She's Gotta Serve It

Dallas dining is largely controlled by men. Seven women are trying to change that.

Marie Grove is an unlikely candidate to rule a corner of Dallas nightlife. She conducts day-to-day business in flip-flops and jeans; her long blond locks unravel in irascible strands. She never raises her voice, even when the pressure of an August 2 restaurant opening seems unbearable. Instead of barking contractors and vendors into submission, she gently massages them into doing her bidding.

Sometimes her grace slips. When she discovers construction workers have abandoned her restaurant taking shape in the former Martini Ranch location on Cedar Springs Road without locking the front door, she quickly dead-bolts it. "That'll teach 'em," she snaps. A second later, a change of heart tiptoes in and she's writing them a gentle note, which she slips between the door and the jam, urging the workers to buzz her cell phone when they return.

Beneath this sweetness rests a swagger. Grove says she plunged into restaurant ownership not only because she loves the social aspect of the business--a deadly romantic attraction that sinks many a budding restaurateur--but because she sees a gaping hole in the skill level among the Dallas ranks. She's determined to exploit it. "Imagine how many restaurateurs that opened [restaurants] who really have absolutely no idea what they're doing...they think in very simplistic terms," she says. "Me build restaurant, serve food, serve drinks. Me get money. But it doesn't work that way, especially on a high-end scale."

Some Dallas restaurant boys doubt Marie Grove can pull off her restaurant Stolik: "Don't listen to what I say. Watch what I do," she fires back.
Mark Graham
Some Dallas restaurant boys doubt Marie Grove can pull off her restaurant Stolik: "Don't listen to what I say. Watch what I do," she fires back.
Perry's creator Amie Bergus loves being underestimated: "That's a great place to be. Let other people get comfortable."
Mark Graham
Perry's creator Amie Bergus loves being underestimated: "That's a great place to be. Let other people get comfortable."

Restaurateurs consistently make two critical mistakes, Grove maintains. One is not cutting their chefs and top managers an ownership stake, which buys loyalty and locks in an incentive to produce. The second is underestimating the importance of forging steady relationships with customers, a process she says requires an unfailing presence in the restaurant, hour after hour, night after night, month after month. "Once the personality leaves, that's usually the beginning of the end for what was once a great restaurant," she insists.

The cornerstone of this process, she says, is a facility with personal details, a skill she mastered growing up abroad and acquiring a facility with languages (she speaks Japanese and Spanish and can bluff her way through German, French, Italian and Croatian). "When you're constantly around a different face or a different name that you have to learn and pronounce, from Japanese to constantly make mental notes to yourself," she explains.

Grove is the latest in a tiny group of entrepreneurial women with bold visions who have bubbled up onto the Dallas dining landscape in the past few years, infiltrating the overwhelmingly male-dominated restaurant industry. Some, like Tracy Miller (Local) and Sharon Hage (York Street), are accomplished chefs who seek small, unassuming venues to showcase their potent culinary talents. Others, like Khanh Dao (Steel, Drálion) and Amie Bergus (Perry's), are fearless risk takers whose ambitions set or modify trends. And as is the case with their male counterparts, some are accused of being susceptible to greed and ego.

The extent to which women are absent from the control levers of the restaurant industry is staggering. According to the National Restaurant Association, 58 percent of all food-service employees in the United States are female, a far greater percentage than their presence in the general workforce. Yet they make up just 44 percent of the industry's managers and occupy a scant 4 percent of its highest corporate posts. Even more astounding: Fewer than one in four restaurants is owned and operated by women.

Sweeping "glass ceiling" generalizations and rampant chauvinism don't seem adequate to explain the discrepancies, especially in an era when women own close to half of all privately held U.S. businesses (with at least a 50 percent ownership stake) and public and private assistance programs to support female business formation have been in place for years. Women in the food-service trenches have their own explanations, many of them provocative. Tracey Evers, executive director of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association, believes few women are able to successfully navigate the general-manager ranks, a potent training ground for future owners. "There's a huge shortage of female GM's," she says. "And they don't seem to garner the respect their male counterparts do, so they kind of get cut off at the pass. In that world a strong male general manager is effective and good. A strong female general manager is a bitch."

But some women take these stereotypes and statistics and shrewdly twist them to their advantage. "It's good to be underestimated," Bergus insists. "I don't mind that. That's a great place to be. Let other people get comfortable. Let them assume you're not going to do well."

If Marie Grove has a heroine, it's Amy Sacco. Sacco is the tall, husky-voiced blonde in size 10 shoes who is known among Big Apple luminaries as New York's "queen of the night." Her clubs, Bungalow 8 and Lot 61 in Manhattan's West Chelsea district, draw glitterati--Hugh Grant, Cameron Diaz, Robert De Niro, Britney Spears, Benicio Del Toro--like bugs to bulbs. Grove is bedazzled by the 35-year-old Sacco, who, while a teen-ager in the Jersey suburbs, strategized to become--and then became--the most powerful hostess in New York City.

The similarities are striking. Like Sacco, Grove is tall, blond, wears size 10 shoes and comes from a big family (Sacco is one of eight siblings, Grove one of six). She also harbors ambitions to recast nocturnal dining fashion in a city that smears around glitz like relish on ballpark dogs. And like Sacco, she has assembled a powerful network from her posts as hostess and maître d' at two of Dallas' most prestigious restaurants: Voltaire and Steel.

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