The Sugar and Spice Summit brought women in major food organizations to Harris Hall Saturday for a round of panel discussions, Q&A’s and…samples.
The first panel, made up of Gale Gand from TRU, Christine Cikowski from Honey Butter and Mindy Segal from Mindy’s Hot Chocolate, revolved around being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
Gale started out by working as the only woman in an all-male kitchen environment.
“I developed a rough exterior and very foul mouth to survive,” she said. “The idea was to not be dependent on others. You don’t want to be the weak link.”
Cikowski has operated an underground restaurant called Sunday Dinner Club for the past 12 years with her business partner Josh Kulp.
Four years ago, they also opened Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Avondale to expand their business and capitalize on one of their most popular menu items.
She advised women interested in the restaurant industry to find a female chef to work under and find a supportive, equal-opportunity environment.
“Try to seek out places that actually care about their employees,” Cikowski said. “Make sure you go to work at a place where they actually are going to care about you and nurture you.”
Moreover, these women had interacted with and eaten food made by each other.
“I’m sitting in the middle of my two culinary heroes, who inspired me to become a chef,” Cikowski said.
Segal said that she had first eaten Cikowski’s fried chicken at Sunday Dinner Club a few years ago.
“I sat there the entire time and bawled,” she said. “That was when I first met Christine. I was like, ‘this chick is bad-ass,’ and apparently, I like bad-ass people.”
In her restaurant, Segal’s philosophy centers on equality, creating an atmosphere where there’s no difference between her, the dishwasher and the soux chef.
“I get really offended when people call me Chef,” she said. “I hate that word, because my name is Mindy. I don’t call you dishwasher.”
Monika Shah and Anna Besse are Kellogg students and have worked at organizations such as Tyson and OpenTable.
“Hearing Gale and Mindy interact was actually really entertaining and insightful,” said Shah, who has visited Hot Chocolate multiple times. “It’s cool to see these companies grow in scale.”
Besse attended the summit because she wanted to hear more about these women’s experiences and learn more about Chicago’s food scene.
“This event is awesome just to make people aware of different roles you can have in the food space,” she said.
The second panel, titled “How Millennials Want to Eat,” featured Amanda Topper from Mintel, Lauren Drell from Sweetgreen and Erin Byrne from 312food on Instagram. They discussed how organizations were building their brands to capture millennials, incorporating features like one-to-one customer service and neon lights into their storefronts.
They discussed social media and the emerging culture of sharing dining experiences with one’s peers.
“The way a restaurant starts to think about retaining a customer has shifted,” Byrne said. “There’s a different way of thinking about how great food and great experiences might bring someone back, even if it’s not the same someone.”
The emerging culture of sharing dining experiences with one’s peers on social media through apps like Instagram is impacting restaurants’ marketing strategies, she said.
“They’re more likely to take a photo, go stand by the window, get good lighting and post it to Instagram,” Byrne said.
Drell, a Medill alum, applied her journalism skills to a job in branding at Sweetgreen.
“You can still tell really good stories,” she said. “You don’t have to undermine the integrity of a story just because it’s associated with a brand.”
The third round explored food entrepreneurship, with Mackenzie Barth from Spoon University and Alice Cheng, who runs Culinary Agents.
Barth, one of the Northwestern alums who runs Spoon University, felt compelled to follow a more nontraditional path after college.
“For me and for a lot of folks out there, you have an entrepreneurial itch,” she said. “It doesn’t go away.”
Cheng had wanted to create Culinary Agents, a networking site for food and hospitality professionals, for years. To raise money to turn her idea into a feasible organization, Cheng contacted many investors.
“What ended up tipping the scale is when you get FOMO,” she said, referring to the slang acronym that stands for ‘fear of missing out.’ “How can you make it seem like everybody wants to give you money – even if they don’t – without lying?”
She ended up raising $2.5 million in her seed round.
Even with appropriate funding and resources, one of the biggest challenges of running a startup is recruiting a diverse group of people to help the organization operate.
“It’s really building this leadership team that has a bunch of different experiences,” Barth said about Spoon University’s team of 22 employee. “The beauty of having a young, scrappy team is that people are willing to figure it out and work really hard.”
In the final event of the summit, Aarti Sequeira spoke about her experience after graduation pursuing broadcast journalism at CNN and then doing a complete pivot to explore the food industry.
She had dreamed of working at CNN ever since she was a little girl, and landed a job there shortly before graduating from Medill in 2000. However, she eventually lost her passion for broadcast, she said.
“It’s really powerful to have a very strong idea about what you want to do with your life, but don’t get so attached to it that it becomes your identity,” she said.
She found success at Food Network hosting her own cooking show, Aarti Parti, citing Ina Garten from Barefoot Contessa as one of her inspirations. Being a charming host requires more than just great recipes, she said.
“I wasn’t watching her necessarily so that I could make the recipes,” she said. “I was watching her because I like her. I like hanging out with her and feeling fabulous in the Hamptons.”
One of the biggest lessons she’s learned since graduation is that people can decide their own futures.
“You’ve basically been in school all your life. There’s been a manual or textbook for every aspect of your life,” she told the audience. However, there’s no right or wrong way to do things, she said. “Everyone’s making it up as they go along.”