By Kevin J. Gray
Photo: Winds Cafe co-owner Mary Kay Smith walks diners through a meal at her restaurant
When my editor gave me an assignment on gay restaurant owners/managers, I was a little stumped. I couldn’t figure out the angle. What does LGBT status have to do with running a restaurant? Wiley (who goes only by her last name) is the owner of Meadowlark in Washington Township, an out lesbian and a family friend, so I called her first. We puzzled over the assignment together before realizing that the stumbling block WAS the story – that what is remarkable about being a gay restaurateur is how increasingly unremarkable it has become. Acceptance had finally reached a point where sexual orientation is as irrelevant to running a restaurant in Dayton as is race or religion.
This live-and-let-live attitude was not always the norm. Mary Kay Smith is the co-owner of the Winds Café in Yellow Springs. Smith, together with business partner Kim Korkan, took over the Winds many years ago, when both women were in their early 20’s. At the time, she was out of the closet, but just barely. Her friends and family knew she was a lesbian, but it wasn’t something that she was especially public about. Even back then, Yellow Springs tended to be more liberal and accepting of all lifestyles, so most folks in the village knew – and didn’t care – that Smith was gay. But she knew not to expect that type of acceptance from the larger Miami Valley clientele: “It wasn’t as safe to be out in the larger community outside of Yellow Springs. Antioch and Yellow Springs were one world; the greater world at large was quite different. Certainly everyone in Yellow Springs knew, but we had our moments. I had people who would call our business phone and say, ‘I heard the people that own [the Winds Café] are homosexuals – I don’t want to come there.’”
But times have changed. “It isn’t much of an issue, anymore,” said Smith, although there are occasional episodes, to which she responds with kindness. “People begin to like you, they like you as a person, and as their favorite restaurant, so when it finally comes around to the gay part, they are like, ‘Oh they are a gay person and I like them. Maybe gay people aren’t all bad.’”
Wiley took this sentiment one step further: “I don’t know who knows that I am a lesbian, and that [Meadowlark] is a gay-owned restaurant. I feel like the reason people accept any gay-owned business is because [LGBT business owners] are themselves, they try to conduct business the best way they can, and if they do it well, it gives people a good impression.”
This acceptance may be related to two factors. First, the restaurant business as a whole has generally been more accepting of LGBT individuals than other industries. Wiley notes, “This is an easy profession to be out in, compared to, say, the public school system, and so I’ve been lucky enough to not worry about workplace discrimination.” Dana Downs, executive chef at Roost in the Oregon District, agrees. Downs once worked in the country club industry, which was not as accepting. She noted that at the time, she felt like, “with my lifestyle, I had to hide and curtail who I was, to be the person they needed me to be. It was frustrating, and I didn’t appreciate myself and I was not happy about who I felt like I needed to be in that industry.” Later, she and her partner Beth Hirschbach, who owns Roost, opened a catering business. Downs remembered that transition fondly: “It was refreshing; it was the biggest breath of fresh air that I could be who I was.”
The other factor is that sexual orientation is less of a big deal for the younger generation. Smith notes that Gen. Xers and Millennials generally don’t give it much thought.
Hirschbach also noted the changed attitude: “Who knew that it would finally be cool, or that people won’t really care? That’s the best part. It’s a new phenomenon in the last few years that it’s no big deal. And when I talk to my nieces and nephews who are middle schoolers and high schoolers, they don’t get [why it would even be an issue].” Harry Truboubis, who will be the general manager of the soon-to-be-opened Salar in the Oregon District, adds, “[T]imes are changing and with that, prejudice and intolerance are becoming less visible as gay people are viewed as an integral part of the community as a whole.”
There is still work to be done, for sure, because some discrimination still exists. Interestingly, all of the women I spoke with mentioned that gender can be a bigger obstacle to running a business than sexual orientation because of the way female business owners are treated by society at large. And not everyone in the LGBT community is treated equally. “One must not ignore that the trans community still faces significantly less acceptance than their gay, lesbian and bisexual brothers and sisters. I believe that many misconceptions still exist about those individuals and with less understanding comes far less acceptance,” noted Truboubis.
Still, it says something remarkable about the Dayton area that many of our top restaurants are owned and run by out and proud individuals. It is encouraging to see the community’s focus on not who is running the restaurant, but rather, how well the restaurant is run.
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com