Women are trailblazing the way in Madison’s restaurants, breweries and food businesses
More businesses are being powered by women
It makes sense that Madison – where Odessa Piper played a large part in starting the local farm-to-table movement – would be home to a community of strong female chefs. The Culinary Ladies Collective and Spirited Women are two organizations that harness the skill sets and talents of women in Madison’s food and beverage industries. Members are inspired by each other and by women who went before them. While pioneering chefs like Piper created new paths, today’s women of Madison are still blazing trails and making an impact.
Spirited Women, started in 2015 by Mariah Renz of Mint Mark and Liz Henry of J. Henry & Sons, is focused on women in the craft cocktail and spirits industry. The group has three facets: support, education and fundraising. Since its inception, members have raised about $12,000 for the Rape Crisis Center’s Safer Bar bystander program, $4,000 for Unidos Por Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief and have assisted many other groups to raise money for their causes.
The Culinary Ladies Collective, or CLC, is another group of standout women. The group was formed in 2017 by four chefs, Francesca Hong of Morris Ramen; Tami Lax of Harvest and The Old Fashioned; Laila Borokhim of Noosh and Joon; and Molly Maciejewski of Madison Sourdough.
“We have this space to be ourselves, commiserate, have fun, but [it] also lets us plan events and give money to groups that we want and be inspiring people,” says Laurel Burleson, owner of the Ugly Apple Cafe.
CLC members plan fundraising events and serve as a support network for all women invested in the food or beverage industries. The group’s Facebook page is an example of the collaboration among its more than 140 members.
“One night, I ran out of dish detergent,” says Colleen Bos, owner of Bos Meadery and a CLC member. “I posted in the Facebook page and almost immediately Francesca wrote back and said, ‘I don’t have some, but I’ll find someone who does.’ ”
These groups and their members hope to propel their industries forward, empower women and make great food and drinks along the way. Women all over Madison are perfecting their craft and innovating in and out of the kitchen. The following five stories are examples of local female business owners who run the show.
She’s the Head Brewer
Jessica Jones, co-owner of Giant Jones Brewing, stood atop a ladder to adjust the pressure knobs on a 260-gallon stainless steel fermentation vessel. Her thick wedge sandals gave her just enough height to reach the knobs, creating the ideal pressure for the high alcohol content of the “big beer” sold in the brewery. Jessica and her wife, Erika Jones, opened what is now the first completely organic brewery in Wisconsin on June 15, 2018.
The influence of these two women stretches far beyond the brewery. If you’ve never seen a female brewer, you don’t see that as a possibility, Erika says. Just their presence in a male-dominated industry helps shift perceptions.
“Any time an industry is not as diverse as it could be and does not reflect society, it is missing out on the full creative force,” Jessica says.
People often ask them what it is like being queer brewers, Jessica says. She simply explains, “Well, I’m queer and I am a brewer. These are two important but different parts of who I am.”
While Erika and Jessica say they can’t complain about their personal circumstances as business owners, they hope they can help influence systems and promote equity in the workplace.
“Our society measures success on these metrics, on growth and achievements,” Erika says. “Being a women-run business isn’t always at the top of the list for success measurements. But making that have value is important.”
She’s the ‘Bos’
Fellow female entrepreneur and neighbor to Giant Jones Brewing is Colleen Bos, owner of Bos Meadery. Bos carries a quiet confidence in her professional career as a maker of mead, which is a medieval drink made with fermented honey and water. Founded in 2012, Bos Meadery is the first dedicated meadery in the state.
“I have two master’s degrees in medieval history – never thought that would work out for me,” Bos jokes.
Although Bos was a hobby homebrewer and used to teach medieval history, she had never worked in the food and beverage industry.
“I set out to go into the mead business, but then I quickly realized we needed a tasting room or a retail outlet,” Bos says. “It started to turn into a bar. And I have never even worked at a bar before. I needed guidance.”
Bos found a mentor in Jennifer Debolt, bartender and general manager at The Old Fashioned, where Bos was a regular customer for 12 years. Debolt helped Bos through the beginning stages of starting her business – things like scheduling, how to handle staff, etc.
Bos created her niche business step by step. She says she hopes her staff carries the same quiet confidence she developed over time.
“I don’t micromanage, I don’t create lists or hover during a special event,” Bos says. “I want to be nurturing and empowering.”
