In honor of Mother’s Day, we put a single question to five veteran moms of New York City’s food and beverage industry: What did you learn about the needs of your staff who are parents when you became a mother—and how have you worked to implement that in your business?
We were blown away by their answers. Here they are, edited for clarity and length:
I was opening two restaurants in the middle of a huge lawsuit when I got and stayed pregnant after many miscarriages. I was completely traumatized. I went back to work, at Txikito, six weeks after my daughter was born, because my husband had knee surgery and had to stay home. I didn’t feel ready; I was bringing my kid to work every day until my general manager said, “You need to stop.” When I was pregnant with my son, my water broke at 27 weeks, and we wound up opening La Vara while he was in the NICU for two months. So, I know what it’s like trying to breastfeed and get sleep and having no downtime.
We just had our first employee go on maternity leave for three months. When she comes back, she’s going to have all her friends there. She’s got a daytime schedule, as do most of the women who work for us. Any conflict she has, we’ll accommodate.
In the last few years, as men have moved up and out of our kitchens, there have been more women coming to us to learn skills. It’s a positive thing for the kitchen, but I wouldn’t equate it with progress—yet. Four of the women now are moms, and they just want to provide for their kids. Seeing them lift themselves out of … not poverty, because poverty in the kitchen is an unfortunate way of life until somebody wants to pay the price of food. But these women are not just outperforming the men who had the same positions; they’re outperforming anything they ever thought they could do.
One of things about having women in the kitchen is that it’s been great for the men, too. When you need somebody, you help them and are kinder to them. I’ve also seen women who are at odds with each other connect around motherhood and completely change how they treated one another at some breaking point. The funny thing about kitchens is that these women end up there by accident. But it changes them, and they change it.
Mom to Elliot (2) and another on the way any day
The second you have a child, you start thinking about paid [parental] leave. But Nitecap is a tiny little business trying to survive the hustle and bustle of a big city with rising rent and labor and product costs. So, I worked my entire maternity leave, and I’m planning on doing the same thing this time around—although I won’t be working shifts anymore.
I haven’t had anyone on staff get pregnant, but I have had a dad with a baby, and I managed to give him three weeks of paid paternity leave. And inevitably when you’re a parent, your kid gets sick, something always comes up. The staff here has always been incredible at stepping up, even if they don’t have kids themselves. I hope he felt supported.
But I don’t know how I would handle it with a mom. I would want her to stay home and bond with her baby, and of course moms need to heal. My absolute goal would be to figure out some sort of paid solution for her, but I’m honestly not sure how, because we’re not some big company. And the other reality is that somebody has to work this person’s shift and there’s only so long anyone can cover for her. I would want to give this person her job back, but the question is, can you? I’m in the luxurious position as owner where I have business partners who can step in and do some of my work, but I’m not the one at the bar at 4:00 a.m. making drinks for last call.
Still, the one thing the restaurant and bar industry has going for it is it’s all about being flexible; everyone steps in for each other and everyone’s schedule is a living, breathing thing. As a new mom, I felt very supported. I would bring Elliot in on the day the bar was closed; he’d be sleeping in the bus bin with different staff coming in and watching him. He was strapped to me during service when I was working shifts again. I was pumping at work constantly, on Friday nights when the line was out the door; I’d have to step off the floor when my breasts were going to explode and the whole staff would rally together and figure out a way to make those 30-minute breaks work for me.
We’re not these trailblazing women suddenly having kids in in this industry. Waitresses all over the country have been having children forever. You just become superhuman, and if you’re lucky enough to have a partner, that person turns into a superhuman, too. My husband didn’t get paternity leave, so he was working bar shifts, coming home at 5:00 am, with the baby up at 6:00 am. That was really challenging. We have to find ways to support our dads, too.
Two years into the Good Fork, I found myself pregnant with my daughter. I didn’t know how hard it was going to be! I thought, I guess I’ll step out of the kitchen at some point. Then I was eight months pregnant, still flipping pans, and the doctor said, “You’re due in four weeks, it’s hot as hell, you’ve gotta take a break.” Going back to work with children—I didn’t realize how hard that was going to be, either.
