On Jan. 29, some of Pittsburgh’s most successful women in the restaurant industry gathered at Merchant Oyster Co., in Lawrenceville, to share their experiences and advice with an invited audience. Jessica Lewis of or, The Whale/Merchant Oyster Co., Cat Cannon of Federal Galley, Sarah Shaffer of Tina’s, and LG Swanson of Spirit sat down for a panel discussion about running a restaurant; working in a male-dominated kitchen or behind the bar; the meaning of mentorship; and more. Answers edited for length/clarity.
Where was the first place you worked in the service industry, and what was one take-away?
Lewis: The first place I worked was in New York [City] after culinary school. I was a line cook. I only had male chefs at that time. I worked for Vanguard in Philadelphia for about two years before that, so everything was very corporate and diversified and politically correct. That was my first thrust into a not very politically correct environment. You learn to fend for yourself.
Swanson: After freshman year [of college], I applied as a hostess and got quickly promoted to cocktail server at Carson City Saloon on South Side. I made a lot of money. Did not wear a lot of clothes. Did not, in retrospective, have the most self-respect, but I was just so excited that I had all this cash and still had time to be in school full time and go on auditions and rehearse. Growing up training my whole life to be a professional dancer and actress, I’d come from a super competitive environment, and that was my first workplace experience where it felt like family.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to young women starting in this industry?
Shaffer: Perfect your handshake. It’s something my father taught me at a very young age. ... Men have been doing this for a long time, to not assert dominance but to say, ‘Hey, I respect you as an individual but I also demand that respect from you.’... That’s your first chance to make a sign of respect and encourage respect on your behalf.
Cannon: Know what’s going on around you. See what’s happening. If you don’t agree with it, say something. Speak up for yourself. Be your own PR person. Use your voice. No one else is going to do that for you.
Swanson: I have been trying to remind myself and encourage everyone around me to check in with yourself regularly. Be really honest about what is making you happy and what isn’t. Don’t overwork yourself. Try to be kinder to yourself.
Lewis: Be OK with failure. I was never OK with failure, and I’ve read a lot of books and I’ve learned a lot from experiences. Failure, at the end of the day, means you’ve remembered something, and you know you won’t do it in the future and you’ve learned from an experience.