Q&A with Beverly Kim: Helping Working Mothers Remain in the Restaurant Industry

We chat with James-Beard-Award-winning chef Beverly Kim about her new nonprofit The Abundance Setting, designed to support working mothers in the restaurant world, and about her own experiences balancing motherhood and industry life.
January 13, 2022, 07:41 PM UTC
Q&A with Beverly Kim: Helping Working Mothers Remain in the Restaurant Industry

A mother of three sons, a dog, and two restaurants, James-Beard-Award-winning chef Beverly Kim has plenty to keep her busy. Naturally, the pandemic brought on even more tasks to tackle, as co-owner, along with husband Johnny Clark, of Chicago’s Michelin-starred Parachute and sister spot Wherewithall. But despite Kim’s many obligations, it didn’t stop her from recently starting something new – a project very close to her heart. 

In October 2020, Kim launched The Abundance Setting, a nonprofit designed to support working mothers in the culinary industry, with programming that includes meal relief, networking assistance, and mentoring opportunities.

We sat down to chat with Kim about the project, along with how she strives to create a positive environment at her own restaurants.

Many of the challenges women face in the industry were around long before the pandemic. I’m wondering if The Abundance Setting was an idea you’ve had for awhile?

The actual idea came after a few of us women chefs got together to talk about the Me Too movement that was happening four years ago. We had a gathering with a lot of leaders in Chicago, and one of the conversations we were having was about how we’re still having a very hard time retaining women and women leadership in the industry.

There’s an unattainable pathway  to doing this once you have a family, with the hours we work, the low wages, the lack of support system culturally, and societally at large. When you don't see a pathway, women either move out of the business when they decide to have a family or they just choose not to have this career path.

We don’t have any kind of systems of parental leave and universal healthcare here. And it’s extremely difficult in the restaurant industry that caters to nights and weekends. Benefits are really dependent on each restaurant, and most restaurants operate on very thin margins, so it’s this cyclical problem that leaves very little support systems for working moms. 

So you set out to start addressing some of these issues.

These issues don’t really get brought up into the decision-making because most of the decisions are made by men. A lot of women would like to have families but because the culture is so male-dominated, it becomes a liability to even bring up these issues or advocate by yourself. 

It’s important to have a coalition of leaders to bring it up, so it feels like a safe space. We wanted to advocate for women at large and address the gender disparity.

I imagine you faced some of these challenges yourself. Can you share your experience of balancing motherhood while working in the industry after you had your first child?

There were points where I almost gave up my own career and people were telling me I should figure out something different. Once I got pregnant with my first son, I was determined not to let it be a stumbling block to my dreams. But it was very difficult.

I was really on my own to be honest. I didn’t have family to babysit. I didn’t have someone I felt comfortable talking about everything where I worked. It was just, figure it out as you go. 

When I was pregnant, I was on the hot line working until I was very, very large, on a slippery floor, under long hours. There was no health insurance. And I was starting to feel physically like I was not doing my best. So I moved to Whole Foods thinking maybe it’d be better working in a kitchen in a corporate grocery store. There were benefits, but nothing to cover my pregnancy. And it was still like, ‘Don’t tell people you’re pregnant’. When it came time to grab 40 pounds of chicken, and all these things doctors tell you not to do, I was doing it because I had to hold my weight. I worked until I was 10 days overdue, making probably a couple dollars over minimum wage. Then I was back to work in six weeks because I couldn’t afford to take more time off. 

You dehumanize yourself in a sense. A lot of women don’t feel like they can talk about being pregnant. They don’t tell their boss because they’re afraid to lose their job. In our industry, you’re considered weak for anything that differentiates you. That creates an environment that’s hostile to being a mom.

Then there’s the cost of childcare – when you’re in the restaurant industry, you could be a three-star Michelin chef and you’re still making minimum wage. What got me through opening Parachute was that I qualified for the Head Start program. My family had to make less than $31,000, which is kind of crazy, but we qualified because we didn’t take an income at the time. 

As women increasingly leave the industry, can you talk about the importance of sustaining female leadership in order to address a lot of these inherent challenges?

We need to have more women in leadership to make it more normal to talk about things that we deny are important to us.

When you think of food, and this concept that ‘food is where the heart is’, you think of the matriarchs in your life, but it doesn’t translate in the professional world. So it’s very important that we continue to advocate because these are skills women can do – they can do all of the leadership positions in a restaurant. And it's important to see other successful women, including moms who've done it.

One of the core services The Abundance Setting provides is meal relief for working mothers. Can you share how that works and its importance to the overall mission?

We’re just a very small organization, so it was like what can we do to physically help working moms? When you’re a working mom, you think chefs cook amazing food for their kids, but they really have very little time at home and little time to shop. Or a huge budget. So I think one of the best ways to support families is actually dropping off meals. That saves so much time and stress of grocery shopping, planning, prepping, cleaning. Culturally, women still take on more at home, and with Zoom school and all these things, this was a huge relief to moms.

You started with a three-month pilot, working with three working moms, yes?

