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Martha Hoover Keynote Address at FAB Charleston

This past week, members of our team attended FAB Charleston, an educational and inspirational hospitality workshop created by women, for women. Gathering in Charleston to hear the stories, wisdom and truths of what it means to be in hospitality from women of all backgrounds and from all over the country was truly magic - including the opportunity to hear from two of our own; our director of culinary sustainability, Rachael Hoover & founder, Martha Hoover. Below is the transcript of Martha Hoover's closing keynote address:

As essayist, poet, and feminist thinker Adrienne Rich wrote in the 1950s, "The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet". There are so many times throughout history of women coming together- channeling compassion, humanity, and mostly rage into action. I mean if you weren't someone someone that the church would have wanted to kill 400 years ago, I kind of don't want to know you.

Transformative force is what interests me. The real question for me, as I leave FAB, is how I take all this energy, these conversations, the shared information - information packed with compassion, humanity and sprinkled with rage - how I take it all and continue to translate what I have learned into real change.

The one thing I am certain of is that you can talk about flaws all day, you can talk about ideas, you can be inspired, but for change to happen, change has to happen.

I founded Patachou in 1989, before food was a thing, at a time when restaurants had no social cache, before chefs were represented by talent agents and had corporate sponsorships, some 20 years before anyone ever used the term “farm to anything” and 12 years before Whole Foods or Starbucks had a single location in my city.

Today, my company is known in our community for several things: its quality of food and quality of customer experience for starters… I mean, at its most basic, isn’t that what all restaurants are known for? But, we are also known for our quality of staff experience, our commitment to sustainability and our commitment to community.

Building a values-aligned organization slowly, strategically, and mindfully is the focus of my work. We didn’t decide in June of 2020 to start thinking about our values, to do a DEI course, or to pat ourselves on our back for paying people respectful wages. Values have been part of our DNA since the day I opened my first restaurant. And, by the way, all companies, all restaurants have values-so put away the idea that bad businesses don’t have values. They do. They are just bad ones.

In 1989, I did not know that the practices I was putting in place were at such odds with an entire restaurant industry- after all, I opened my first restaurant having never worked in one. Yet, 32 years after opening Café Patachou, I remain in disbelief that my company’s values are still at odds with most of our industry, and since the restaurant industry is a true mirror of society, Patachou’s values are also at odds with those of our larger society.

According to the NRA (National Restaurant Association), there are over 1 million restaurants in the USA today, with an estimated workforce of 15 million people.

It is not good enough that one woman, me, is doing things differently, or that one restaurant group, mine, is doing everything in its power to do it the right way. It is not even good enough that there are a hundred of “me” or even a thousand of “me” doing everything in our power to do it the right way. In an industry as complex as the restaurant industry, one broad brushstroke cannot describe us all, but the number of restaurants doing it the” wrong” way is powerfully overwhelming.

I take significantly less pleasure today knowing that my company is distinguished because we treat staff well and because we care about our community in a transformative way. Simply put, Patachou operates sacred spaces; spaces that honor customers, staff, and our community alike; spaces that are welcoming, respectful, and supportive to all; spaces that understand the social contract we enter with each staff member, each customer, each vendor, each neighbor.

And while these values, especially now, should give my company an amazing edge in a very crowded, very competitive landscape, they don’t. People still choose to work in, and customers still support flawed restaurants. There is little incentive out there for change.

But, even if providing sacred spaces to work in and dine in was our sole advantage in the competitive landscape, I’d give up this advantage in exchange for common standards of human decency that recognize the value of all the human toil that goes into making a chicken salad sandwich or a piece of cinnamon toast.

Bottom line is that most, if not all, industries and sectors of the economy are terribly flawed by an out-of-touch work culture that promotes the efforts and opportunities of certain people by devaluing the worth of others. It is no longer good enough to have one or two, or even 100 or 1,000, examples in each sector that are doing it right.

