(LEX 18) — Restaurants have had an extraordinarily challenging year. From closures to restrictions, business has been majorly impacted by the pandemic.
For female restaurant owners, it has been an even more isolating experience due to the industry being male-dominated and the unique challenges women face in general. A chef in Chicago wanted to change that, and now her mission is at work in Kentucky.
To know Kentucky food is to know Ouita Michel. Her name is synonymous with local cuisine and excellent restaurants, but even she has struggled through the pandemic.
"It's been a very, very difficult time," Michel said.
Lara Swan, owner of Lexington's Great Bagel & Bakery, said the early days of the pandemic were nothing short of a nightmare.
"The feeling for us was shock. Really, truly terrified," Swan said.
There was no rule book. There was no one to look to who had been through this before, and for a female restaurant owner, who in a good year might feel isolated, was facing even more unique challenges.
"During Covid it became almost impossible," Swan said. "Many of us have kids, a lot of us have multiple restaurants to run, and doing all of that without the aides that we normally have made it... I want to say super traumatic."
But they certainly were not alone. In fact, states away in Chicago, another chef was feeling the same fear and confusion. Rohini Dey started a program in her city called "Let's Talk," a sounding board for other female chefs and restaurant owners to turn to during the pandemic.
"Rohini felt that women should have their own conversation, and she also felt like they could help each other," Michel explained.
Dey's vision grew and spread to regions across the country including Kentucky. Michel was tapped to head up the local chapter now called Kentucky Duchess. Since September they have been meeting the first Wednesday of every month, commiserating, trading ideas and learning they were never as alone as they felt.
"It just created an opportunity to come together and come together in this really small group of women who can relate," Swan said.
Together, they have identified 700 female-led or owned food and beverage businesses in the commonwealth, and they say they are just scratching the surface. Their goal now is to create a directory. They want to create something to help make women-owned businesses that were once invisible in the community visible and generate resources should anything like this ever happen again.
"Driving people long term to these businesses is what will give us the financial stability in the future to weather any storm that might come our way," Michel said.
If you know of a female-owned or led food and beverage business in Kentucky that should be added to the Kentucky Duchess directory head to www.kentuckyduchess.org. This can include cottage businesses or farms.
For International Women's Day, March 8, Kentucky Duchess is putting on a special event at Honeywood in Lexington. Details on the event and more about Kentucky Duchess are below.
Snack Queens Seven-Course Menu
Snack Queen Chefs unite, bringing you a menu of seven shareable snacks for one-night-only. Pick a few or get them all. Each item available a la carte or the whole slew to share with a friend! The menu includes plates like • Savory Chevre Cheesecake, Katy Startzman (Native Bagel Company) • Apple Manchego Salad, Allison Davis (Wild Thyme Cooking School) • Scallops & 24 Hour Braised Bacon, Debbie Long with Mark Richardson (Dudley’s on Short) • Jaffna Coconut Chicken Curry, Sam Fore (Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites) • Grits and Grillades, Melissa Jackson (Doodles) • Quesabirria Tacos, Kristin Smith (Wrigley Tap Room) • Trio of Financiers, Martine Holzman (Martine’s Pastries) • and a complimentary amuse bouche from Ouita Michel and Hannah Arvin. Renee Saunier Brewer of Wine and Market will lend her expert sommelier skills to pair wines for the entire evening.
The Kentucky Duchess Snack Pack
Bagels, baked goods, spices, sauces, cocktails, cider, wine & more… Libations and snacks thoughtfully sourced from the Central Kentucky Duchess community including Lara Swan (Great Bagel & Bakery), Renee Brewer (Wine + Market), Toa Green (Crank & Boom Ice Cream), Sam Fore (Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites), Ouita Michel (Ouita Michel Family of Restaurants), Martine Holzman (Martine’s Pastries), Greta Wright (Wise Bird Cider Co). Packed in a Kentucky Duchess tote for $85, available for pickup!
Both available for pick-up and delivery! Reservations for in-person dining can be made at www.honeywoodrestaurant.com for March 8th, 5:30-8:30!
About Kentucky Duchess
Kentucky Duchess is a league of ladies who own and operate within the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s food economy. Highlighting women entrepreneurs in the food & beverage industry, the Kentucky Duchess directory was created by founders: Lori Beck (Holy Grale, gralehaus) Brooke Vaughn (Please & Thank You), Ouita Michel (Ouita Michel Family of Restaurants) & Lara Swan (Great Bagel & Bakery).