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Leveling the Playing Field with Chef Amy Coram Reynolds

Our founder, Kiana Estevez, sits down with Chef Amy Coram Reynolds to talk about gender equity in the hospitality industry, starting your own business during a pandemic, and creating a new paradigm for work life balance.

Kiana Estevez at Aisle Mine (AM): Amy, thank you so much for joining me today. To kick us off, tell us how you got your first job in the food and beverage space.

Chef Amy Coram Reynolds (ACR): My first food job was kind of a weird story. My parents used to go to this family run restaurant while I was growing up, and I hated to eat there. The first location was like 25 minutes outside of town, so you had to drive all the way out there. I hated the food. By the time I was 14, they had opened up a newer location, right down the street. My dad had grown up with these people, I had grown up with these people. And then I kind of had to, like, ask them for a job at 14. So it’s kind of an interesting story. I hate the food here. But can I please work here?

AM: Where are you today?

ACR: Today, I actually have started my own company. I have two different revenue streams with my own company. It’s a personal chef service, as well as a condiment line that I’m launching.

I work full time with one family four days a week right now. So technically full time to most chefs, but 40 hours a week in the real world is full time. So I do that full time. And then I do catering during the weekend and launch hot sauce.

I’ve learned that there’s a lot of women out there in my same shoes, even you know, not in the food space, but in corporate altogether. We’re linking up to try to figure out not only how we can change the food industry, but how we can do this for our daughters. What changes can we make now that will be impactful in 15 years?

Chef Amy Coram Reynolds

AM: That is so cool. Throughout your journey, were you self trained or did you go to culinary school?

ACR: I went to culinary school, I attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. I graduated in 2011. So it’s been almost 10 years.

AM: That’s a great anniversary and you have a lot of passion projects in the works, which is absolutely fantastic. Coming up on 10 years, I’d love to know how are you connecting with your industry peers, former colleagues, because you know, CIA’s just so reputable. CIA is extremely reputable.

ACR: I went through culinary school was like a core group of like four people. We were always together, and I still keep in touch with most of them. We chat we Facebook, we text. If they’re in town they call. If I’m in town, I call.

As far as the alumni network, though, there’s so many chefs in Vegas that went to CIA, know somebody that went to CIA. Every time you mention [CIA] it brings up ‘Oh friend did this! My friend did that! My friend went there!” CIA pretty much markets itself!

AM: Yeah, pretty much. Are you still in touch with people from past jobs?

ACR: I do, I keep in touch with a lot of people mostly through social media. I have a lot of them on Facebook. I typically have a rule during work, that I don’t add people on social media while I’m working with them, so it’s especially for my employees. I have a lot of cooks – that’s the exciting thing about me moving on to a new job. [My employees] are like, ‘Oh, we can be Facebook friends now!’ It kind of eases their pain for me leaving I guess, but I like to keep this differentiation between management and line level employees. So I just don’t like to mix that, especially on social media.

AM: That’s great. I’ve had that rule before as well from the management standpoint, it creates boundaries for you in the easiest way.

Right now, how many people are on your team? Are you just a one woman show?

AM: I have a brand strategist who is primarily on the hot sauce side of my business. I launched the personal chef services catering kind of on my own. I had one girl do some design work for me. She was a college local college student.

But then with the hot sauce line, I really wanted a vision and something that could kind of carry me over for a couple of years on this project, so I hired a brand strategist. She’s still on my team for contract work. And then about two months ago, I hired an assistant. So she’s with me on off. It’s also contract based but she’s with me every month, whereas the brand strategist is kind of when I need her. But my assistant is phenomenal. She is local. She’s also a change of career type person, she was in the travel industry before COVID. Now she’s doing virtual assisting.

We’re hoping, by the end of summer, to bring on culinary help. Currently, I make the hot sauces, I bottle the hot sauces, I label the bottles, I fill the orders, I take them to the post office. So it’s a lot. But I’m hoping that towards the end of summer, revenue will be where it needs to be where I can feel comfortable bringing somebody on at a decent pay rate.