Everyone here knows about the barriers that exist for women, even more so for women of color and those who identify as LGBTQ. You all live the challenge. I broke that glass ceiling wearing stilettos. After all, I am an educated white woman with a non-chaotic home life with the ability to go to a bank and borrow money. Others are forced to wear heavy hiking books weighed down by rocks to crack that ceiling.

We are literally cock-blocked from access to leadership and access to opportunity today by the same issues I was forced to deal with in 1989: systemic misogyny, lack of media coverage, lack of access to investment capital, lack of access to opportunity for advancement, lack of access to daycare - and healthcare. And no different from ten years ago, when the New York Times published an article on the best chefs, a list that failed to include one woman or one person of color, Forbes published its list of the top ten highest paid athletes in the world just last month, a list populated entirely by men. 

But knowing we are not the only broken industry does not make it any better. It honestly makes zero sense to me. We know that when women are involved at the highest levels of decision making, outcomes improve. Strongest case in point: We know that empowering women, and girls, is the number one climate mitigation strategy.

By extrapolation, lifting women and giving them access to power has the highest chance of ridding our systems of their ills, including the ills in our own industry. 

Dr. Pooja Lakshmin is the co-founder of Gemma, an organization specializing in women’s mental health. She says it best. “As women, we learn that it is our job to walk through a maze of contradictions to take our culture’s conflicting values and norms and to gobble them up, chew them and ingest them, when what we should be doing is spitting them out”.

“The norms, expectations and responsibilities imposed upon us as women, women of color, and other intersectional identities are overwhelming. We are expected to accept this and when we respond with stress, discontent, (or anger) we are conditioned to think that it is our problem.”

For change to happen, change has to happen.

Disappointing all who continue to place the expectations and responsibilities imposed on by a culture gamed for my failure on my shoulders …well, this is my new goal. I’m not the only one who uses toilet paper in my house, why am I expected to be the only one who knows when we are running low? I am not the only one who owns restaurants and employs people, why is it expected for me to make these changes, when others are given a pass? 

I revel in the idea that change is part of our DNA. I, for one, like creating change not because I then know who to blame or give credit to but because I trust myself more than I trust a system that keep telling me that I’m not supposed to succeed. 

Learn to trust yourself.

Which leads to my closing points, I am often asked how I succeeded as if there is a simple cure. Well, here is my secret: simply and audaciously put, I am today, as I was in 1989, delusional AF about my own abilities. Leaning into my own delusion has been my secret weapon. Society changes as delusional ideas become embraced is an idea that just keeps encouraging me.

And, if you are going to be delusional, make sure your delusion serves you well. Buying into any negative subtext such as imposter syndrome simply keeps you doubting your power.

Feel free to spit out all that you find inedible.

Feel free to disappoint those who expect you to carry the mental and emotional load society places on your shoulder.

Give people what they don’t know they need, instead of giving them only what they want. Dare to make changes that actually matter. Seasonal menu changes shouldn’t be the only change restaurants are known for.

Restaurants are the most representative industry in our society, in our economy. They are true mirrors of what our communities look like and how they function. Isn’t it time that they look and act like us?

I have been nominated 6 times for a James Beard Foundation award in the category of restauranteur of the year. I lost 6 times to a group populated mostly by men - all distinguished by their food and the span of their empires, but none of them distinguished by their transformative work culture. In closing, here is what I wrote as a salve to my hurt feelings. I hope you find it as a final piece of inspiration from FAB:

Patachou restaurants are favorite places, and that is my goal. It is not that we do not try to be the best at everything we do; yes, we would love to win a James Beard Foundation award, we would love to be in Food & Wine or Bon Appétit. We know we deserve to be because of the attention we pay to ingredients, the quality of our food, the quality of our customer service, the quality of our staff experience, our commitment to the community and our practices that help improve the restaurant industry. But our focus is truly to create places where staff becomes family, people become regulars (even wishing that if they lived close by they could come daily). Places that last and become institutions. We might create spaces that don't appeal to everyone, but everyone is always welcome. Everyone. Across generations, across the city a mix of customers and staff who feel that we are extensions of their home and reflective of the diversity of our community. A real mirror to society.

Thank you.