If something does go wrong, Bos simply reminds the staff that, “Hey – we aren’t saving lives, we are serving booze.”
She’s Calling the Shots
Syovata Edari is a woman who knows what she wants. Working as a trial lawyer, Edari realized she had an even stronger passion for chocolate-making, which led to her somewhat arduous journey to opening a storefront for her chocolate venture, CocoVaa. Edari lacks nothing in terms of skill – the 17-time global award-winning chocolatier has a wall of plaques to prove it. But her wherewithal as a business owner has already been tested in two big ways.
First, Edari was sued by candy giant Mars Inc. for trademark infringement on its nutritional supplement brand, CocoaVia. After a judge dismissed the case, Edari filed her own lawsuit against Mars to stifle any further litigation it might pursue.
Then, the general contractor she worked with to build out her newest storefront took her money and ran.
“As a woman entrepreneur of color, I’ve encountered more hardship than I did as a lawyer,” Edari says. “But we [as women] end up being the best, because we end up working harder.”
Edari shifted course and became her own general contractor, an uncommon and often stressful position. She hand-picked her team of electricians, architects, carpenters, framers and other team members. Since the grand opening of CocoVaa at 1815 E. Washington Ave., she finally has a place to call her own. Yet she still grapples with the idea of what others think is her “place” in the industry.
“I don’t know my ‘status’ as a woman of color, and that is a problem for some people,” says Edari. “But then I think, ‘Hey, I’m just going to start a chocolate company and you will be buying my chocolate – if I let you in.”
Her most popular chocolate, which is dedicated to a former legal client, is a heart-shaped passion fruit and mango caramel with fragile white chocolate on the outside and caramel inside. She says that when you make something good and you are talented at your craft, no one can take that away.
She’s in Shining Armor
Laurel Burleson, owner of the Ugly Apple Cafe, started cooking for her family when she was in junior high school. She’d replicate techniques she saw on TV cooking shows. When she was 10 years old, she burned her finger on 400-degree caramel that was sizzling in a saucepan.
Since that memorable mistake, Burleson has worked in a few more high-stakes kitchens, including the now-closed Graham Elliot Bistro, a Chicago restaurant started by Bravo’s “Top Chef” and “MasterChef” judge Graham Elliot, and Bishops Bay Country Club in Middleton. Now Burleson runs her own food cart, Ugly Apple Cafe, which focuses on using blemished produce that often can’t be sold but still taste great. She says it isn’t fair to hardworking farmers when produce goes into the compost because it isn’t aesthetically perfect.
While Burleson says the male-dominated restaurant industry has never prevented her from performing at her best in the kitchen, she still feels extra pressure as a female business owner.
“When I walk into the restaurant I wear street clothes, but I change into a chef’s coat and chef’s pants. It is kind of my armor. [I] have this extra shield,” Burleson says.
But she is loud and clear about her mission to combat food waste. Burleson is helping shift consumer perceptions about what kind of food makes it onto your plate. A focus of her business is to directly address the roughly 40 percent of the food grown in America that is wasted.
“Waste is part of the entire food chain,” says Burleson. “If I can buy something from farmers that is slightly blemished but otherwise fine [and] make it into products that people enjoy, it doesn’t matter how it looks on the outside.”
Though accolades, acknowledgements and awards are reasons for celebration, what trailblazing women are really doing in their leadership roles is changing systems that are inherent, unnamed and often unquestioned.
She’s at the Table
Monica O’Connell, owner of Curtis & Cake in Fort Atkinson says, what gets her out of bed in the morning is changing the underlying systems. Originally from Stone Mountain, Georgia, and previously the executive director of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago, O’Connell is known for small-batch, one-of-a-kind wedding cakes made with organic and seasonal ingredients. She credits culinary artists like Edna Lewis, Leah Chase and other black women who influenced Southern-style cooking as her inspirations.
O’Connell noticed in food magazines, cookbooks and culinary television shows that the people who had the largest and loudest platforms from which to speak on behalf of Southern food, and to carry on those traditions, were too often well-resourced white men.
“With my background in history and cultural studies, I always think about context and who is doing the speaking. Who is at the table? Who is writing and participating in the narrative? It was certainly a motivator [to get started in the industry], but really I am inspired by the women,” O’Connell says.
Mackenzie Krumme is an editorial intern at Madison Magazine.
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