I know there’s been a lot of discussion about why people aren’t going back to work, or maybe they don’t want to go back to work. I don’t think it’s that they don’t want to go back to work. I think people really have their priorities in order right now. They’re like, you know, ‘We don’t want to work for a company that pays us $8.25 an hour, when I know that the work I’m doing is worth more than that.’ So that was one of the mission statements in the hot sauce brand is to not bring on employees before I could pay them what they were worth.

AM: I think that’s a really great way to kick off this conversation. Because pay rate is, of course, one of the challenges that one faces in being a chef. So I’d love to hear from your opinion, what are some of the other challenges chefs face in day to day, whether it’s career or looking for opportunities?

ACR: I think that conversation differentiates between men and women to be perfectly honest. Especially in Vegas, I found it very hard to move from a junior sous chef or a sous chef or a CDC into that executive sous chef executive chef role.

Here, it’s very prevalent that like men are still in those positions and it’s very hard to break that boundary. Pay wise, I would say that women are paid slightly lower than the men in the industry, even though the job is the same. Line cooks as a whole are typically paid less. Restaurant servers, obviously. So as you can have this conversation without talking about the fact that a lot of them are still on like this made up server minimum wage.

I think that the restaurant industry is going to have to figure out how to make employees feel like their job is worthwhile. A lot of times, line cooks are like ‘I’m working two and three jobs, because I have to put food on the table at my house’. The industry as a whole is going to have to look at how we can fix that.

AM: The industry is in a stage where it has to evolve because as an industry, we we have to gain both the trust back from our guests and our employees.

ACR: 100%. When the pandemic hit, the very first day, we weren’t even sure if we were shutting down yet in Vegas. We let go half of our management team. So right then and there, our management team is taking on twice the work. I had been up for a promotion, I had already been doing another job on top of my normal job and wasn’t being paid for it. Now I have to take on two other people’s jobs, and also not be paid for that. Then I have all this extra work, a cook tested positive [for COVID-19], now I have to trace who they were working with. I have to redo the schedule to make sure certain people are working with certain people so that we can avoid cross contamination.

Once we closed down, we laid staff off and their benefits disappeared. They were technically terminated. I don’t know if all companies did this. I think it was a fault in the company that I was working for, but they terminated these employees. I had a [staff member] that was pregnant, who then didn’t have any time off to have the baby. So she’s having a baby during the pandemic and she’s not even sure if she has health insurance because her benefits were terminated. Stuff like that.

Then we were never really told when we’re bringing cooks back or if we were bringing everybody back. Some of our management never heard whether or not they were coming back. It was just this awkward unknown. It’s gonna take a lot for these companies to rebuild. These are the same companies that you see right now [saying] ‘We need help. We need help. Why is nobody applying?’ I think you know why. People see how you respond in a disaster. If that’s how you respond in the disaster, do I want to be a part of that?

That was why I went into business for myself, I saw how companies were treating people. It wasn’t just my company. It was companies all over the Vegas Valley that were cutting people off, cutting their salary, and still making them show up to work. Not providing COVID testing, making them go to these links. For what? Half of your salary that was already lower than industry standard to begin with?

AM: For some some organizations, you saw their true colors. You saw the hand that they were playing.

ACR: Yep. Yep. And that is 100% the reason why I started my own business. I’m not making what I used to make, that’s gonna take some time. What if I can just survive without having to go back? To me that is great. I have done what I needed to do. I can provide for my family. I’m working four days a week. A couple weeks ago, I asked my family I work with ‘Hey, can I skip out for an hour to the watch my daughter get an award out her softball game?’ Sure. See you later. That would have never happened if I was working a corporate job.

AM: In this last year, even with just some of the stories that you were already presenting, how has managing that stress impacted you?

ACR: The first month after I left the restaurant, it was hard. When I started taking one off private events, people were coming to Vegas not realizing that you couldn’t have more than four people at a table, or you weren’t going to be able to get a reservation. So they’re coming with these groups, mostly from California. They’ve been on lockdown. They’re ready to get out of the house. So they come with a group of their friends. They rent an Airbnb. And then they’re like, what are we going to do for food? Having to look for work was so heavy for me, like I just did not enjoy it.

AM: How did that I look for you?

