Women play integral roles in keeping U.S. restaurants rolling along, and the industry provides both sexes with the chance to learn vital skills, develop work habits and advance into higher-level careers, according to recent research from the National Restaurant Association.
More than half of U.S. restaurants are either owned or co-owned by women, according to the NRA. Women were the sole owners of 24.7% of “accommodation and foodservice” businesses as of 2014, according to a separate report from American Express, but that study also found that, as women ownership grew in other business sectors, only 2.3% of the women-owned businesses in the U.S. were in the foodservice industry.
The Amex report doesn’t break out how many of the restaurants are franchises, but earlier research by the International Franchise Association revealed that sole ownership by women dipped between 2002 and 2007, the most recent year measured. The report found that 12.5% of franchised restaurant were owned by women and 25.7% were equally owned by men and women in 2007, compared to 13.2% and 20.3% respectively in 2002.
Cassandra Stokes became a franchisee in 2007 when she opened a Wingstop in her small Texas town of Nacodoches, the first step in moving into the restaurant business after 26 years in the Navy, including time in the reserves and time on active duty. Stokes has also spent much of her adult life raising a family — she and her husband have a total of nine children — and dreaming of creating her own restaurant concept someday.
Now, she’s making the most of her franchise ownerships in Wingstop and Newk’s Eatery, a concept she bought into to open her second restaurant, to raise the funds and learn all aspects of the business.
“For me this was planned many years ago, 20 years ago, that I would open up several franchises in order to gain the knowledge would need to do my own concept,” she said.
Stokes did her homework to find concepts that fit with her values and her desire to do fast casual, she said, and once she saw Wingstop and later Newk’s, the decisions were easy. “Wingstop was the right fit with my philosophy. Then, when I knew I needed to move up to another level, something more intense with a bigger menu, then Newk’s became that one,” she said.
Making it happen wasn’t quite as easy as choosing the concepts, though. Securing financing was a hurdle, despite her military record and thorough business plan, she said. None of the five male bankers who turned her down said it was because she was a woman, and they all said her plan was solid. “It didn’t matter that I had cash to put into it, they just didn’t want to take the chance,” she said.
It was a woman bank president who finally agreed to make that first loan, she said. “I have so many loans with her now, I do so much business with her. All my kids have accounts with her and I recommend that bank all the time.”
Getting franchise financing was tougher all around during the recession, but the recovery may have come with opportunities for franchisees of both genders.
“In the past several years, I see more and more women getting loans, and more and more are pursuing being business owners,” she said.
Andrea Cheek, a Newk’s franchisee in the Dallas/Fort Worth market, opened her restaurant two years ago after assembling a team of investors and securing bank financing. The loan wasn’t immediate, but it didn’t take nearly as long as it did for Stokes.
Both Stokes and Cheek say that franchising has proved as rewarding as they had hoped, but being the boss came with a learning curve.
Stokes’ career included a stint in the aerospace industry before the Navy, and in both places she felt that as a woman she had to work harder to be taken seriously. As a franchisee she studied not only how to manage, but specifically how to manage people of other generations. As a result, she said, her turnover at Wingstop has been below the industry average for six years.
“In military, you have a captive audience,” she said. “After moving to the restaurant industry, it took some time for me to realize the generational differences. I read a lot of books on it, and it taught me a lot about what certain generations expect, how they work best with their teammates and such I really found it quite intriguing, and it was rewarding to get people to excel, to motivate them.”
Cheek’s age issues with her employees went in the other direction. She was 28 and a former marketing consultant when she opened her restaurant. “Now my hourly employees respect me, but in the beginning the staff was mostly older than me. For some of them it was hard — it’s mostly a male dominated industry. It ended up working out just fine eventually.”
It helped that Newk’s policy is to have new franchisees travel to the Jackson, Miss., headquarters and work as an hourly employee every day for a month. “I did all the job, that gave the managers and the hourly workers a level of respect for me. I know it’s hard work, but I don’t ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. They’ve seen me cleaning bathrooms. “
Both women say family support is key to their success and their ability to grow. Cheek’s lawyer husband has been known to buss tables in a business suit and Stokes hopes some of her children will want to take over management of her restaurants one day.
Operating the franchise helped Stokes get the means to buy a historic building downtown that will someday house her new concept, she said. Before that, she’ll open a second Newk’s location. Since 2011, she has also been mentoring the next generation of Wingstop franchisees.
“I think women are very well suited for the restaurant industry,” she said. “You have to be a people person, you have to want to develop your staff and your crew members, there’s definitely a nurturing thing you need to have. Then obviously you have to have the good business sense as well. A a lot of times women are very organized they’ve learned to multitask really well.”
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