily title or advertise themselves that way, even though they may have endorsed similar values. What stands out to you among the restaurants that called themselves feminist versus those that didn’t? What were (and are today) the stakes of identifying as a feminist restaurant?

Alex: Labeling one’s business as explicitly feminist is a political statement that comes with benefits and drawbacks. Boldly declaring a business as feminist draws a certain kind of like-minded or similarly-minded clientele who tend to feel more invested in the space than they would in another restaurant. However, marking a space as “feminist” leads to a different level of criticism from both insiders and outsiders of the community. On the one hand, founders have to deal with misogynists who threaten violence against feminist spaces, and on the other hand, other feminists can criticize the business practices of a restaurant, saying that they are not being “real” feminists or are doing feminism incorrectly. Whether or not a woman cooking is or can be feminist is still under debate.

Notes

  1. Clarrisa Buch, “Why the James Beard Foundation is Fostering Today’s Female Chefs,” Observer, March 21, 2018. Return to text.
  2. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, “New Report – The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry,” October 7, 2014. Return to text.
  3. Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre, “Chapter Two – From Good to Great: Food Media and Becoming an Elite Chef,” in Taking the Heat: Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen (Rutgers University Press, 2015). Return to text.
  4. Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, “The Glass Floor: Sexual Harassment in the Restaurant Industry,” October 7, 2014. Return to text.
  5. Alexandra Ketchum, How to Start a Feminist Restaurant (Portland: Microcosm Publishing, 2018), 7, 26. Return to text.

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