How women chefs and restaurateurs are breaking the gender barrier in Dayton’s most successful restaurants
By Brian P. Sharp
Family legacy. Family dynasty. Award-winning. Those are just a few words to describe the women restaurant owners and women chefs in the Miami Valley.
It has been my great pleasure to get to know this group of amazing women just a bit better over the past weeks as I researched and wrote this article. There are so many women-run restaurants, women-owned restaurants and women chefs that it was difficult to narrow the field enough for this purpose. We are very privileged to have such a group right here in the Dayton area.
A family affair
I would be remiss if I didn’t start this article with what has been a family legacy since 1962 with the Thomas family and their culinary gem, the Golden Nugget, located at 2932 South Dixie Dr. For those of us who know, waiting in line is just part of the fun.
The Thomas sisters have been running the business for many years; Stacey, Stephanie, Alex and Genie (who passed away about four years ago). The original restaurant was located virtually in the same place as the current Kettering location – at the corner of Dorothy Lane and South Dixie Drive. Then came the Salem Avenue location, which was followed by the Keowee Street location (originally located at the corner of Keowee Street and Stanley Avenue), which later moved to an old remodeled Ponderosa. Many things have changed over the years – the closing of the Salem Avenue location, the loss of Mr. Thomas about 14 years ago, the fire that gutted the South Dixie location, the selling of the Keowee Street location and the loss of Genie. All are events the sisters have gone through together.
Stacey, Stephanie and Genie all worked in other businesses, but ended up working in the family business. And a family it is. This is a place where you are part of the family. Genie was like a sister to me and it was not uncommon to find her sitting down with guests at the Keowee Street location to visit, catch up, share a story, a laugh or even a tear.
Many of us remember the girls’ mother, Bessie, visiting with guests and running the register. You can always find Alex running the dining room on South Dixie – nothing gets past her. Stacey is usually running things in the kitchen, dealing with vendors and working closely with her husband Pantelis Frangomichalos. You can usually find Stephanie in the business on Sundays.
“One of the best things my Dad ever said to me was, ‘When you walk in the back door, remember that you are not any better than anyone in the place,’” said Stacey, and she still remembers that lesson to this day.
“One of our biggest assets is that some of our employees have been with us for years,” she said. “I have gotten to know them like family. I know their kids and grandkids, just like I know our customers.”
But being a woman running a business wasn’t always easy, she insisted. In the early days, she said some people doubted her. “I found, on occasion, that I had to ‘show my teeth,’” she said, to let them know where she stood. “Now, I’m not my Dad or my brother [who owns Doubleday’s in Centerville], but I can still do the job!”
Besides amazing breakfasts, unforgettable soups, great chili and delicious sandwiches and salads, there is the never-ending cup of coffee. My father once said the ONLY bad thing about the Golden Nugget is that when he gets just enough cream and sugar in his coffee, they come by and top it off! Not a bad problem to have.
Anything you can do …
In Dayton, there is a family dynasty run by Mary Miller; a dynasty that started in 1975 with the Barnsider restaurant, located at 5202 N. Main St. in Dayton. The Barnsider was already a success when it was gutted by a fire, but in true Mary Miller style, she brought it back better than ever with a remodeled and expanded restaurant. I feel like I grew up there, enjoying Barnsider Chicken or jumbo fried shrimp (with a cocktail sauce that will bring a tear to your eye), and mouth-watering steaks and chops.
Mary expanded her operations to Beavercreek with the opening of Wellington Grille, located just off of I-35. Mary expanded again with the addition of Harrison’s in Tipp City. Thus, bringing this family dynasty to three full-service culinary institutions. Mary involved her daughters Natalie and Kelly in the business at a young age, with her brother Raymond in the kitchen. Kelly has taken those experiences and run with them when she and her Uncle Raymond decided to open Blueberry Café in Bellbrook, and then after a brief time, opened Urban Ava located across the street from Harrison’s in Tipp City. Barnsider continues its rich dinner traditions with a value-driven Prime Rib special on Monday evenings and an affordable and varied Sunday brunch.
Mary has always been a strong presence in her restaurants. But unfortunately, like a lot of women business owners, she experienced a few skeptics.
“Some people actually took bets on whether I could make it opening a steakhouse on North Main Street, simply because I was a woman, and an Asian woman at that!” she said. Guess they lost those bets long ago because Mary is still at it today. I wonder what she’ll dream up next.
Overcoming the odds
Anne Kearney, chef/owner of Rue Dumaine, located at 1061 Miamisburg-Centerville Road in Centerville, has a rich story. Anne grew up in Dayton with a working mom, forcing her to quickly become the “chef” at home. This only solidified her desire to want to be a chef in life.
By the age of 16, she was certain that she wanted to be a chef and own her own restaurant. Luckily, her passion and determination couldn’t be stopped after some uninspiring words from a high school guidance counselor.
“I was told ‘there is no future in cooking,’” she said, and thankfully, she didn’t listen and enrolled in the Cincinnati Culinary Arts Academy. After her graduation, she started working in kitchens in Cincinnati. In her first few jobs, she admitted to not being taken seriously as a woman and said she was often spoken to in a “demeaning way by vendors talking about tasks as simple as storing chicken.”
Anne spent time in kitchens in Cincinnati and Dayton, and then got the chance to move to New Orleans and work in some of the most prestigious restaurants in the country. Through her time in the Big Easy, she met her mentor, John Neal.
“John changed my life and solidified my skills,” she said.
