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Local event celebrates women in the food industry

March 27, 2017

It’s no secret that the restaurant business - especially the back-of-house (kitchen) component - has always been sort of a “good ol’ boy” fraternity. Last weekend, I was asked to help dispel that lingering impression by assembling a panel of high-profile restaurant owners - all women - who were willing to talk about what has changed, and perhaps what has not. 

Delmarva Broadcasting Company’s seventh annual Women’s EXPO at Peggy Raley’s Nassau Valley Vineyards was the perfect spot to put these entrepreneurs on stage. Audience members sat in rapt attention as Lisa DiFebo Osias of DiFebo’s in Bethany and Rehoboth, Meg Gardner of the iconic Blue Moon in Rehoboth, and Meghan Lee of Lewes’ relatively new Heirloom restaurant spoke of obstacles they overcame to realize their dreams of restaurant ownership. 

The newest restaurant, Heirloom, was recently constructed out of a dentist’s office at the corner of Third and Savannah in Lewes, so seasoned restaurant manager and owner Meghan Lee’s memories of the project were not far below the surface. She recounted (in humorous detail, by the way - anyone who knows Meghan knows what I mean) how she had to deal with legions of males; from the drywall hangers to the designers; from the kitchen equipment salespeople to bank loan officers. Some - not all, mind you, but some - treated her downright condescendingly, in spite of the fact that she had done her homework in terms of design, concept, budgeting, business projections, etc. As a seasoned restaurant manager, she was having none of it, and sent the worst of the bunch packing as she proceeded to bring the project in under budget. You don’t mess with anyone who has managed successful restaurants for any length of time. 

Lisa DiFebo Osias, restaurateur and classically trained chef in her own right, still encounters food wholesalers who try to pass off questionable product, thinking she won’t know the difference. After her graduation from the Culinary Institute of America, she was the first woman to ever be invited to return there to join the teaching staff. Woe be it to the purveyor who underestimates this upbeat chef, owner and mother of three! 

Meghan Gardner’s involvement with the Delaware Restaurant Association’s Educational Foundation has brought us closer together since I was fortunate enough to partner with Touch of Italy to fund our own Culinary Scholarship Foundation. Meghan started as a busgirl at Blue Moon under the original owner and founder, Joyce Felton. Like Joyce and original partner Victor Pisapia, who maxed out their credit cards and sold their cars to build Blue Moon, Meghan, her husband Lion and their two partners worked hard to scrape up the necessary funds to purchase The Moon from Joyce. 

Having worked her way up into management, the transition to owner was a bit smoother for Gardner. But she still encounters the occasional employee who assumes that working for a woman will be an easy job. Well, not this woman. Like Lisa and Meghan, Meg is happy to say exactly what she feels, and even happier to establish boundaries, procedures and rules to be followed in her restaurant. Or else. 

It wasn’t easy narrowing my choices of female restaurateurs down to three. There are so many women here in the Cape Region who could have easily sat on that panel elbow-to-elbow with Meg, Meghan and Lisa. Yolanda Pineda of Mariachi, for example. Or Danielle Xiong of Confucius. Or Susan Wood and Semra Tekmen from Cultured Pearl and Semra’s Mediterranean Grill, respectively. Also high on the list is pastry chef and Palate Bistro co-owner Lorraine Papp. Around the corner is Michelle Davis, the namesake and co-owner of Michy’s Relaxed Dining. Bethany Beach diners are lucky to have Marian Parrott of Sedona and Patsy Dill Rankin of Patsy’s cooking for them, not to mention Patsy’s daughter Robin’s new spot, Pie. A bit farther south is the wildly popular upstart One Coastal, expertly co-owned and operated by the terminally bubbly Carlie Roberts. She might be bubbly, but don’t cross her.... 

Entrepreneurs Doris Lynch, Sue Krick, Nancy Wolfe, Sydney Arzt and Alison Blyth are forever woven into Rehoboth history with Doris’ Captain’s Table, Sue’s Summer House, Nancy’s Chez la Mer, Sydney’s Sydney’s, and Alison’s LaLa Land, Yum Yum, Go Fish! and Go Brit!. 

Lisa Frampton co-owns and operates three busy eateries, Pig & Fish and Pickled Pig Pub in Rehoboth Beach, and the new Pig & Publican in Lewes. She is the quintessential hands-on owner, somehow capable of appearing in all three restaurants at the same time. The new Rehoboth breakfast spot Egg is ably owned and operated by Missi Moore, with Victoria’s restaurant (along with that big hotel) operated equally well by co-owner Jen Zerby. Both of Rehoboth’s juice bars, Twist and Juice Box, are owned and operated by women, along with our downtown gourmet specialty stores (Joy Quinn Whalen at Spice & Tea Exchange, and Olive Orchard Tasting Room’s co-owner, Laura Hannu-Eckrote). Gladys Fernandez’ Cilantro, Back Porch Café co-owner Marilyn Spitz and Victoria Kopunek’s Red Square all run smoothly under female oversight. Co-owner Lisa Leonard is the smiling face in the front of house at 208 Social, which replaced the old Stoney Lonen, founded by then-co-owner Nelia Dolan. 

It’s of course a foregone conclusion that I missed somebody, but Cape Gazette (co-owned by a woman, by the way!) rations me only so much ink to splatter on this page. But you get the point: Move over, good ol’ boys: Women are here to stay in this business of eating.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

    Masthead photo by Grant Gursky. Used with permission from Coastal Style Magazine.

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