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'A village': Meet the networking group helping women-owned restaurants succeed

A group of women restaurateurs are joining forces to raise money for other women-led restaurants struggling in the pandemic.
Collage of take out box and women symbol stickers
For International Women's Day on March 8, Let's Talk members are collaborating in nine cities across the U.S. to bring good food, important conversation and financial refuge to struggling women-owned restaurants.Katty Huertas / TODAY / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

What began as a small network of women restaurateurs in Chicago in July 2020 has exploded into a nationwide movement of 350 female restaurant owners dedicated to each other's success. It's called "Let's Talk Womxn," and on International Women's Day, they're cooking up a cities-wide dinner to benefit women in the restaurant industry.

On Wednesday, Vicky Nguyen, NBC News investigative and consumer correspondent, spoke to founder Rohini Dey, the Ph.D. and mother behind Chicago's Vermilion, and some of Let's Talk's members.

"In one word, what does it take to be a woman restaurateur?" Nguyen asked.

"Guts," Dey replied.

"A sense of humor," said Jennifer Ziskin, wine director and owner of Boston's La Morra and Heritage of Sherborn.

"Resilience," answered May German, who opened her second restaurant, Sobre Mesa, just days before the pandemic.

Flexibility," Deborah VanTrece, owner of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours in Atlanta, said.

Rohini Dey, founder of Let's Talk Womxn and owner of Vermilion restaurant in Chicago, told TODAY that seven of the 10 restaurants on her block closed permanently this year. Courtesy Rohini Dey

When the pandemic shuttered restaurants around the country abruptly last year, these women, like many business owners, were faced with the uncertainty that they could lose everything they'd worked so hard to achieve. An estimated 110,000 restaurants closed for good and, according to the National Restaurant Association, about 2.4 million restaurant workers are currently unemployed.

"Four months was a complete abyss of trying to figure out, 'Do I even want to be in this industry, given the safety issues, given the trauma to our staff, all laid off, trying our best to support them?'" Dey told Nguyen, adding how seven of the 10 restaurants on her block closed permanently.

Jennifer Ziskin, owner of La Morra and Heritage of Sherborn in Boston, said being a woman restaurateur requires having a sense of humor.Courtesy Jennifer Ziskin

To cope with the fragile state of her livelihood, Dey began having calls with other women restaurateurs around the Windy City in July 2020. It became a safe space for them to vent, exchange ideas and inspire each other in any way they could.

In just a handful of months, the network exploded across the country and now includes groups of women learning from each other.

"Let's Talk is an action-led movement of women business owners who own restaurants, our goal is to help each other survive this crisis, and to grow in the long term," Dey said. "Learning from each other is such a cool part of Let's Talk. Every call, we walk away with 10 to 15 different ideas."

Ziskin described Let's Talk not just as a networking group, but as a village.

"A village surrounded around women restaurateurs, which I have never had," she said.

May German, owner of alaMar Kitchen & Bar and Silver Mesa in the Bay Area, with her husband, "Top Chef" contestant and chef Nelson.Courtesy May German

German voiced her gratitude for Let's Talk after she and her husband, "Top Chef" contestant and chef Nelson, opened Sobre Mesa after their first venture alaMar Kitchen & Bar. They are coming up on the one year anniversary of the new spot, and yet the dining room has only been open 14 days.

"The restaurant industry for years has been male dominated. So to be — you know, a woman in this industry, you're already coming in knowing that you're going to be fighting an uphill battle. The camaraderie that we have together has only helped to, I think, position us and make us stronger," VonTrece said, adding how her restaurant is still not out of the woods after the pandemic's detrimental affects on the industry.

Deborah VanTrece, owner of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours in Atlanta and Let's Talk member, said "we're going to make sure each other gets out of this OK." Courtesy Henri Hollis

For International Women's Day on March 8, Let's Talk members are collaborating in nine cities across the U.S. to bring good food, important conversation and financial refuge to struggling women-owned restaurants. The virtual conversation will be take place on Zoom from 7 to 8 p.m. and can be accompanied by a multi-course meal from top chefs in Atlanta, Chicago, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Cincinnati, Phoenix and Lexington, KY.

Takeout tasting menus vary by city and can include four to 10 courses for $55 to $150 for two people. The conversation will be led by leading restauranteurs, a congresswoman, best-selling authors and food editors. To find out more about the Dine Together & Let's Talk event or to get involved, visit the Let's Talk Womxn website.

"It is special, because we have crossed color lines, diversity is everywhere. Cultures from all over the world are in existence," VanTrece said. "And we're going to make sure each other gets out of this OK."