Two women, eight restaurants, few peers

Susan Frasca -- Mambo Grill, Kinzie Chophouse, Club Creole, Mio Mezzo

Lifetimes Editor
Impeccably clad in a navy-blue suit, Susan Frasca chats with the last few lunch customers at her newest restaurant, Mio Mezzo, 230 W. Kinzie St., Chicago. The space, now shared with a cafe/carryout concept called Kinzie Marcket, used to be Havana and belong to Ted Greenfield and Roger Kasemir's Restaurant Development Group, in which Frasca was briefly a partner.

Last year, in one fell swoop, the 37-year-old Frasca became the owner of Chicago's largest female-owned restaurant group when she bought four of RDG's restaurants -- Havana, Mambo Grill, Kinzie Chophouse and Club Creole -- all situated within a couple of blocks.

"The reason why these four work is that they're so close," she says. "I can fly from one to the other."

She closed Havana and remade it into Mio Mezzo -- despite the presence nearby of other Italian restaurants, including Coco Pazzo and Trattoria Parma -- partly for personal reasons. She didn't really care for its Cuban fare, and she wanted an Italian restaurant, albeit a somewhat different one from her neighbors'.

"I grew up in a very foodsy environment. Both my parents are Italian -- the family is from Calabria. Much of the food served at Mio Mezzo is derived from family recipes Frasca researched. "I had a great time doing that. This is a food I feel very at home with."

But it was also a business decision. Havana had been popular after it opened, but the crowd had moved on. "When I bought the space, it was just doing abysmally financially." So a complete change was in order. Meanwhile, she's revved up the menu at Mambo Grill and done other things to bring up service levels at all the restaurants. "They were in a little disarray," Frasca says.

"It's going to be tumultuous," she told friends and family. (Married to Mike Rovillard, a pension-fund adviser, Frasca has an 8-year-old daughter.)

"I knew I was going to have to take on the challenge of getting them up to par. We've brought them up. I'm feeling now much more comfortable."

And yet, she says, "I wouldn't trade the the past six months of my life for anything in the world."

Frasca's background is more in business than in food. She graduated from Purdue and went to work as a staff accountant for a Chicago commodities company, later becoming a commodities trader herself for three years, before going back to the accounting world and eventually joining RDG.

"I am the biggest problem solver I've met in my life," she says. "There's no problem that can't be solved -- it's your ability to solve problems that matters. It's not a perfect world. You have to be able to know you're going to have to solve problems."

She has just launched a frequent-diners' program at all four restaurants and plans a delivery program. Her focus is on people who live and work nearby.

"I think that's one of the big things behind opening restaurants. You have to know the market you're trying to reach. They come back for different reasons. Some of the people (coming to the restaurants) have been in the area a long time."

The important thing is to get people coming back, she says. "So far, we've been very successful at doing that."

And she looks toward a long-term future. "My goal here is not to think about today but to think about next year. This is a 10-year project for me."

She doesn't think the boom economy can last all that time, so, "I try not to go too upscale. I try not to go too formal. I always try to emphasize the convenience and the quality. My quality is upscale. My concepts aren't."

Good service is important to Frasca. "I'm the ultimate server," she says.

Despite grumbling from her staff, she recently abolished the mandatory service charge for large groups at her restaurants. "I cannot tell a table, 'You must tip because you're over six people.' It's discriminatory."

And waitstaffers who don't get the message that they're there to serve hear about it -- "I always tell my servers, 'What part of your job title don't you understand: "serve" or "er"?'

"We do a weekly test for all of our servers." She demands the best from people who work for her, she says, and that's why she thinks she'll be successful.

"Surround yourself with good people and good things happen."

Debra Sharpe -- Feast, Con Fusion, Cru Cafe, Tanzy

Lifetimes Editor
Dark curls pulled back, black-framed glasses on her nose, Debbie Sharpe sits in the cluttered office above her Wicker Park restaurant Feast, answering a constantly ringing phone, playing fetch with one of her six cats, and talking about the two new enterprises she plans: Cru Cafe and Wine Bar, set to open at 888 N. Wabash Ave. in June, and Tanzy, due at 215 W. North Ave. in July.

Together with Con Fusion, the restaurant that arguably made the Bucktown/Wicker Park neighborhood a dining destination in 1996, that will make four -- and propel Sharpe into prominence as one of Chicago's leading independent restaurateurs.

