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Shaping the Industry’s Direction

The cover of a 1983 issue of FEDA News & Views highlighting the accomplishments of prominent women in the foodservice equipment and supplies industry.

By Bridget McCrea
Contributing Writer

The impact women have had on the foodservice equipment and supplies distribution industry has been evident from its earliest days and has only strengthened with opportunity. Among the first people to shape the modern industry was Fannie Jacobs, who went from earning $4 a week working for her uncle’s hotel supply company to founding her own distribution business, F. Jacobs, in New York City in 1912. Notably, she was one of the first distributors to provide full service to the hotel and foodservice industries, rather than focusing on a single product area, such as tabletop — a business model that remains prevalent today.

Jacobs was an outlier back then — a woman who pioneered significant growth in her industry eight years before the 19th Amendment was ratified, when she, like all American women, didn’t even have the right to vote. As stated in a 1983 FEDA News & Views article highlighting women from across the industry and Jacob’s career, “Her accomplishment in building a successful business in the early days of this century is even more remarkable when the ultimate success for a woman in this business at that time was as a non-obtrusive secretary or owner of a small restaurant.”

More than 100 years later, women in leadership roles are far more prevalent. Since 2015, the number of women holding senior executive positions at corporations in the United States has grown from 17 percent to 28 percent, with the representation of women in vice president and senior vice president levels “improving significantly,” during that time, according to McKinsey & Co. Further, a 2023 report from the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship found that of the 33.2 million small businesses now operating in the United States, nearly 13 million are women-owned, accounting for $1.8 trillion in revenue and employing 10 million people.

Just as Jacobs was an innovator in the foodservice equipment and supplies industry as it transitioned into the 20th century, women today are moving their companies into an era of digital transformation and changing business models. In the following pages, FEDA highlights some of the women who are driving dealers forward through innovation and excellence.

Building a Network
Although substantial progress continues to be made, the same 2023 Senate committee report said there is “a gap in mentoring opportunities that could help women start their journey to entrepreneurship or advance their business interests.” Fortunately, various industry groups have been closing that gap for more than 40 years.

One of the earliest industry organizations to focus on women for leadership development was the Roundtable for Women in Foodservice. Founded in 1983 by Zelda Baum, a former executive director of the Manufacturers’ Agents Association for the Foodservice Industry (MAFSI), the Roundtable for Women in Foodservice was inspired by President Ronald Reagan’s national women’s business ownership conferences and its objective was to provide the vehicle for a support system in helping women to move into positions of greater responsibility in the foodservice industry.

The Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF) and the Women in Foodservice Roundtable (WIFSR) would follow suit by focusing on the advancement of women in all segments of the foodservice industry. Fast-forward to 2024 and Therese Gearhart, CEO and president of WFF, says she’s seeing more women fill leadership positions in the foodservice equipment field. “Have we made progress? Yes,” she says. “Is it enough? No, and that’s because the ability to sustain that [progress] depends on building a pipeline that feeds an increase in — and acceleration of — the pace of women moving into leadership roles.”

It’s a sentiment shared by McKinsey, which noted slower progress for women at the manager and director levels, with representation only growing three and four percentage points, respectively, since 2015. The global consultancy attributes that to a “weak middle in the pipeline” — the very people groups like WFF are trying to reach. Put simply, Gearhart says, the right training, mentoring and succession plans must be in place to keep the momentum going.

Gearhart also sees mentorship and role modeling as two of the top strategies companies can use to encourage more women to join the leadership ranks. To help, WFF offers skill development, coaching, career path development, role modeling, peer group networking, and other services.

The New Kid on the Block
While groups like the WFF have done a lot of work to support women in the wider foodservice industry, the equipment and supplies segment has not had a group focused solely on its needs. That changed in 2023 when Jennifer Ward, chief revenue officer at Atosa USA, worked with a group of fellow industry leaders to found Women Industry Leaders (WIL), for which she serves as founder and president. After it debuted at the National Restaurant Show last year, WIL began signing up board members, setting up its online presence and coming up with new ways to “empower, educate and mentor women” in foodservice. 

“The group’s purpose is to increase awareness of gender diversity and inclusion, creating a supportive environment for women in the industry, creating networking opportunities, mentorship and support for those that are newer to the industry and obviously advocacy and empowerment,” says Ward, who started in the industry 33 years ago. At that point, she says there were “very few women in any role of any capacity.”

In the three decades since, Ward has seen a progressive shift over to more women fulfilling leadership roles in the sector. “It’s amazing to see the evolution,” she says. “In my opinion, there’s still room to grow, but I do think we’ve started to see a shift of inclusion and a focus on the leader’s knowledge versus their gender.”

The Future Looks Bright
While the networking opportunities provided by industry-wide groups are often wide ranging, individual companies are also doing more to promote the development of their female employees. As the foodservice industry has become more global, complicated and sophisticated, many best-in-class companies have started their own employee resource groups (ERGs) and other internal initiatives focused on fostering diverse talent development. This is a positive sign, says Sarah Lockyer, chief brand officer at The Elliot Group, an executive search firm founded by Alice Elliott. Elliott is notable in the foodservice industry for her past involvement with groups such as the Women’s Foodservice Forum and the Roundtable for Women in Foodservice, having won the group’s prestigious Pacesetter Award. She is also the co-founder of The Elliott Leadership Institute, a not-for-profit dedicated to executive leadership development.

“At The Elliot Group, we believe that strong leadership is similar across the board regardless of age, race, gender or any other differentiating characteristics. Strong leaders are strong leaders,” Lockyer says. She advises aspiring foodservice equipment and supplies leaders to sharpen their skill sets and stay up to speed with technological advancements like artificial intelligence. “Women today are [dealing with] positive industry trends, both in the foodservice world and from the human capital perspective,” she adds. “Best-in-class companies want diversity in their senior ranks and boardrooms and are expecting to see and support diversity in the senior ranks.”  

Lucy McQuillan
President, Alto-Shaam

Patti Chesney
Vice President of Merchandising, Hubert Company

Penny Hutner
President and CEO, Advance Tabco

Tricia Powers
Executive Vice President, B&G Restaurant Supply

Jennifer Galanis
Chief Growth Officer, TriMark USA

Stephanie Bean
Vice President of People Strategy and Human Resources, Ace Mart Restaurant Supply

Christina Barker
Vice President of Marketing and Digital Sales, The Middleby Corporation

Patricia Bible
President and CEO, KaTom Restaurant Supply

Teresa Asbury
President, Commercial Division, The Legacy Companies

Erica Motes
President, Ice-O-Matic

Kristin Cotter
Vice President of Contract Administration, Singer Equipment Company

Jamie Arguello
CEO, Grady’s Foodservice & Equipment

Jennifer Ward
Chief Revenue Officer, Atosa

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