Kuala Lumpur – Women in the F&B industry have historically been underrepresented. For the hospitality industry, this is always particularly contentious.What we’d like to address this year is the scarcity of media attention devoted to unsung female heroes, and there is still much room for improvement in this regard.
Women play an integral and interesting role in the food industry. There were so many women whose stories that have yet been told. With this in mind, Thirstmag.com and Set the Tables have joined forces to champion the industry’s unsung female heroes.
The launch of the month-long International Women’s Day Drinks.Eats. (IWDDE) 2023 is to celebrate the unsung sheroes who have contributed to the development of this nation, and of course, many other things in between!
As this month is coming to a close, we round up the stories and celebrations here. But regardless of what you hear at happy hour these days, the food industry traditionally has a notoriously high annual employee turnover rate. And this is particularly true for women in front-of-house roles, especially bartenders and servers. They make up a large portion of those leaving such outlets in search of opportunities that offer safer, more supportive workplace culture, reliable wages, skills training and career advancement.
If you ask female bartenders and chefs about the biggest challenges they face in the workplace, you’ll typically hear the following themes revealed to you at lightning speed: an underestimation of their skills, and sometimes, even unwanted sexual advances!
So, this time around, on the occasion of International Women’s Day and in celebration of the International Women’s Day Drinks.Eats. 2023, we decided to go after the stories reflecting a more constructive effort towards creating a positive environment for both female employees of such establishments and also its women customers.
In this regard, Chinatown’s current darling outlet, Concubine KL, is proud of the fact that this bar is pretty much almost completely run by women! “We’ve always believed that genre shouldn’t make a difference when it comes to assigning responsibilities and retributing the team. Appreciation is shown on daily basis,” states owner Nicolas Fraile.
“But this month, in conjunction with IWDCW we want to show appreciation by publicly recognising their value and naming our own gin cocktail Michelle, My Belle, in their honour. Best of all, it’s a cocktail that’s been crafted by our very own Michelle behind the bar at Concubine KL!”
At Ignis, its pastry chef, rising star of our generation, Ooi Viyern expresses, “The world of food is highly ranked based. Others would comment, “Well, certainly she flirts her way up,” when a woman rose in the ranks. It is degrading. A positive work environment is when my peers and management take your opinions into consideration and treat women in equal standing.In fact, I focused on my craft, speak up when necessary and won’t back down. My opinions are taken into account at the job I currently hold. Everyone in this place is treated equally and given rewards based on merit.” Located at Bangsar South, Ignis’s menu revolves around a woodfire grill.
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Chef-patron Chu Wei Sin of Aposto in TTDI area makes an effort that his restaurant actively recruits and hires women to create a gender-balanced workplace. Aposto’s restaurant manager, one of its commis chef and pastry chef are all female, namely, Evangeline Sim, Alicia Bong and Sara Wong. “We ensure equal opportunities for female employees, including pay, promotions, and training. No discrimination or unconscious bias in any decision-making process. We also encourage open communication with female employees and create a safe and supportive environment where they can express their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, provide mentorship and networking opportunities to female employees to help them develop their skills and advance their careers.”
In the Petaling Jaya area, restaurants Gooddam and LI are co-founded by women. Miki Lee for Goodam, Ziyan and Yee Rui for LI. “Safe and non-abusive work environment for female employees, equal pay and opportunity for promotion to leardership role.” says Miki of Gooddam. “We focus a lot on gender equality in terms of work & we give space for woman to shine in our workplace” says Ziyan of LI.
At Kapitan Haus, co-founder Alex Yeo is proud to point out that his outlet provides equal pay opportunities that are merit-based and do not discriminate by gender. “Female staff are also entitled for period days off that can be redeemed without any documentation,” he continues. “We also provide maternity leave for new mothers. Sanitary pads are also provided for our female staffs and customers at our restrooms.”
