A shared table: support for women in food

5th March 2021 | Alison Turner

International Women’s Day (March 8) is an opportunity to recognise women’s achievements and to create a more inclusive world. Ahead of this year’s global day of celebrating women, Eativity meets Australian chef and cafe owner Naomi “Nims” Zavackas, who has worked to build a more inclusive hospitality industry for the women of Brisbane.

Zavackas has taken women in food under her warm and watchful wing, creating Mise En Place Bonne Femme – a support network that gives female food business owners the chance to put competition aside, make new connections and tap into shared experience. The collective is centred on family-style gatherings and relationship-building.

Zavackas found the Brisbane hospitality industry to be very closed and competitive.

You’re not from here, are you?

Zavackas was inspired to start what was at first an informal organisation in 2017 after moving to Brisbane to open a cafe. After positive experiences in the hospitality industries of Sydney and Melbourne, she was surprised by the lack of support she found in Brisbane.

“I felt incredibly isolated,” she says. “In Sydney, cafe owners were all really open with each other. If I got a good price for milk, I’d ring everyone and let them know. There was such support. Sure, we knew we were competing for the same biscuit, but we did it together.

“I didn’t expect that it would be different in Brisbane. But coming up here when we did, the industry was so much smaller. And the competitive nature of it made it really, really lonely.”

Zavackas recalls an experience she had with a local deli owner soon after she arrived and was on the search for where she could buy good sourdough bread wholesale for her cafe.

“I was a hunting high and low, and found this deli that sold it,” she says. “I asked the owner where they sourced it from, and they said, ‘I can’t tell you that. You’re competition’.

“I wasn’t competition. I was opening a cafe two suburbs away. If they gave me the number for the baker, they’d have two customers instead of one. And I could tell my customers that the bread was available at their deli. I said, ‘You’d make money; I’d make money – isn’t that how it works?’ And they said to me, ‘You’re not from here are you?’ It was like that.”

“I felt incredibly isolated”: Zavackas has turned hostility into hospitality.

Listening to that inner voice

Zavackas says she began to feel increasingly isolated in what was such a closed and self-protective culture. And while she persisted in her attempts to build relationships with other hospitality business owners, these relationships remained “shallow”.

“No one was going to be ringing me up and telling me they got a milk special,” she says. “And with all the responsibility that you carry when you own a food business, especially how it is at the moment, there was nobody to talk to. It used to make me cry.”

It was one day at the start of a new year, while she was thinking about her goals for the year ahead, that a voice in Zavackas’ head spoke to her. It said simply: “Invite the girls to lunch”.

“I thought, that’s the answer!” she says. “The reason everyone was so competitive was because nobody was forming relationships. The best way to form relationships? Over food.”

Zavackas wrote a heartfelt email to all the women she knew of who owned food businesses in Brisbane: “I said I really believed that if we actually loved each other, our industry in Brisbane would shift; it would change,” she says. “I asked them, will you help me do this?”

“Invite the girls to lunch”: a simple idea has built a powerful network.

Ladies who lunch

Two weeks later, Zavackas had 16 women at a long table in her cafe. Almost immediately, trust and relationships started to build. There were tears, there was commiseration, there was a sharing of fears and worries and experiences – and there was lots of laughter. The first Mise En Place Bonne Femme lunch was an enormous success.

“There’s a horrible irony to how lonely food industries can feel, always serving and nourishing others and putting ourselves last,” Zavackas says. “Often all that’s needed to come unstuck or ignite a new idea is just a laugh, a cry or some wine with others who understand what you’re dealing with – who can tell you you’re not crazy, remind you what you love about the industry and celebrate your hard work.”

Zavackas began holding a lunch every quarter, and the group grew as the women’s relationships flourished. But with COVID last year, no events were held. Zavackas sold her business and began working in a different job, thinking perhaps the season of Mise En Place Bonne Femme was over. But then that little voice returned.

“It was such a deep pull in me that no, Mise En Place Bonne Femme wasn’t finished,” she says. “It was still so needed. Then I started getting phone calls from all the originals, asking when we could all have lunch together again.”

We’re in this together: Zavackas shares a hug with a member.

Making it official

Zavackas resigned from her job and began to build Mise En Place Bonne Femme as an official organisation. She created a website and began recruiting members, with many of the originals already signed up. As well as women in hospitality, the network is also offering membership to women in all food businesses, from farming to manufacturing.

New events are also being created to help members improve their business, learn new skills and make new connections. Member benefits will include farm tours and retreats, industry discounts and seminars from experts on everything from waste management to authentic communication. But it’s the signature lunches that will remain as the organisation’s anchor.

“I tell the girls that I don’t want them to bring their business cards to lunch,” Zavackas says. “It’s not a networking event; we’re not talking about our menus or our suppliers. We’re talking about how king-hit we feel when some person who doesn’t understand us gives us a one-star review. We’re talking about how hard it is. It’s a safe space to say, ‘I’m not sure how I’m going to cope with this – I’m drowning’.”

The women have built strong connections, and the support they have has made them better business owners.

What happens at the table stays at the table

A non-disclosure statement on the group’s website assures members that whatever is shared around the table or at an event will stay within the group.

“It needs to be safe,” Zavackas explains. “If you have a meltdown, nobody else in Brisbane needs to know. This is a safe place where you can have a good cry and be told that it’s okay – we hear you and we understand.”

While Mise En Place Bonne Femme is currently Brisbane-based, there are hopes it will expand to other states. Ultimately, Zavackas wants to help as many women in food as she can, as she recalls how much she struggled in the past – not just when she first arrived in Brisbane, but also many years earlier when she was trying to juggle running a business with new motherhood. Suffering from severe postnatal depression, she felt there was no one who understood what she was going through, and had nowhere to turn for support.

“I want to make sure all the girls have what I didn’t have,” Zavackas says. “Because I know the heartbreak in that. And I think the more the word is spread, the more women are going to feel supported, because right now they don’t. They just don’t.

“There’s absolutely no shame in asking for help, in reaching out. We’ve been there, we see you and we’ve saved you a seat.”

For membership and more information, head to bonnefemme.com.au

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