Getting pregnant with Jasper helped crystallize the notion that this is a family-owned and -operated business. But we were always very focused on creating a hospitable work environment. We understand life is not always about work; family is always first, and we try to be accommodating—we’re closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and one week out of the year.
We have a young crew now but in the past we’ve had single moms and people with families be part of that team, and because we are so aware of what family life demands, we understand hopefully more than others. I’ve worked at places where people were afraid to talk to the chef when the family had an issue. We’ve tried not to say “no” as much as possible.
Years later, at Insa, we wanted the same philosophy. Since Insa is five times as large as the Good Fork, I put into practice the stuff I couldn’t do fully before. We started Insa with a no-tip policy; that was to accommodate various friends who are single moms who wanted to be paid well but couldn’t work on Fridays and Saturdays—the money-making days. We said, “Every shift will be $27 an hour.” A business that treats employees better—paid time off, maternity leave—has good retention and team values. Fortunately for us, legislation in the city has done wonders. Minimum wage is now $15. Is it hard for a business? Of course, but you become smarter about running your organization. We’re back to tipping, and we’ve always been flexible with people’s schedules, because it makes a difference in the community we’re building.
It was a long time ago but it’s not forgotten that the day-to-day of having little ones is very challenging. The oldest came to work with me till she was five months old; then I hired a part-time nanny, and that’s how I was able to navigate childcare. When my pastry chef had her daughter, she joined my two kids with the nanny, so we had in-house childcare at my house a block-and-a-half from work. Kids used to come to work on school vacations. Sometimes they would help bake or pack books. Our only current employee with elementary-school-age kids is our bookkeeper, and she’s in our office only two or three days a week, and she leaves by 3:00 p.m. so she can be home.
I think that women in hospitality are pushing hard now. We formed up with #MeToo in New York and are moving across the country to bring more awareness to women’s needs, pay equality in the workplace—and certainly accommodating for childcare and childbearing is part of that. Something that as an employer makes me nuts is that when it comes to parental leave, you have to give the same to women and men. That seems wrong to me. Women bear the children and have their own body recovery to contend with. It might be radical, but I think women should have longer leave. Not every delivery is a breeze, not every recovery is easy, and some people need more time than others. A return to a job should be completely guaranteed, but if there was a way to afford more maternity leave for mothers, that would be good.
You have to strike a balance between what a business can afford and what’s right for the person and her needs. That’s how it evolves. You have this set of legal parameters you work with, then you navigate individual needs amongst those rules. Job sharing is something we’ve done; we’ve had a number of employees who were parents of school-age kids who wanted to work a short schedule from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. while their kids were at school. But we also need a living wage and childcare.
Our vision of the future is that women can have equality in the workplace. I think that this industry in general is moving in a better direction because more women are becoming a part of it. The food industry is very life giving; you ought to be able to do that in your own family as well.
A couple of years ago, a friend of my sister’s started working for us part-time. She has a child the same age as Eloisa, and I assumed she’d want to work mornings, and that that would be the easiest time to get care. But you can’t make assumptions. For her, it was easier to do closing because she’s a night owl. I learned that you have to keep the conversation open and ask a ton of questions.
When I first became a mom, I really needed time with my kid most of all. Understanding that somebody else here could want maternity leave, we’d have to have an earnest conversation about what that could look like. For starters, we’d be super flexible about when she came back. We wouldn’t set a deadline, and we would find a job that works for her in the business; we have roles that aren’t shifts but work-at-home. So many places do their scheduling week-to-week, which is ridiculous. For parents who worked for us before, we did four- or five-week schedules because we wanted to keep things consistent; it’s hard to arrange childcare otherwise.
We always tried to do things before they were required of us. For example, we wanted to offer to pay for a portion of health insurance. Small businesses have a lot of bills to pay, and right now it is really difficult to envision being able to have paid leave. I want people to be able to spend time with their children but I don’t know how we could facilitate that while facilitating rates of pay for employees. Obviously tax support to do that would make a world of difference.