The Australian-born entrepreneur, 43, has come a long way. At first a bookkeeper, she got a journalism job on the Melbourne <I>Herald<P> newspaper. "At first it was really tedious doing all the cub reporter stuff," she recalls, "and then I got transferred to their sister paper, which was an entertainment weekly, and thought that was the the life!"

Her connection to the entertainment industry continued along a different path in 1978, when she went to England, to work as a bookkeeper and assistant to pop star Adam Ant.

"I used to cook for record-company parties all the time," she says. It was what she and a friend did for fun. So it seemed natural to go to work for an entertainment-industry caterer, and she began to travel throughout Europe, cooking for bands and their crews. And in 1984, she started her own business, Eat Your Hearts Out!

"I was the biggest music-company caterer in England," she says. Luciano Pavoratti, Princess Diana, The Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols and Michael Jackson have all eaten her food. In 1989, she cooked for Paul McCartney as he toured the United States. Chicago appealed to her, and local concert promoters Jam Productions asked her to work for them.

"I came back in 1990 and stayed." She continued to run her catering business, from Chicago, buying a building at 1835 W. North Ave. to serve as its headquarters.

"Rock 'n' roll catering is 18- to 20-hour days," she says. "I had an idea that a restaurant would be easier." (It isn't. "It's different levels of difficulty. Running a restaurant is seven days a week.") The neighborhood was rising, and in 1994 she opened Eat Your Hearts Out! restaurant in the North Avenue space. "I was one of the pioneers of this neighborhood," she says.

Almost three years later, she opened Con Fusion at 1616 N. Damen Ave.: a sleek and elegant restaurant featuring East-West fusion fare and a fine-dining level that was a first in the Bucktown/Wicker Park area. Times change, though, and so do restaurants.

Eat Your Hearts Out! morphed into Feast. The opening chef of Con Fusion, Kevin Shikami, has left, and erstwhile 56West chef Christopher Stoye will be coming in. "At Con Fusion, we're lightening up, becoming more of a neighborhood place," Sharpe says.

And now there will be two more. "I got bored," Sharpe says facetiously. "I didn't have enough to do....

"No, it was just that the opportunities arose.

"I think it's time to move (beyond Wicker Park). I didn't want to be a pioneer. I wanted to go into established areas."

Casual will be a theme, evidently. Cru Cafe will be a wine bar serving light fare, according to Sharpe. "So you can have appetizers with your wine. It's going to be like a neighborhood hangout, and an industry hangout, hopefully. We'll have carpaccio, flatbread pizzas, lobster club sandwiches. We'll have outdoor dining."

Her fourth restaurant will probably be called Tanzy, but she's still deciding on the name. The chef will be Sandra Beckett, who's been filling in at Con Fusion since the departure of Shikami. "The food will be the same as what she's doing now, American contemporary. It will be 'casual fine dining,' I think. We'll have tablecloths and really fine service, but it will be casual attire and a $14 to $20 main course."

Sharpe's philosophies are simple: "The aim of a restaurant is to provide good service and good food," she says. "I tell my servers to be attentive to tables, to be kind to people, to be aware."

When it comes to customers, "you give them what they want. It's so much easier to say yes than it is to be argumentative and say no. You have to teach people that.

"I think feedback is really important. You have to have the knowledge. It is important. We do waitstaff meetings. Con Fusion has a meeting every night."

How will she manage four restaurants that are so far apart? "We have a fabulous manager. We're just lucky we've found a few good managers.

Between us, we'll handle it."

Why are there so few female restaurateurs?

Lifetimes Editor
Female chefs are no longer dancing bears.

Chicago has some of the best -- women like Sarah Stegner of the Ritz-Carlton Dining Room, Suzy Crofton of Crofton on Wells and the new Watusi, Peggy Ryan of Va Pensiero and Suzzette Metcalfe of Marche are top chefs by any standard. The list goes on: Susan Goss of Zinfindel, Mary Ellen Diaz of North Pond Cafe, Priscila Satkoff of Salpicon!, Jackie Shen of Lawry's, Monique King of Soul Kitchen....

Women are cooking.

Some are even owners or partners in the restaurants where they cook, but there's a definite lag when it comes to owning and managing restaurants, particularly when the role, like Susan Frasca's and Debra Sharpe's, <I>doesn't<P> call for being in the kitchen. (Frasca is not a chef. Sharpe fills in behind the stove when need be, but says, "I'm trying <I>not<P> to be a chef/proprietor.")

