Mary Dixon: Rohini Dey is the owner of Vermilion, an Indian-Chinese restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. Since 2020 she has been working to support other women restaurant owners through a program she founded called "Let’s Talk Womxn." Dey spoke with WBEZ producer Cianna Greaves about gender disparities in the industry.
Cianna Greaves: So talk to us about some of the issues facing women restauranteurs.
Rohini Dey: It's a tough industry for anyone, Cianna. It happens to be a lot tougher for women. The one that is common to all women entrepreneurs is obvious, which is lack of finance. Literally 4% of loan dollars goes to women entrepreneurs, 4%. Which is why 95% of women entrepreneurs don't crack the $1 million revenue level. And that is a killer, for the amount of work that they're doing, you could be getting four times the rewards. And you could be scaling and growing into mega groups like you see so many of that are owned by men, right? So that is one aspect. The second is a bit of a catch 22. If you don't have the money and the resources, you can't invest in promoting yourself and getting visible, and then you tend to be on the fringe. And so you're not the celebrity or the media darling, or you don't get to that because you don't have the resources to get there or be noticed. I'd say maybe half of women restaurateurs tend to be either with their spouse or family, you know, or a celebrity that's backing them. But half of them are on their own and they tend to be isolated because if they don't have the benefit of a mega restaurant group, it's a very challenging industry. You're dealing with all your IT, your legal, customer liability, 90% failure costs. That can get out of control very fast. So that it's somewhere you need concrete help.
Cianna Greaves: How is "Let's Talk Womxn" addressing these issues?
Rohini Dey: Our purpose is very narrow and single minded. It is to boost each other's businesses collaboratively. And that is it. Every month we have a session where we will explore a business issue and tear it apart, whether it is compensation, or sourcing, or social media - how does that convert into traffic, or additional ways of getting revenue? So, through that, we share and pool our knowledge and it's fascinating how much we take away from these conversations.
Cianna Greaves: What are you hearing from - is there a particular issue that these owners are facing at the moment? Especially coming off of COVID.
Rohini Dey: Yeah, initially was literally survival. They were racking up debt. They didn't know how to operate, as - nor did I. Now we've swung a long way from that. It's still equally difficult, Cianna. Because now we're trying to make the math work. Our labor costs has gone up, skyrocketed and some of it is by choice because many of us choose not to do the tip credit model, which we think is unethical. And we want to pay the minimum wages and we want our employees to get tips and service charges above that. And so many of us have that model. The second is every cost has gone up: food costs, supplies, bottlenecks. So making that math work is proving to be very challenging across the country, I hear, I'd say a third of us are scaling back their operations in some way. We're not able to open as much as we want because of this bottleneck.
Cianna Greaves: How can the restaurant industry support women entrepreneurs?
Rohini Dey: So "Let's Talk Womxn" has been around for two years, right? If I could roll out that one year immersion program for women to get from line to ownership across 50 different restaurants in Chicago. Within two years, we'd have a very different playing field. So it's eminently doable. The question is who has the will?
Cianna Greaves: Rohini Dey the owner of Vermilion restaurant and the founder of "Let's Talk Womxn." Thank you so much Rohini for joining us today.
Rohini Dey: Thank you.
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