Cooking in Heels
Trailblazing Women in Austin's Food Business
Women have reigned over most kitchens since time began. But when cooking turned into a respectable "profession," hot stoves became the province of men. As recently as 40 years ago, top restaurants knocked a woman's work, unless it was to toss salads or plate pastries. Only in the last few decades have women reclaimed their place at some of the top culinary posts. Many of these women, with impulses to cook and ballsy spirits, designed their own careers and opened their own food businesses. Patricia Bauer-Slate of Sweetish Hill Bakery, Marilou Morales of Pasta & Company, Cathe Dailey of Castle Hill Cafe, and Stephanie Schuster of Upper Crust Bakery are just some local examples of this. Of course, if you were to recognize all the Austin women who have made their mark in the food industry, you could fill a small book. (See sidebar.)
The four women featured here all own businesses that have shaped the way Austinites eat. No doubt these women owe their successes to the kind of smart business sense that serves any well-run restaurant: love of food, responsible management, foresight, perseverance. However, they testify that to some extent their "nurturing instincts" – call it maternal devotion – suited them (as it has other women) to entrepreneurship in the culinary field. So, despite past discrimination in professional kitchens, gender in fact helped them to succeed.
I found these women compelling, as strong role models, sharp business people, and passionate cooks. Perhaps you will, too.
Sweetish Hill Bakery
1120 W. Sixth; 10th & Congress;
98 San Jacinto Blvd.
I discovered that you can't have a brief chat with Patricia Bauer-Slate. One discussion easily takes up an afternoon – mind you, an afternoon well spent.
Advice flows freely and confidently from Bauer-Slate; after all, she's been giving it soundly for years. She has seen too many cycles of business and life to be shocked by its inevitable twists and turns, even by having one business catch fire and another be robbed blind.
Bauer-Slate started baking as a child in her hometown of Philadelphia and never stopped. After studying English at the University of Pennsylvania and studying abroad in Mexico for a year, she moved to Austin, joining her sister who was living here. That was in 1969.
Her local food career began when her landlord at the time tempted her with an arrangement to exchange bread for cheap rent: two loaves of whole wheat every week for a forever-fixed lease. She took him up on it, and the baking deal held for a few years. Bauer-Slate abandoned it only for love. Marriage to a college professor afforded her the opportunity to travel and, eventually, to have a family. Note: She credits her husband's caretaking for their financial well-being over the years.
In Vienna, Bauer-Slate met dazzling chefs creating exquisite pastries. She coaxed one of them into moving to Austin and a business partnership ("Let's give these people some real good European food."). Tom Neuhaus was the first of Patricia's seven partners. "[They're] a lot like marriage," she says of partnerships, "without the sex." Still, Sweetish Hill's joint ownership has never compromised its quality fare.
The bakery first introduced Austin to fine French pastries, French bread and, through various storefronts, elegant food. As substantially, it started the trend of the Sunday morning cafe, where neighborhood folks would come for fresh-squeezed juice, buttery croissants, and rich, locally roasted coffee – much like the cafes in Europe she loved. Now, the bakery boasts three locations, offering baked goods, deli lunches, and catering.
From the beginning, though, Bauer-Slate's entrepreneurship held a more personal goal: "to create an island of sanity in a crazy world." She always assumed that her business would last a long time – she intends for it to last forever. That ambition continually renews her push forward, toward the next quarter-century in business. Check out her self-published cookbook, A Baker's 20 Favorite Recipes for 20 Years, released for Sweetish Hill's 20th anniversary. And keep your eyes peeled for other projects she has in store.
Bauer-Slate's lengthy tenure makes her "the archives" of the business, the database on which employees run "new" ideas to see how they've been tested before. She keeps memories of successes and fiascos, which arms her with a sense of tempered optimism. She's the one who gives you the bad news first – that "it doesn't ever get easy" – and she gladly shows you her business scars. To the newcomer, she mixes encouraging words with gentle warning: "If you're smart and young," she says, "you've got time to fail." And, in her case, continually succeed.
Pasta & Company
3502 Kerbey Lane
A few hours chat with Marilou Morales gets you a dose of straightforward advice and opinion. Her presence is both comfortable and unassuming, much like the specialty food shop she runs. Pasta & Company features take-home fresh pastas, fresh and frozen Italian entrees, sauces, other Mediterranean gourmet items, and fantastic, affordable wine (She collects some herself).Morales has occupied the far end of busy Kerbey Lane for 15 years, entering the food business at age 37 after retiring from a successful nursing career.
Most restaurateurs learn a love for food at an early age and generally credit a person or significant meal for sparking their gustatory passion. As is the case with many women, Julia Child inspired the teenage Morales to prepare many a homecooked meal and to pursue cooking as a serious avocation, or as she puts it, "an unbelievably tense hobby."
Morales moved her nursing work from an intensive care unit to a private doctor's practice to raise a young daughter. Of all things, an ad for a specialty pasta shop in a Seattle newspaper caught her attention. Austin hadn't seen anything like it, but the Seattle shop's owners convinced Morales of its potential to succeed here.