“Our star bartender is in fact a woman, too! Yap Siew Mun has definitely mastered not only the drinks on the menu and the outlet’s operations, but also all the general knowledge associated with the cocktail world as well. Appearance wise, she is most known for her trademark buzzcut but there is definitely more to her than just a cool hairstyle. Behind the bar, she is unmatched in her focus and attention to detail!”
Flexible Hours and Maternity Leave
Kit Chan of Chow Kit’s Licky Chan & The Poke Guy is also very enthusiastic about hiring women to spearhead the unique alcohol-infused ice cream parlour cum tattoo studio. “The majority of our staff are female, but most of them are part timers. But regardless, we have flexible hours with a minimum commitment per week. We also offer equal pay and opportunities. Best of all, we offer 60 days of maternity leave to our ladies since we started and this has been made the minimum starting this year.”
But it’s not just female staff that need a helping hand when it comes to the bar business. Women patrons of such establishments could also use some added reassurances in these challenging times. In this regard, Reka Bar’s Giovanni Magliaro has this to say about things: “We try to ensure that Reka is a professional and safe environment for every female, whether staff or guest.”
At ShhhBuuuLeee in Chinatown, their stellar floor manager Rose Sigua is currently pregnant and the team has been constantly adjusting their work practises to ensure a safe working environment until she gives birth. “For example, we prioritize flexibility in working hours, so she can have regular hospital check-ups, sharing some of her workload as a team, and checking in on her to ensure she is mentally and physically healthy.” says Mui Kai Quan, chef-patron of ShhhBuuuLeee.
Zero-tolerance towards harassment
That’s why he reveals that Reka practices a zero-tolerance policy toward any form of harassment or discrimination, and staff members are trained to take notice and intervene should any female be in distress at the outlet. “We try very hard to create a familial environment where every customer and team member can feel safe and supported. The female members of the team also go the extra mile to ensure female guests are taken care of with small touches such as sanitary pads in the female restrooms and regular check ins with single female guests.”
Outlet designed with women’s needs in mind
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“Perhaps the effort we appreciate the most is the excellent setting and cleanliness of the restrooms,” she points out. “We also provide personal hygiene amenities like deodorant, hair bands and the like for our female guests. We also encourage both our female and male customers to give us regular feedback about our service and amenities so that we can improve and they would stay longer for even more drinks with us!”
“Ours is a space where female customers can feel secure. Our bar tagline is #sipgently so this notion has always been at the forefront of our bartenders’ way of hosting customers. We make sure they drink responsibly and sober up before making their way home,” reveals Chan further.
Chan also believes women approach leadership differently, bringing a unique touch into the working and hospitality culture. “Women are usually more compassionate, caring and mindful, and we believe in creating a harmonious working space for each other. I hope it would inspire more women to join the Terumi family!”
Women support women
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And perhaps rounding things off nicely are the words by Alicia Fonseka of Damansara Height’s Beef and Coffey (BAC). She believes that being a woman in a male-dominated industry has pushed her to do more for her female team members and patrons. “Having previously come from one of the best dive bars in downtown KL, Pisco Bar, I’ve been dealt many different hands in the past,” she goes on to say.
“I’m no sexist but I have always stood together with all my female team members, especially on the matter of sexual harassment. When it come to this, women ALWAYS have the right to say NO; to drinks, to unusual “proposals”, to pretty much anything indecent, really. And if any of my guests or staff members are unable to handle the situation, I am always there to assist.”
But ultimately, Alicia feels that the most important thing is for outlet managers or owners to take full control in such situations. “Previously, I’ve told indecent customers to leave, likewise letting go of a member of my own team for behaving indecently with a guest or co-worker. Fortunately, I am happy to report that after so many years in the industry, I’ve yet to come across any gender discrimination among my own team members; I hope I never do!”
Written by Ellfian Rahim for Thirstmag.com, with adaptation by Theri Burhan for Set the Tables
Image credit: Concubine, Cliff Choong