ACR: I was on 100 different apps. I was on Thumbtack, I was on a Chef For Hire, I was posting on my neighborhood apps, I was posting you know, anywhere in everywhere. You get these people that are like, ‘Oh, I’m very interested’ then you spend a week going through these emails only to find out their budget is nowhere near what it would even cost you to meet their needs much less pay yourself. So that was really hard for me.

I always wanted to transition into more of consistent families rather than the one off parties. The one off parties are a little wild, I got into some situations in Airbnbs, where I was like, ‘This is not exactly where I want to be’. So as a as a female, I travel alone. I need to be cautious of what I’m doing and where I’m taking parties as well.

I wanted to transition into the more consistent maybe one or two families. For a while I was doing two families. I had one family three days a week and another family two days a week plus I was doing my own business on the side. That was hard. When the one family was taking a break, they were moving to another area of town, I was like this is my opportunity. We’re just going to separate because that drive is now going to increase my pricing. I don’t think they were interested in increasing pricing.

That ended up working out great because the family that I was with three days a week wanted to pick up one extra day so now I’m with them four days a week and that’s kind of kind of my max right now.

AM: For someone who uses so many different platforms to put yourself out there, to show your show your art, and show your passion, if you could build a platform to find work, what would that look like after having so much exposure to them?

ACR: The biggest thing that I didn’t like is having to pay for services, especially on Thumbtack. Thumbtack is the world’s worst about that. You pay based on communication. So somebody could reach out to you and say, ‘I want a party for $50 a person’. Can you do that? Well, yes, depending on what you’re asking for. Then it comes back like, ‘I want a lobster tower, and I want you know, a chocolate fondue fountain’. That’s not in a $50 per person budget. So now I’ve already paid $5, $10, $15 $20, just for them to tell me that the budget doesn’t work.

AM: And you have to pay for your leads!

ACR: Yes, yes. You pay based on that. The first month I was on the website, it robbed me. I was a couple of hundred dollars in before I even knew how the thing worked.

Not the best, but Meet a Chef is a little bit better. It’s a quarterly subscription, and it’s $25 every quarter. So that’s not that bad. I had a lot of conversations on there, I don’t think I picked up a lot of parties from that website. Then I was on a new app, it’s called My Table. I got a couple of leads on there but the invoicing system through the app is a disaster. I know they were working on kind of re-innovating that during COVID. But once I found clients, I’m pretty much off all of [the websites].

AM: Prior to this new digital Black Book of clients, have any of your past colleagues or teammates helped you in landing a job?

ACR: Not so much in landing a job, but we do kind of bounce ideas off of people. I know one of my friends is in the Caribbean, I used to live in the Caribbean. A lot of times they’ll ask me, ‘if this supplier doesn’t have this, who did you call’. And so I’ll be like, ‘Okay, well, here’s the guy. But you know, maybe he only speaks this language. And you’re not, you don’t speak that. So let me know if you need me to get in touch with him’. That kind of thing.

I have another friend that’s in Texas, I sent him samples of my hot sauce. I get like genuine feedback from him, you know, and he’ll tell me ‘I hated it at first’, and that’s completely fine. I want that genuine feedback and I know that there are certain people from my culinary school days that will give me genuine, raw feedback.

You don’t need to break people down in order to build them up. It’s just not necessary.

Chef Amy Coram Reynolds

AM: Before we jump back into things, you were in the Caribbean. What was that like?

ACR: I was in Vieques, Puerto Rico for about four and a half years. It’s an island off the east coast. There’s not a lot of…I think there’s one subway now but there’s no commercial food. There’s no commercial grocery stores. No commercial gas. It’s all family owned mom and pop places. It’s hard to operate a business there. But if you can do it there, you can really do it anywhere.

AM: Yeah, I’m from the Dominican Republic so I can fully resonate. You get what the farmers bring in or what was at the ranch, I fully resonate. Very family and locally owned as well.

Looking back now, when you were pitching yourself to these potential bookings, potential employers, if there was an ideal way to introduce yourself, how would that look for you?