Morales is most impressive for her obvious common sense, the characteristic that led her to open a limited food business rather than a high-turnover restaurant. Remember, this is not only her second career, but one she came to without professional cooking skills. Still, even a take-out/catering business requires a near-fervent pledge of duty, as she puts it, "like being called into the ministry." It demands "the commitment of a zealot." "Women," she suggests, "are very good at giving of themselves the kind of time [that a business needs]."
This same stick-to-it-iveness and passion for work ensured Pasta & Company's success, even in rough times. In 1995, Morales opened a second shop in Westlake, a growing suburb that tempts many centrally located businesses to open satellite stores. But the market's potential remained unfulfilled; this location shut down nearly a year after its debut.
Despite increased competition in recent years, Pasta & Company continues to rank high on customers' lists for consistency in quality and personal service. Morales' own store presence is strong and easy. Regular customers see her face every time they stock up on pantry items or pick up dinner. Her business aims to keep the promises it makes, "so that every customer has a great experience." In turn, it's obvious how much satisfaction these clients bring to her job – the casual compliment about a sauce, the occasional conversation about weather or kids. She treats her employees to fair salaries and her customers with complimentary holiday champagne. Because she runs a low-key business, she'll admit, "If someone says something about me, I'm so damn grateful I can't even see straight."
Castle Hill Cafe
1101 W. Fifth St.
Dailey is the most traditionally trained restaurateur of the four in this profile. She worked her way through the industry folds, holding various posts as waitress, cook, and manager. And, like many entrepreneurs, she and her then-husband David opened a business for themselves after years of feeling frustrated by the way other restaurants were run. Dailey's own role at Castle Hill Cafe is a long way from the post she held once as a government clerk in her Canadian hometown. No doubt, sharing a high-profile restaurant with her husband moved her career (and possibly her marriage) along faster than if she had stuck to the kitchen line.
Castle Hill's food is decidedly "global" and has remained so despite culinary trends that mass-market this style and potentially weaken its appeal. But Castle Hill's success revolves not just around stunning food (which her chef-ex-husband creates), but also around quality service – attentive and quick, consistent and methodized. Dailey is an innovator: Castle Hill was the first Austin restaurant not to take reservations (now they do for parties of more than six), was the first that didn't seat a full party, and the first to offer a large selection of affordable wines by the glass and the bottle. This last fact alone had a huge impact on the way other restaurants in Austin sold wine.
For Dailey, being in business for yourself is about being able to make your own rules. She began with "a vision of wild success." She saw bustling crowds being served inventive, reasonably priced food by a sharp waitstaff – the kind of place she would want to go eat. Twelve years of successful business proves her prescience about Austin's great food scene and testifies to her hard work. Like the other women discussed here, she only took off days for sick time throughout the first full decade of work.
The fact that Dailey still considers her high-volume business "small" attests to her continued involvement in its daily operations. She's the one who cleans the baseboards and dusts the tops of pictures. And though she mostly manages, she'll expedite in the kitchen on a Monday night or fill in on the line when staffing requires it. The fact that 80% of her employees have been with Castle Hill for seven or eight years proves that Dailey is fulfilling their expectations of her.
Upper Crust Bakery
4508 Burnet Rd.
Stephanie Schuster joined her sister Valerie's bakery after its fourth year in business. She's put in her share for the last 10 years, especially since taking over the operation one year ago. Before Upper Crust, Stephanie worked with various businesses, serving as general accounting support, and her empirical mind lends itself naturally to the intricacies of business management.
No wonder, then, that Schuster turns to the life-example of children's book illustrator Tasha Tudor for inspiration. Tudor's life of serene self-sufficiency motivates Schuster to consider her own life apart from "the craziness of the modern world." True, the restaurant business is anything but sane. "I overheard someone say that a restaurant is the second most stressful business there is," she told me, in awe that some other work could top it at number one. But her interest in "being part of a bigger picture" and in enabling her personal growth – both clear objectives of her business – enrich daily tasks. She keeps these things in mind when business doesn't run as planned, as when Rosedale's gourmet takeout, which she opened next door to the bakery in 1993, closed within two years due to slow business from increased competition. She's now converted some of that space into extra seats at Upper Crust.
Perhaps this picture of Schuster is deceptively peaceable. She's familiar with unfathomable levels of stress; if her business doesn't provide some, her five (!) kids at home will. But in reflective moments, Schuster unveils this truly serene side to which the business owes much for its success. Upper Crust maintains its reputation as a quality bakery, which has grown into a limited lunch place. It remains a quintessential neighborhood haunt.
These four business owners, as well as many of their female colleagues, show women how to create opportunities for themselves in the food field. In particular, their businesses exhibit different ways to enter restaurant work and, though it was once unheard of, merge a career and family: Three of these women had kids to help rear; the fourth shared the restaurant with her husband. And now, as a result of their efforts and the efforts of women like them, teenage girls learn to pair "chef" with "doctor" and "lawyer" when thinking about their careers; culinary associations entice young women with scholarships to professional schools; local high school programs train women and men in catering services; and women increasingly pop up in the best Austin kitchens.
Of the four women featured here, none had professional culinary training, none had venture capitalists at her back. They didn't have the benefit of trailblazers; they were the trailblazers. And, for all their talent and confidence, they've manage to straddle two largely male worlds, of restaurant managers and chefs.
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