Is the restaurant business harder for women than for men? Both Sharpe and Frasca seem reluctant to talk about it.

"Having not been a man, I'm not really quite sure," Sharpe says.

"It's different," says Frasca. "It's a very male-dominated business."

There aren't any good statistics about the number of women who own and run restaurants. The Illinois Restaurant Association was unable to supply any demographic information about its members, for example. The National Restaurant Association says that "in 1997, women accounted for 45 percent of all manager positions at foodservice and lodging establishments"; however, that figure includes women who run McDonald's franchises and the managers of hotels.

"It's still a male dominated field -- which is like a lot of industries," says Janet Jaback, adjunct faculty for the hospitality program at Triton College in River Grove.

But things are changing. "We can see where we're getting more and more women going through the culinary programs," she says. "A lot of them want to open their own restaurants."

According to Linda Calafiore, president of the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, "Fifty percent of the student body now is female, which is a shift over 10 years from 10 percent.

"Female-owned small businesses are very prevalent in other areas," Calafiore says. "So there needs to be a little catch-up in the industry."

Jaback suspects that family commitments and financing are keeping a lot of women from becoming restaurant owners. After all, financing is not something taught in culinary schools.

"We just teach how to come up with a menu, market a restaurant, supervise your employees," not how to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch a restaurant in the first place, she says.

Sharpe and Frasca, interestingly enough, share a financial background. Sharpe's peripatetic career began as an accountant in Australia, and she continued doing that in the entertainment industry. "It's helped," she says. "I haven't had a bookkeeper in here for six months. I can do the books."

Frasca first worked as a staff accountant for a commodities company and later became a commodities trader herself. "I know how to run a business," she says. "Those are things I've got a good background for -- marketing, etc. I've got a terrific background for operations." That helped her get a lender.

"I don't think women get the support of banks and financial institutions the way they should," Sharpe says. She remembers going to a community business meeting and watching representatives of a local bank. "They never approached any of the women in the room.

"People in the restaurant industry have been very supportive" to her, however, Sharpe says. "I think the new male restaurateurs look at it differently."

"It's very different to be a female," Frasca says. "You pick up four restaurants at once, and people think, 'How'd she do that?' I think people naturally wait for people like me to fail. I don't have a vast amount of restaurant experience. Restaurateurs think, 'What's she doing?'

"Because I'm female, it makes it that much harder." But she's used to being a pioneer. "When I was trading, there were 500 men and four women on the floor."

Although more and more women are starting their own businesses -- including culinary ventures -- Jaback thinks one reason few are opening restaurants is that many women are more comfortable in the more flexible roles available to caterers and pastry chefs. "Some people may not want to take that step over the bridge into a new place. Some women need to walk on that tightrope."

Jaback sees women launching cottage industries that have fewer upfront costs and simpler management requirements than a restaurant. "There may not be many (female restaurateurs) out there, but I bet there are a lot doing things from home," Jaback says.

"Women are starting businesses that you can start with very little capital," Calafiore agrees. "The restaurant industry is so capital-intensive."

However, longtime Chicago restaurateur Gordon Sinclair points out another issue: "They have to come from somewhere," he says. In the restaurant industry, women "weren't anywhere before the '80s."

It will take time for women who have entered the industry within the last few years to build up the body of experience needed to launch successful restaurants, Sinclair says, pointing out that restaurateurs have to be able to recruit and train labor, handle other human-resources issues, manage the front of the house, do the books, manage costs -- "all of those multiple skills. It takes an astute mind and an awful lot of energy."

"A lot of the women chefs are chef/owners," says Sharpe, "and that keeps them from expanding" into multiple restaurants as she has done. "And often they have no business background."

In addition, Sinclair points out, the nonchef -- of any gender -- who opens an independent restaurant nowadays is a rarity. Once it was common for a businessman or a maitre d' to open an eatery. But most restaurants today that aren't owned by corporations or groups of partners are launched by chefs who go out on their own after building a reputation working for others. So as more women go into restaurant kitchens, it follows that more women will eventually open their own places.

"I think there's great opportunity for women in the management of restaurants," Sinclair says, "and we'll be seeing more of it."

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