Hot Bread Kitchen, founded in New York City in 2008 by baker Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez, has been working for over a decade to provide training and placement for women in the restaurant industry. It's ramping up its services just as a very different foodservice sector is emerging from the COVID-19 crisis.
As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, the restaurant industry looks much different than before we locked down. Long heading toward a reckoning, the people driving one of the hardest-hit industries will have to determine what its future looks like.
Pre-pandemic, foodservice workers already faced a slew of challenges, including long hours, low pay, mistreatment and a culture that ground workers down — especially those who felt they had nowhere else to go. But it is a huge employer. According to the National Restaurant Association, the restaurant industry brought in sales of $799 billion in 2021, which, although down from pre-pandemic levels, is still significant. The trade group also reports 14.5 million people are employed in the industry, 1 million down from pre-pandemic levels.
There are myriad reasons why so many people have left employment in the restaurant industry, such as the permanent closure of restaurants (90,000, according to the National Restaurant Association). But it remains an attractive option, despite the challenges, due to the low barrier to entry. On its face, it offers a career ladder. Some workers enter the industry because of their passion for food. But in reality, it is known as a meat-grinder for those at the bottom of the industry’s hierarchy.
Women, in particular, have traditionally been relegated to more of the low-paying jobs and have suffered sexual harassment and lack of advancement opportunities in the industry. According to an analysis by the Brookings Institute, nearly half of all working women worked in low-wage jobs with median earnings of $10.93 per hour before the pandemic. The portion of women working lower-wage jobs was higher among women of color. And the National Restaurant Association reported that while women hold the majority of restaurant jobs, they hold significantly fewer management positions.
Rodriguez had seen firsthand the inequities facing women in the baking industry. She wanted to center women in the industry: To start, basic job skills training eventually included a business incubator focusing on small businesses in the food sector led by women of color and a full culinary program.
The program has been so successful that Hot Bread Kitchen moved into a former Food Network space in Chelsea Market in New York City’s Meatpacking District last month. Google, one of the organization’s major partners, provided the space.
Seeing the impact of the pandemic on its “breadwinners,” as program participants are called, Hot Bread Kitchen changed tack. “We really focus on economic mobility for more and more women to use the food industry holistically,” Leslie Abbey, the CEO of Hot Bread Kitchen, told TriplePundit. With that in mind, in addition to increasing the number in their cohorts, the organization will open outposts throughout New York’s five boroughs to meet women where they live.
They rethought their training during the pandemic. “We had to take a hiatus from in-person culinary training,” Kristine Borok, chief operating officer at Hot Bread Kitchen, told TriplePundit. “We started thinking about other training programs and what we could do virtually. We piloted a deeper digital skills program and thought about what are the basic elements and skills that a woman needs to sustain economic mobility.”
To that end, Hot Bread Kitchen added facility management training and bridge training, which includes all the attendant skills one needs to success in the industry: English as a second language classes (in partnership with La Guardia Community College), digital skills training, and financial literacy training.
The Hot Bread Kitchen team also mapped out a strategic plan for supporting small businesses, especially micro-businesses run out of women’s homes during the pandemic, with plans for e-commerce training. The organization continued to expand its roster of partners. Google, one of its biggest employer partners, helped leverage other partners to join the effort.
For their part, Abbey and Borok both emphasized that they are careful about selecting employer partners to ensure their breadwinners receive quality jobs with a career path. They are also cognizant of the fact that women, especially women of color and immigrants, have a history of mistreatment by the industry. “We can’t keep putting women into jobs knowing there’s another side to this industry,” Borok told us. “It’s a system-wide approach. Employers are now willing to have a conversation they couldn’t have five years ago. It’s about a high-quality job, a schedule you can count on, future for growth, relationship with your manager, and a non-toxic environment.”
Hot Bread Kitchen has launched women into high-quality food industry jobs not only by giving them training, but also by raising their confidence. The team running Hot Bread Kitchen deliberately chose to call its graduates “breadwinners” to reflect not only the women’s positions in the workforce, but also in the community. “To support women in this field is a three-sided triangle: social support, economic mobility, and housing," Abbey said. "You can’t have one without the other. Working in a multifaceted way around economic mobility, by starting businesses, gaining skills, making jobs better for the women who are taking them.”
Harkening back to the origins of the organization, Borok noted that when Rodriguez founded it, she wanted to center women and baking. “Bread and food created a brand of warmth,” she said. As the latest Hot Bread Kitchen cohort graduates this spring, they represent women armed with skills, confidence, and ideas to help transform the restaurant sector into somewhere they can not only survive, but also thrive.
Image credit: Hot Bread Kitchen
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.