Anne had the privilege of opening Peristyle in the French Quarter with Neal. After a number of years at Peristyle, Anne had the opportunity to interview at Emeril Lagasse’s legendary New Orleans restaurant, Emeril’s. She was hired as the only woman to work in the kitchen with Lagasse.
“My co-workers would pass me in the kitchen and they would say ‘you’re not going to make it,’” she said. But “make it” she did. She worked as Lagasse’s personal culinary assistant, writing scripts for his early television shows, traveling with him and even helping him write one of his cookbooks.
In early 1995, Anne’s mentor, John Neal, passed away. A few months later, Anne received a call that John’s family wanted to know if she wanted to purchase Peristyle. Anne had only $300 in the bank. How was she supposed to buy a restaurant? She shared the opportunity with Emeril, who helped organize a meeting of bankers helping to lay the foundation for Anne’s purchase of Peristyle.
Anne’s life took some interesting turns over the next few years after suffering a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Anne bounced back in an amazing way, but after a while, really felt the need to return to her roots and come home to Dayton. Not long after, Anne and her husband of 13 years, Tom Sand, returned to their home.
In 2007, Anne and Tom opened Rue Dumaine (French for Dumaine Street, where Peristyle was located in the French Quarter) in Centerville.
This year, Anne was nominated, yet again (after winning “Southeast Regional Best Chef” in 2002), by the James Beard Foundation for the Best Chefs in America competition, among 19 other chefs in the Great Lakes region. Looks like she’s not stopping anytime soon.
The birth of a dream
It is not very often in Dayton that we are blessed with newness and charm like newbie Hawthorn Grill, located at 1222 E. Stroop Road in Kettering. Chef/Owner Candace Rinke knew at an early age that she enjoyed cooking. “I won a blue ribbon after entering a cake decorating contest in the sixth grade!” she said.
Even though Candace always enjoyed cooking, it wasn’t until she was at the University of Michigan studying engineering that she realized she was having more fun cooking and grocery shopping with her roommates than she was in her engineering classes. That said, she started looking for cooking schools and soon found a community college in metro Detroit with a great culinary program.
She worked in the kitchens of the Golden Mushroom and Tribute in Detroit. After moving to Ohio and taking on catering jobs, her career started to blossom, providing lunches and starting the Busy Gourmet. Not long after, she gave birth to her pride and joy, her son. While she was a stay-at-home mom caring for him, she started working on developing a business plan for a restaurant. Once she found the perfect location, Hawthorn Grill was born.
“At times, I am just not taken seriously as a woman in the business,” she said. “For example, just recently I was trying to sell a used piece of kitchen equipment. The potential buyer asked, ‘Who else can I speak with about the price?’ and I said, ‘I am the owner. I make the decisions.’”
Candace said that her husband often asks her how she gets the energy she has. “When the customers tell me that they love my food, or the presentation, or my interpretation, it energizes me!”
She believes that she can bring a creative, softer side to things and at the end of the day, she knows this is where she is supposed to be. She knows, “This is my dream job and I get to live my dream every day.”
A lifelong Dayton food career
What would an article about women restaurateurs in Dayton be without talking to Elizabeth Wiley at Meadowlark? Her story is inspirational, as is her food. Her restaurant is located at 2094 Miamisburg-Centerville Road in Centerville, just 15 minutes from downtown Dayton. Wiley started cooking at an early age while her mom worked. As a young adult, she worked for her aunt and uncle at a restaurant they owned in Kansas City, but after spending time there, she stepped away from the kitchen to go to college, where she majored in English. During her years at school, she traveled and visited with friends in Yellow Springs. “I fell in love with the area, with Yellow Springs and with the Winds restaurant,” she said.
Not long after her first Yellow Springs experience, she moved there and decided she wanted to work at the Winds. “I would have taken any job they offered me, just to work there. And I did, as a dishwasher!” Quickly, that dishwashing position turned into an amazing career run. She worked 20 years at the Winds, ending up as one of their partners in 1994.
After her career was everything she wanted it to be and more, she took it one step further by fulfilling her final culinary dream; opening up her own restaurant. In 2004, Meadowlark was born.
“I have never paid any attention to whether I was or wasn’t taken seriously as a woman in the kitchen, but at times, I definitely saw many cultural differences,” she said, citing those as some of the most valuable lessons she learned in the business.
“I am so lucky that my love and passion for food has only gotten stronger the older I get,” said Wiley. “I am thrilled that I am living in a time where cooking shows are as popular on TV as sports! People seem more interested in food now and very interested in fresh ingredients.” In a restaurant with amazing food and the freshest ingredients around, who could ask for more?
When asked if she would do anything differently throughout her many, many years as a chef, she said, “Yes, I would go to cooking school.” Wiley is a self-taught chef, but feels it could have given her an even greater advantage at times. She said it might have been able to help her with her continued greatest struggle in the kitchen: baking!
“Quite simply, flour intimidates me,” she laughed.
Wiley has certainly proven herself over the years and she has absolutely made a name for herself and for her amazing restaurant, Meadowlark. Hers is truly a story that can encourage and inspire.
Today, everywhere you look, women are dominating local kitchens and restaurants. They are turning their dreams into successful businesses and creating a deepened culinary culture in the Gem City. These women have changed the stigma attached to the, “A woman’s place is in the kitchen (and the restaurant)” idiom. Because of them, in Dayton, nothing could be closer to the truth.
Reach DCP freelance writer Brian P. Sharp at email@example.com.