Yes. Our first pilot group was led by myself and my mentor Sarah [Stegner, owner of Prairie Grass Cafe]. Each month, we switched up the chef, which exposes your kids to different kinds of foods. And we’d have Zoom calls throughout the whole process, checking in on the women and asking them about their goals and things they had questions about. There was this invaluable education component to it. 

Where do you see the program headed?

We did a second pilot, and now we’re planning to do a pod every year, keeping it to three moms and three chefs, for three months. We found that was manageable. 

It’s actually an expensive program. It’s a lot of food to buy, plus the cost and time of managing everything. But we’re going to pilot one more in Chicago next year, and we’d love to pilot it in other cities – we’re just trying to get our ducks in a row first. The program has been deeply impactful in a way that changed a lot of these women’s lives.

You also provide mentorship and networking opportunities for people outside of the pilot programs.

We partner with James Beard to have a national platform. So for moms who need support, in any part of the country, you can go to their Open For Good portal and select The Abundance Setting [under ‘categories], and you can reach out. There’s five of us on there, and sometimes I might not have all the answers, but I’ll know someone who has the answers, and that’s the power of networking.

There are all these things that are often more comfortable for men to talk about in their world, like money, how to get a loan, or what salary to ask for. It's important to make those answers accessible for women. If we're going to help women, we want to be available to answer those questions.

You’re a working mom. You run two restaurants. And now a new nonprofit. Can you share some advice on how you handle it all?

My advice is, I don’t handle it all. I have a great team at work. I have a great partner. Teamwork makes the dreamwork. You can’t do it by yourself. You have to trust some people to execute other parts. So I focus myself on, ‘How do I inspire my leaders?’, because I can’t be at all places at once. Even at the nonprofit, it’s based on volunteers – so it’s like, how do I inspire people who are doing this for free? I start with the mission and the vision first. In the beginning, it may just be finding a few people who believe in that dream. 

It’s important to value the people that work for me. And that includes at home, where I have a lot of support. I invest a lot – probably 50%, and in the pandemic, 100%, of my income goes to my home support. My nanny has been with me for four years and I value her as much as I value a general manager, because without her everything would fall apart. And I value everyone who’s part of my team.

Communication is also important, keeping everyone together on the same page. And surrounding yourself with people who empower you – you’re a product of your environment. A lot of women have so much ambition and potential, but maybe they’re in the wrong environment. 

How do you make sure you’re creating the right team at your restaurants?

That’s been a learning lesson for me – who are the right people? When you hire, you’ve got to hire the best people, people who will execute your vision as much as it’s their own, and I don’t think I could do any of this without the team. But I have to give to that team. It’s not necessarily money – they want to be inspired and feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. They want to learn, they want to accomplish their goals. 

Are you currently experiencing any of the staffing challenges so many restaurants are enduring? 

Honestly, I’m really lucky. I’m almost a little over-staffed in the front of house with Delta and then Omicron. I’m just trying to keep my staff because I think this is a temporary thing – I’m in a situation where I’m losing money so I can have my staff. 

I know not everyone can do this, but for me I feel like this is the best time to do it – eliminate the subminimum wage. Then if it’s slow, no one’s waiting on a tip. We pay very fair wages, and we have benefits, like healthcare and parental leave. But I think more than that, it’s stability. I think our team sees we treat them as professionals. They’re not disposable – we invest in them.

Every week, we’re constantly educating our staff, whether it’s about the wine or the food. When people feel stagnant, the only thing keeping them might be money. We work hard to create an environment where people feel valued and they can grow, and where they enjoy learning. 

Parachute is under renovation. It’ll be open in the spring, and I may have the same staffing challenges, but so far, so good. But restaurants need aid. Last year you could apply for PPE loans, grants, but now there’s nothing. I don’t think anyone expected this to go on for so long. But restaurants who are used to making their money off of indoor dining, the margins are still horrible right now. So there needs to be another round of PPE to help restaurants keep people employed.

Any advice for mothers right now who feel like they’re struggling and are considering leaving the industry?

I hear them loud and clear. I feel for them. All I can say is that there are women out there who are still doing it, so it gives me hope. There are other groups like The Abundance Setting to help people find moms who are in similar situations, and it’s really so important to have that support group. 

Before you give up completely, try all solutions. You’d be surprised at the creativity and innovation that cultivates. And the one advantage right now – there are so many restaurants looking for staff, and there are ways to try different things.

It’s important to continue your dreams. I’d encourage you not to give up.

As for The Abundance Setting, what future goals do you hope to accomplish? At a grassroots level, I envision a space for this place – it has childcare connected to it, a space for women to get education or to network. 

Secondly, I envision influencing the industry itself to have more family-forward policies – to be more inclusive, to have a parental leave policy, a cultural shift in how people speak about women, and to challenge leaders to put policies in place, like a zero tolerance for harassment and eliminating the subminimum wage.

It’s a volunteer organization, and I’m always looking for people who are willing to mentor other women through the process. You can reach out at TheAbundanceSetting@gmail.com. The main vision is to have a huge network of mentors that have different skill sets and perspectives. 

And you don’t necessarily have to be a mom to get involved. If you’re a male who wants to support our mission, or a woman in the industry and you’re trying to plan things out for yourself, this is a great network to be a part of.