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Women owners dominating Upper West Side restaurant scene


Maybe there’s something in the water on the Upper West Side that is creating an abundance of female-owned restaurants.

While more than half of all culinary graduates are women, they make up only 7 percent of the nation’s head chefs and restaurant owners in an industry plagued by sexual harassment and discrimination, according to Joanna James’ documentary, “A Fine Line.”

But on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the saying, “A woman’s place is in the kitchen,” also holds true for paying jobs. It’s an anomaly that stunned Don Evans, chairman of the 13th annual Taste of the Upper West Side, when he decided this year to honor women chefs and restaurateurs at the May festivities.

Instead of scrambling to find candidates, he says, he was overwhelmed with success stories. More than 80 top chefs and restaurants will participate in the two-day food extravaganza, May 15-16, and some 18 percent of will be women — or double the national average, Evans said.

“We really wanted to honor our female chefs and restaurant owners this year. But we didn’t realize how many we had to choose from,” Evans said. “They all set such a high bar.”

The women chefs and restaurateurs interviewed by Side Dish say the Upper West Side — while not free of the sexism that has scandalized the culinary industry — has proven more of a haven because its women restaurateurs tend to live there and so have worked hard to make it a family-friendly community.

“There is so much support here,” said Bobbie Lloyd of Magnolia Bakery, who opened her first eatery, It’s a Wrap, on the Upper West Side in 1997. “My kids went to Upper West Side public schools and the moms communities are so strong and supportive of each other, which trickles down to every aspect of the community,” including its business owners, she said.

Bobby Lloyd
Bobbie Lloyd, owner of Magnolia Bakery.Stephen Yang

Lloyd, who still lives in the neighborhood known for its elegant brownstone buildings, says running a female-led business staffed with many female employees also helps. The challenges, she says, tend to be non-gender specific, like “the constant legislation changes.”

Haley Fox, who opened her first Alice’s Tea Cup in 2001 on West 73rd Street with her sister Lauren, grew up on the Upper West Side.

“I feel a lot of camaraderie here with other women entrepreneurs and we don’t feel that on the Upper East Side, which is more competitive,” she said. “We have to keep asking our neighbors to stop their customers from blocking our entrance with their strollers. That would never happen on the Upper West Side.”

The job has not been without hurdles.

“The biggest issue were the kitchen employees,” said Fox. “It took a while for them to treat me with respect. As a woman, you need to earn it before you receive it. It doesn’t come naturally.”

Sarabeth Levine, a 76-year-old culinary legend, launched Sarabeth’s — now a $40 million-plus a year business — from her kitchen on the Upper West Side in 1981.

Like Lloyd, she walked to work. Her first bakery was a block and a half away. Back then — except for the giant rats that would march up Amsterdam Avenue — “no one wanted to go above 79th Street. But we took a chance,” she said.

Lauren Fox, left, and Haley Fox, right, sisters and owners of Alice's Tea Cup.
Lauren Fox (left) and Haley Fox, sisters and owners of Alice’s Tea Cup.Stephen Yang

Levine now has 19 restaurants, including in New York and Florida, Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Dubai — plus a Chelsea Market bakery and a jam factory in the Bronx.

“I really think it has to do with the rent and where you live. A lot of the women restaurateurs live here,” Lloyd said. She echoed Fox, saying her biggest challenge was getting men to listen to her early in her career.

“The challenge women have in all businesses is getting respect,” Levine said. “It’s much better than what it was 40 years ago,” she added, but still not perfect. “Telling men what to do, having a woman be the boss, can be difficult for men. You have to be strong, ask for the things you want done and people will respect you.

“But you have to be constant. Not wishy-washy one day and hard-nosed the next. Feel strong enough to command respect. Don’t waver. Be consistent, not a pushover.”

It’s also easier for female owners and operators than chefs to survive — no matter how great their neighbors are, said Lynn Wagenknecht, who runs Odeon and Cafe Luxembourg, which launched on the Upper West Side in 1983, and Cafe Cluny in the West Village.

“I’ve observed that women chefs have a harder time because it’s such male-dominated work,” she said. “Lots of guys in the kitchen aren’t used to women in positions of authority.

“You have to discipline people, and some men react favorably to that and some don’t.”

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