Women making strides on restaurant floor as managers

General Manager Jill Maynard, in the dining room at High Cotton, says her role is “making sure they know there’s someone taking care of them.”

Morgan Calcote has seen the confusion in some FIG customers’ eyes when they scan the dining room for a manager to help them select a Grenache or explain the fish stew: “People are like, ‘This person who’s not zooming around in a power suit, is this the person in charge?’ ” she says. Even after Calcote approaches the table, a few of the more old-fashioned diners require reassurance. “Are you a hostess?” they’ll ask warily.

While studying business at the College of Charleston, Calcote was a hostess at Oak Steakhouse. But she worked her way up through the restaurant industry, last summer earning a promotion to general manager, the top restaurant job outside of the kitchen. FIG is now one of about six upscale restaurants in the Charleston area to employ a female general manager. At least half of the women were promoted within the past year, suggesting that front-of-the-house hiring is entering a new era.

Much of the attention to female leadership in the restaurant sphere has centered on chefs, who have notoriously grappled with sexist attitudes and hostile workplaces on their way to establishing themselves as powerful industry figures. Comparatively, media interest in front-of-the-house female achievements is so subdued that one of the top Google hits for “female restaurant general manager” is a user review of working at Twin Peaks, a Texas-based “breastaurant.” (By contrast, 10 pages into a search for “female restaurant chef,” the links are still along the lines of a San Francisco Chronicle story lamenting the dearth of women on a list of rising stars.)

Yet gender imbalances persist on both sides of the swinging doors, with women accounting for 45 percent of food service managers nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The federal government doesn’t differentiate between fast-food restaurants and venues such as FIG, but it’s likely the percentage is considerably less impressive when low-paying and corporate restaurants are taken out of the equation.

For example, 21 percent of head chefs in the U.S. are women. But when Bloomberg Business last year analyzed 160 head chef positions at 15 restaurant groups described as prominent, independent and ambitious, it found just 6.3 percent of them belonged to women.

Such a stark gender disparity may reflect the longstanding male dominance of kitchen jobs. Although the monopoly is gradually eroding, six out of every 10 cooks is a man. That explanation doesn’t apply to the dining room, though, where men are scarcely represented: Women hold more than 70 percent of serving jobs and 85 percent of hosting jobs.

Possibly the longest-serving female general manager at a top Charleston restaurant is Jill Maynard, who holds the post at High Cotton. Like Calcote, Maynard didn’t grow up dreaming of a hospitality career. She went to school for fine art, then accepted a position at an advertising firm. Disenchanted with the field, she ended up in her first restaurant job. After moving to Atlanta, Maynard stuck with service, joining the staff of Bacchanalia.

Opened in 1993, Bacchanalia frequently surfaces in discussions of women and restaurants. Chef-owner Anne Quatrano, considered a pioneer in the industry, was a perennial James Beard Foundation best regional chef award nominee back when the entire female field typically consisted of Judy Rodgers and Nancy Silverton. (Quatrano won in 2003.) Maynard credits Quatrano with nurturing her interest in becoming a food-and-beverage professional.

“I just thought she was great,” says Maynard, who was referred to Maverick Southern Kitchens by Quatrano in 1997.

Since stepping into a leadership role 16 years ago, Maynard says she’s tried to mentor female staffers in similar fashion.

“I’ll take female employees under my wing,” she says, noting that she’s helped three women enroll in the Court of Master Sommeliers’ introductory course. “And I have noticed in the kitchen that we have a lot more females wanting to be chefs, just like I was inspired by Anne Quatrano.”

In addition to making the restaurant feel more receptive to female staffers, Maynard says her presence is welcomed by female customers, especially those with young children.

“They’re really warm to me,” she says. “It’s nice to see another lady out there.”

Female chefs are often asked whether they approach their jobs in a uniquely feminine way. While all of the general managers interviewed for this story say gender doesn’t have any bearing on their performance, Calcote suspects the emotional sensitivity traditionally attributed to women is an advantage in the dining room. She remembers FIG co-owner Adam Nemirow ribbing her when all of the servers on the floor were women.

“He was like, ‘Are you going to hire just girls from now on? What’s going on?’ ” she says. While the male-to-female ratio at FIG fluctuates, Calcote maintains that “women are drawn to caretaking. When I was a server, I never thought about how much money I made. It’s satisfying to have a night where people feel great.”

The appalling behaviors that female chefs have encountered along their career paths are legendary. Thrillist this spring compiled an index of horror stories shared by New York City chefs, including being banished to the “pink dungeon” of pastry, daily greetings with phallic vegetables, forced viewings of porn films and having to use bathroom stalls without doors in coed bathrooms. General managers, at least around Charleston, are apparently subjected to far less chauvinistic bullying.

“In the culture we work so hard to maintain, respect is given and received,” Calcote says firmly.

Maynard reports the only gender-related challenge she faced after becoming a general manager was her family’s anxieties about her being alone downtown at night. “I didn’t notice any men making those same calls (home),” she says. Christine Parkhurst, recently appointed general manager of Hank’s Seafood Restaurant, also has had to shrug off chivalry: “The server assistants like to take plates out of my hands a little more,” she says. “They’re Southern gentlemen.”

Parkhurst has an infant daughter. During the day, when her husband is making pasta for Jacques Larson’s restaurants, she’s on parenting duty. At night, the couple switch off. Over the course of her nine-year run at Hank’s, Parkhurst had talked to executive chef Frank McMahon a few times about the possibility of a promotion. But “things just didn’t fall into place,” partly because of family obligations. “This time,” she says, “it’s perfect.”

According to Maynard, the hours associated with being a general manager — it’s not unusual for a general manager to arrive at noon and leave after midnight — have historically deterred some women from pursuing front-of-house careers. That’s less true now that 9-to-5 jobs have become nearly impossible to find. “Even outside of our industry, hours are becoming more irregular,” she says.

When Maynard settled on a career in hospitality, it wasn’t just scheduling that gave prospective employees pause. In the 1990s, restaurants didn’t have the cachet they claim now. Women who hoped to thrive professionally feared their opportunities would be limited if they got paid to count liquor bottles and correct reservation books.

“It wasn’t accepted as a real job,” Maynard says.

The growing stature of restaurants has reshaped the public image of high-level hospitality careers, which call for diplomacy, salesmanship and beverage expertise, among other skills. And Calcote is confident that even the most mossbacked diners will eventually catch on.

“As people’s savviness about restaurants increases, the assumption that the manager is a man is going to disappear,” she says.