We often hear about gender parity goals and progress from big restaurant players like McDonald’s and Yum Brands and this work unquestionably merits such attention. But what about smaller restaurant brands, those not beholden to investor-driven ESG objectives?
For some, this work is just as important. Consider Salata as an example. The about-90-unit Houston-based salad chain added three female executives in late 2021 – Michele Maerz, VP of operations, Julie Davis, VP of franchise development, and Kelly Finley, director of off-premise. Its president, Michelle Bythewood, came on board a little over five years ago, initially as the chief marketing officer.
The makeup of this team wasn’t intentional, but executives certainly don’t ignore it. During a recent interview, Bythewood and Davis both acknowledged the challenges they’ve overcome throughout their careers and the importance of female mentorship to help overcome those challenges and become “statistical anomalies” – women represent just 38% of executive level positions in the industry, despite holding 63% of entry level jobs.
Perhaps serendipitously, Davis and Bythewood initially worked together about 25 years ago at Schlotzky’s.
“We worked with a bunch of men except for in the marketing department,” Davis said. “There were no examples of female executives that I could emulate, and I struggled. I struggled with delivering the message and being heard and just finding my voice and confidence. It takes time and courage.”
It also takes patience to master your craft. After Schlotzky’s, Davis honed her skills at Popeyes, Dunkin', El Pollo Loco and Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers. It was Bythewood’s “gumption” that made Davis want to join the Salata brand.
“She went to the founder after a year and a half of being here and told him she wanted to be president. She told him, ‘I can do this.’ That’s the gumption I came to work for,” Davis said.
Bythewood spent the first part of her role as president rebranding Salata – fresh logo, restaurant design, etc. – and putting a tech stack in place that included online ordering and an app. The latter move helped relatively insulate the brand through much of the throes of Covid and now it’s positioned for a year of record unit and sales growth driven by a new franchise recruitment program.
“That was another bullish move – she told them their baby was ugly and worked with the team to completely redesign this brand. She paved the way for the work I'm doing,” Davis said about Bythewood.
That mentorship is important to Bythwood, who says her leadership priority at Salata is to “grow the culture through love, purpose and gratitude.”
“Everything we do ties into those three words. If you don’t own that, you’ll never fit in here,” she said.
Her motivation comes simply from her lived experiences.
“When I started my career, it was so much more male-dominated than it is now. I remember sitting at a board room table with all men and I was scared to death. I didn’t speak up,” Bythewood said.
Now she knows that speaking up is critical and encourages other women to do the same. Much of Bythewood’s confidence comes from simply asking for what she wanted – the president’s position – and finding solid footing within that role.
“You need to ask for what you want. So many women don’t do that enough and why not?” Bythewood said. “Get out of your head. Take the risk. If it doesn’t work out, you’re still going to learn – I promise.”
Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]