Colorado’s culinary scene continues to trend toward gender equality but still has a long way to go, particularly when it comes to female representation in leadership positions. The evidence is in the numbers.

While women nationally represent 52 percent of employees in the restaurant workforce, the numbers diminish the higher you climb up the ladder. An analysis of Michelin-starred restaurants worldwide indicates that only six percent are led by women. Furthermore, only about 20 percent of head chef positions in the United States are held by women, with female head chefs earning 90 cents for every dollar a male head chef earns.

To celebrate Women’s History Month, 5280 spoke with five local culinary pros to get their takes on how it can feel to be the only woman at the table, the power of empathetic leadership, funding opportunities and gaps for women, and advice for other women looking to break the glass ceiling.

Food and drink is still a boy’s club.

While women in key kitchen roles may be few and far between, the numbers start to change when you look at ownership, especially in Colorado. One-third of restaurants in the Centennial State are majority-owned by women, and another 14 percent are owned equally by women and men, per research from the National Restaurant Association. However, the lack of female representation—everywhere from the boardroom to the kitchen—is still an issue.

Gaining respect in the male-dominated wine world isn’t easy for female professionals. Nicki McTague—CEO of the Infinite Monkey Theorem, a majority woman-owned and operated winery based in RiNo—started in the industry as a 22–year-old in 2005 and faced challenges due to her gender. “As I climbed my way to the top, I was offered to take minutes in board meetings, which felt like the only skill they thought I could succeed at, and sat in many meetings where only men were addressed,” she says. “I often felt like my voice was never heard.”

Kim Le. Photo courtesy of Kim Le

Kim Le is the owner of the recently opened Sesame Sandwiches and the wholesale Asian-inspired grab-and-go business Playground Eats, as well as the head of Little Big Fridge, a nonprofit that provides stocked outdoor fridges in neighborhoods facing food insecurity throughout the Denver metro area. She recognizes that being the only woman in the room can be a double-edged sword.

“It’s always male dominant, and I feel that everywhere—no matter if it’s at a restaurant or the warehouse where we are getting our ingredients,” Le says. “When you’re the only woman, you’re the unicorn that everyone wants to talk to—or doesn’t want to talk to.”

Empathy holds a high value.

Karen LuKanic. Photo by Lucy Beaugard

Female leaders tend to be more compassionate and empathetic than their male counterparts, which can benefit employees. In fact, a study of more than 1,000 U.S. workers found that a vast majority of employees feel that mutual empathy between company leaders and their peers leads to increased efficiency, job satisfaction, and even company revenue.

“Half of my staff calls me mama bear. It’s a huge compliment. I’m not sure I would’ve had that perspective [when I worked for] Walt Disney or AEG where you had to be tough as nails,” says Karen LuKanic, who has owned Chef Zorba’s, a decades-old Greek diner in Congress Park, since 2018. “People need to be able to ask you for things without feeling scared. I’ve told my employees, ‘If you’ve got bills or school you’re worried about, or if you need help, tell us.’ I’ve personally paid for smoking cessations, rehab, and lent them money. It’s worth it for their peace of mind.”

Le is also passionate about making sure her staff is treated well, even if that means not taking home the lion’s share of the profits. “With things like inflation, if the [problem with operating a restaurant] is high food costs, maybe we’ll change a few ingredients or give most of our bottom line to staff,” she says. “My main concern is making sure my employees are taken care of. Other people might say I’m green, but I’m trying to revise what the books have written about the restaurant world—how the numbers should work and how people talk to each other.”

There are funding opportunities—and gaps.

Balancing restaurant finances is a precarious task—more than 220 restaurants in Denver closed last year, with rising food costs and minimum wage increases playing a major role—but getting off the ground is a feat in itself.

Starting a business as a woman can be especially difficult. In one study, women-owned companies received 70 percent of the funding that men-owned companies received, an underfinancing that’s likely more severe for entrepreneurs of color. While funding opportunities specifically for women have expanded in recent years, there is still progress to be made.

Jen Peters of Just Be Kitchen. Photo courtesy of Jen Peters

Jen Peters, the owner of Just Be Kitchen, a seven-year-old gluten-free eatery with locations in LoHi, DTC and Boulder, shares her experience facing rejection from multiple banks when trying to launch Just Be as a single woman. “The question that I was constantly asked by these banks was if I had a husband involved in the business with me,” she says. “I don’t know if that would be asked of a single man. We ultimately got our initial funding through a female-led bank, B:Side Capital.”

Peters also advocates for larger denominations of funding for women. “I have found that the women-specific grants are in denominations of $2.5k or $5k,” she says. “I think the key is getting awards, grants, and funding opportunities for female-led companies in higher denominations that allow us to drive the business forward.”

That said, funding is out there, and according to Le, it’s important to seek out. She’s found success with resources such as the City of Denver’s Climate Action, Sustainability & Resiliency programs for small businesses, as well as the Denver Foundation. “How long you can stay in the game depends on your access to finances,” she says.

Work-life balance is especially challenging.

The struggle to balance demanding work hours with family life is a common one for women, including Le and McTague. Le put it best: “Women have responsibilities we sometimes didn’t ask for.”

“I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I also wanted to be a good wife, daughter, sister, friend, godmother, and, eventually, a mother,” Le says. “Before going into the food and beverage industry, I took things slow and worked on myself, my mental state, my health, and my relationships, because I knew once I started my business it would take up all of my time.”

Women still perform more childrearing and household labor than men, and that can take its toll when you’re also leading a culinary business. For McTague, it’s been tough to figure out the right work-life balance. She puts in 60 to 80 hours of work per week as CEO of Infinite Monkey, while still raising a one- and two-year-old at home. “I am home every night for bedtime and bathtime, but sometimes I’m back online at 9 p.m. finishing emails,” she says.

Hannah Hopkins. Photo courtesy of Hannah Hopkins

Hannah Hopkins, owner of Steamboat Springs’ Yampa Valley Kitchen, Mambo Italiano, and Bésame, is the mother of three and likes to involve her kids in culinary ventures to ease the pressure of balancing work and family duties. “It’s tough raising a family while working the strenuous hours that the restaurant industry demands,” she says. “However, I incorporated my family life into the restaurants. All my kids were raised in them and became a part of them, which made it all very rewarding.”

Words of Advice for Women in Business

Stay humble. “Build your circle of trust and find your niche,” Le says.

Don’t take things too personally. “I think you have to get a coat of armor on, let stuff bounce off you. A lot of it is a test to see whether or not they can steamroll over you,” LuKanic says.

Find a mentor and support the next generation of female leaders. “At Infinite Monkey Theorem, we work with great organizations like Girls Inc. and Project Glimmer that support young girls and nonbinary students, where we donate 20 percent of the proceeds from certain products to their causes,” McTague says.

Be ready to put in the work. “I think that the worst advice I was given was if it’s your passion, it won’t feel like a day’s worth of work. Just because it’s your passion doesn’t mean it won’t be hard,” Peters says.

Develop your perseverance. “I have never been one to give up. I really don’t look at mistakes as failures. I look at them as opportunities to grow,” Hopkins says.

Sara Rosenthal
Sara Rosenthal
Sara Rosenthal is a freelance writer based in Denver focused on hospitality, restaurants, real estate, and art.