While Atlanta is often known for its airport and Coca Cola, not everyone knows that the city is home to a rather fantastic restaurant population. With various cuisines in locations around the city, these tremendous spots boast strong female leaders and are perfect for honoring Women’s History Month.
Women and the Hospitality Industry
There’s something extra warm and inviting in a woman-led restaurant. Chef Deedee Niyomkul has a theory, “Atlanta gravitates toward a woman-led kitchen where people can find comfort when times are tough. It’s a custom passed down from our mothers’ (and grandmothers) to treat our guests as family when they’re with us, so valuing those precious opportunities comes naturally. A woman-run operation tends to have extremely high regard for good food and guest experience, which will be very important in the coming years.” Owner of two establishments, Niyomkul brings Thai food to Atlanta in two forms. Her restaurant Chai Yo Modern Thai brings a modern twist to traditional recipes. Tuk Tuk Thai Food Loft celebrates Thai street food with her own family recipes.
Where They Find Inspiration
Tal Baum, the owner of Rina, drew her inspiration from her grandmother and falafels. The restaurant’s namesake, Rina, served as the powerful female influence that led Baum to open Rina. “Rina is a very personal project for me because this is where it all started. Named for my grandmother, I made sure she touches every piece of this space, from the photography of her on the walls to the family recipes we based the menu on. The energy and strength of my grandmother was a big part of my influence growing up.” The love of cooking clearly passed to Baum, who uses her family recipes to this day. “I spent so many hours cooking in the kitchen with her, and those moments are some of my fondest memories of my upbringing. She gave me my passion for cooking and serving others, and it has been a true pleasure to continue sharing that with others, Rina.”
For Chef Maria Moore Riggs, inspiration came from doughnuts. Riggs spent years experimenting with the dough, the glaze, and all aspects to perfect her recipes and opened Revolution Doughnuts in 2012- on National Doughnut Day. She continues to pour heart and soul into crafting them from scratch, “The word “Revolution” in our name refers to a dedication to hand-crafted food - to food made by people, not machines.” She credits former mentors for helping mold her, “In my twenties and thirties, I was able to work for several amazing and inspiring female business owners, and this played an important role in forming my identity as an entrepreneur and business owner.”
Cakes and family inspired Shellane Brown, co-owner of the family-run Apple Butter Bakery & Custom Cake Shoppe. When describing initial plans to open a bakery, Brown explained online, “It wasn’t difficult to decide what I should do after graduation; I just needed help. The obvious choice were my lifelong cooking partners, my mom, and big sis. We rented a space downtown, and from day one, we were booked every weekend for almost two years.” Brown and her older sister Erica Houston-Pickett bake decadent desserts and custom cake masterpieces while their mother Veronica Pickett manages the establishment. Their love of baking coupled with their love of the industry and Atlanta help make their dream a success. When asked what she loves about the Atlanta food scene, Brown told me, “I love the rise of the black restaurateurs in Atlanta, which has long been recognized as the Black Mecca’. The events of Summer 2020 brought about a Master List of black-owned restaurants topping 300 in total, which I believe any city would be hard-pressed to beat. Atlanta has created a very unique atmosphere that cultivates and displays the fullness of the diaspora through local restaurants and cafes.”
Breaking Glass Ceilings and Making Her-story
Teresa Breckenridge has been running the Silver Skillet since 1988, taking over the family business when her father passed away. “I inherited the business rather than starting it; however, I had always wanted to go into business with my Dad, but he was old school and said it was not a business for women to own and run, so off to college I went, earning a bachelor’s & master’s degree.” Despite the common gender bias, Breckenridge has been running the highly successful restaurant for decades- the Silver Skillet has been featured in movies, television, and numerous publications. Shortly before taking over the business, Breckenridge was working in the corporate world, but her love of the restaurant industry won out, “I absolutely love this industry, but it is very specific in its nature, and you either are or are not meant for this type of work.” The industry itself isn’t the only thing she loves about restaurants, “I love being around people and feeling that I have, because of the food, ambiance or servers, made that customer feel special and they would leave with a smile.”
Misconceptions surrounding a female-led restaurant still exist, but chefs and owners are finding them to be less prevalent as the years pass. Breckenridge shared, “Out of the 32 years I have dealt with the public, there may have been two or three instances where me being a “female” running a business was questioned...but I did not take it personally, I explained how things were, and that solved any doubt they may have had.”
Chef Suzanne Vizethann, owner and executive chef of Buttermilk Kitchen, shared a similar message of strength when asked about her experiences, “To be honest, I never really felt I was at a disadvantage being a woman. If anything, it gave me an edge. Were there times where I was underestimated? Of course, but that just made me want to work harder. I do hope that more women become entrepreneurs and restaurateurs but have already seen a large increase!” Vizethann opened Buttermilk Kitchen in 2012 and concentrates on sustainable breakfast foods with ingredients sourced from local vendors and sustainable partners from the surrounding states.
Moving Forward Through the Pandemic
The reemergence from lockdown saw many closures across all industries, but these restaurants and bakeries have stood firm and continue to remain optimistic. Niyomkul shared her outlook, “I think we (modern women) are seeing many more opportunities in the culinary field. The pandemic has really shaken society at its core.” Brown hopes to see safer technology implemented to better serve the public, “I hope that moving forward, our industry is better able to serve our customers through innovation for the sake of efficiency and safety, but not by sacrificing human connection. I see technology being implemented to allow restaurants to reopen, but I would hate for employees to lose their jobs and for customers to lose the personality of the local business. It’s a lot to balance, but I think it should be considered as this time will surely affect how restaurants do business 10-20 years from now.” Breckenridge also shared a message of hope, “Think positive. We will be better and will have a great deal of pride knowing that we got through this storm.”