ACR: I typically will give out my Instagram during COVID. I got to take a lot of pictures of what I was cooking. It wasn’t always like fancy, because obviously, I didn’t have a job and I still have a family to feed. A lot of it was like good home cooked meals. I have home cooked meals, I have some fancier stuff. Instagram was really how I [clients] a lookbook. Here’s what I can do. If you don’t see something that you’d like, let me know. And I will tell you if I can do it.

AM: Social media is always gonna be part of this conversation now and just the art of social selling.What technology are you currently using to expand your talent, your network?

ACR: I have currently five social media pages between Facebook and Instagram. It’s exhausting. I have a Twitter, I don’t really use that for food. My branding strategy is to use one messaging profile, my assistant uses another one. There’sall these different messaging profiles that I’m on to satisfy whoever it is that I’m working with.

We’re looking into, like email marketing, like a newsletter quarterly or something like that. So that’s another app that I have on my phone. I’m attempting to do like Facebook ads. That’s another whole separate thing. I’m constantly on my phone every week when I get that little update. I used to be like a solid five hour a week person. I’m hooked to a charger 24 seven, I have a portable charger. It goes with me everywhere.

AM: You brought up a great point that it’s just a different game for women. It’s a different game for women in this industry. So what are some things that we can do from an individual standpoint and a collective to help female chefs flourish in this industry and stay?

ACR: It’s extremely hard for women to get the grace that they need in order to raise a family and have the career that they want. I’ve seen it so many times over. A male manager will say, ‘Oh yeah, I need to leave early today to go catch my kids’ and everybody claps for him. You’re a good dad, you’re leaving your work to go take care of your kid.

When a woman does the same thing, she’s wrong. Your work isn’t as important. You’re leaving to go watch a ball game, there will be other games. So for me, as you know, a wife and a mom, I had to make that decision, is today worth that argument? Today it’s just a ball game, but next week it might be a solo in a band concert or an award ceremony. Those are the ones that I would choose to fight for. As a woman you are made to choose, what is important here. Is your job important? If you leave all the time, your job is obviously not important.

AM: And you have to have the daily debate of do I want to die on this hill?

ACR: 100%, there were so many times where it was like Am I gonna upset my kids? Am I going to upset work? Am I going to upset my husband? Am I going to upset work? Where’s that line today. And every day, it’s different, right?

I typically would try to save [time for] emergencies, but then you see your male counterparts are like, my kids slammed his finger in the door. That wouldn’t have been an emergency for me. But I also would have been talked [to by management] about how I left work that day for my kids slamming his finger in the door.

AM: For someone who has stepped into entrepreneurship what has been one of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned in this in these last 12 months?

AM: I’ve learned that there’s a lot of women out there in my same shoes, even you know, not in the food space, but in corporate altogether. We’re linking up to try to figure out not only how we can change the food industry, but how we can do this for our daughters. What changes can we make now that will be impactful in 15 years?

I think there’s going to be a huge culture shift with office work, this whole work from home thing is going to be a thing forever. If companies don’t get on board with that, they’re going to lose a lot of employees. With women in the industry, it’s important to me that they know that there’s more out there. You don’t have to stay with this company. Yes, do what you need to do to provide for your family, but take an hour or two a day, and figure out what your actual goals and dreams are. Figure out where you want to be. Figure out what your dream company looks for and if it doesn’t exist, create it.

When I started with my brand strategist, she was like, ‘What do you want people to see when they see your company’. I said ‘I want young culinarians to think that this is a safe place to work.’ They’re not going to come to work and be verbally assaulted, they’re not going to come to work and be sexually assaulted, they’re not going to come to work and feel like they’re less. I want this to be a place where women can come to work and know that if their kid is sick, they can come to me and say, ‘I really need to take care of this. This is something I need to do’ and it’ll be okay. We’re not we’re not saving lives here. Like we’re not doing brain surgery. We’re running a business.

AM: I say that all the time. You’re not conducting brain surgery, it’s not life or death. It’s really not.

ACR: Oh, I love that message because it’s huge. If you’re not feeling well, by all means, take a few days off. Whatever it is you need. When you’re ready, come back and let’s get this project back on track. You don’t need to break people down in order to build them up. It’s just not necessary.

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