COVID-19 has stunted progress in addressing foodservice’s gender imbalance, but Pür & Simple is on a continuing mission
By Tom Nightingale
The foodservice and restaurant industry has been thrust under a newly intense spotlight throughout COVID-19. During a pandemic that has devastated foodservice and hospitality to an extent felt by few other industries, there has been a reassessment of the way in which the sector operates.
New scrutiny has been placed on mental health in the kitchen, a debate is raging about the ethics of tipping, and so much more is in review after such a seminal time for the industry and society at large. One thing that should not be forgotten is the importance of ensuring that, in a field that like so many others is historically dominated by white men, everyone must have a voice.
Recent research has shown that women’s participation in the labour force has fallen from a historic peak in early 2020 to its lowest level in more than 30 years. A significant factor in this has been the pandemic itself, which has pushed many confident and ambitious women out of the workplace and back into the home out of sheer necessity.
Long before the pandemic even struck, Canadian breakfast restaurant chain Pür & Simple had been on a continuing mission to promote the employment and empowerment of women within the restaurant industry by creating opportunities for female entrepreneurs to succeed.
The brand and its co-founder Ritou Maloni have been unwavering advocates of equal employment since Pür & Simple’s beginnings in 2016. Maloni tells RestoBiz she was unable to ignore the fact that there were so few women in executive roles within foodservice and hospitality. She and her partners have set out to address that imbalance. To date, nearly a third of Pür & Simple’s locations are owned by women, and that number is steadily climbing.
“We are dedicated to empowering women not only to succeed in the workplace, but to achieve the balance and lifestyle they desire and deserve,” Maloni says. “We know that everyone has something to offer and that the value women can bring to the table is so often overlooked or missed.”
Breaking down barriers to entry
The hard truth is that foodservice has historically been a tough business model for entrepreneurs. A combination of harsh working hours, monumental workloads, and few avenues to relieve the pressure have made much restaurant work unappealing as a career choice. Combine those factors with often outdated gender attitudes and the near impossibility of balancing traditional restaurant work with family desires and commitments, and women have often found themselves pushed to the margins.
With an attractive business model and a lot of hard work over the years, Pür & Simple is helping to break down those barriers. Maloni notes that she and her co-founder, Ben & Florentine founder and owner Derek Massad, set out to make a refined and appealing breakfast chain that would welcome and ultimately empower female entrepreneurs.
Key to the appeal is the breakfast hours, which allow owners, operators, and staff to reclaim much of their days.
“When you open at 6 or 7 a.m. and close at 3 p.m., you’re allowing people to own their day after work,” Maloni explains. “This particular segment of the industry allows us to close the gender gap to a certain extent because a lot of women can go home to the family life they don’t want to give up. In the lunch/dinner restaurant business, they would never have that opportunity because of the hours and the incredible demands and strains of the industry. We call it an affordable luxury of the breakfast business.”
In essence, Pür & Simple’s flexible breakfast operation and its refined image are making breakfast dining an alluring proposition for businesswomen. Maloni notes that shedding the image of breakfast dining as a “gritty and greasy” world was a key aim for the brand. “We wanted to rehabilitate that image and elevate the experience. That’s what made me excited about staying in the industry and building this brand in this direction. I think it just attracted women over time because it was very fresh and finessed. It touches them.”
That was certainly the case for Amanda Henley, who opened a Kelowna location of Pür & Simple just months before the pandemic hit. Henley says she simply would not have considered foodservice entrepreneurship unless an opportunity like Pür & Simple had come along.
“The hours and flexibility were the biggest appeals,” Henley tells RestoBiz. “The restaurant can open without me, I drop my kids off at school, I come to work and work like mad, then leave at 2:30 p.m. just before close to go pick up the kids at school. If I have to, I come back to finish my day. We’ve got a huge support system in place, it’s well-oiled. All this allows us to meet our goals with our family as well as our entrepreneurial aspirations.”
Another franchisee, Jennifer Laplaige, owner of the first-to-market location in Paradise, Newfoundland, describes Pür & Simple’s model as “a blessing.”
“Time is so important, and this job gives me that,” she tells RestoBiz. “I can have that precious family time and still be completely fulfilled as a woman and as an entrepreneur. That is just priceless. Women often end up staying home through necessity rather than choice, and that can be so hard if it’s not where you want to be with your life. I would like to be able to give people the opportunity to have that choice. You can have both.”
Empathy and flexibility
Responding to the needs of female entrepreneurs and creating an environment in which they can flourish has always been a key mission statement for Pür & Simple and for Maloni. In the time of COVID-19, though, it has taken on increased importance.
Workers who have stayed in the industry over the last 16 months – regardless of their gender – have had to adapt to a host of changes across the entire industry. But, with widespread closures amid varying degrees of lockdown across Canada, many women have been forced out of the industry by sheer necessity.
Maloni notes that the fact that so many foodservice workers survive on tips, coupled with a fear of bringing the virus home to children or other family members, saw a significant exodus. “A lot of women took time to stay home and take care of their family during the pandemic, and many more were unsure about returning to the industry and their future in it, maintaining their finances and their family’s health, etc. The million-dollar question is how we reverse that damage of COVID-19.”
There’s no easy answer, but the company is certainly doing what it can. Many franchise partners have added benefits like medical and dental, and the brand is running programs and workshops to help its staff work towards their longer-term goals.
For Maloni and Pür & Simple, empathy is the key to the lock.
“There are tons of ways to motivate people and while salary is one, it’s certainly not all,” emphasizes Maloni. “We’re constantly working on ideas and we speak a lot to our team members to find what makes them happy. Confidence, empathy, flexibility, adaptability – all those things make a big difference.”
Speaking to franchisees Laplaige and Henley, it’s clear to see the difference that makes.
Laplaige grew up in Newfoundland and suffered unimaginable tragedy when her husband passed away suddenly from a heart attack, leaving her as a widowed mother of five. While that trauma tore her life apart, she recognized her professional capabilities and found solace and fulfilment in Pür & Simple.
“With Pür & Simple, the possibilities seemed endless,” she explains. “But it’s beyond what I could have expected. It ticks all of my boxes. They are so good to me – the structure they provide, the assistance, the support. They not only guide and help me but also promote me and empathize with me. I wanted to feel fulfilled in every aspect of my life and this has given that to me. They have helped me more than I could ever say.”
For Henley, too, it has proven a perfect match.
“I feel a kinship with Ritou,” says the Kelowna franchisee. “She understands the challenges of running the home and raising the kids and she sets boundaries between work and family which is not only something worth encouraging, but really very important. Like many women, in particular, I’m very protective of that time with my family. I really do feel that sense of support and family orientation within the company even at difficult times. It’s a special thing and very inspiring and motivating.”
Resilience and confidence
Broadly speaking, to be a successful female restaurateur requires a phenomenal amount of resilience. Foodservice is an industry that constantly serves up knock-backs and pitfalls which are often magnified for women, and even in a warm and supportive environment such as the one Maloni and her cohorts have worked so hard to foster, a huge amount of strength is needed.
“’No’ is not a word in our vocabulary,” concludes Maloni. “A common theme among the women in our system is that they’re very driven and they don’t tolerate any mediocracy really. Having that motivation and that resilience helped us and them cope with COVID-19 extremely well. It’s inspiring to see and it’s an honour and a privilege to work alongside it.”
Indeed, the company will look to further advance that cause as the company continues to expand. Laplaige’s Paradise restaurant opened in June, and further locations are coming to Milton, Ancaster, Whitby, Mississauga, Woodbridge, and Waterloo in Ontario before the end of the year.
Pür & Simple is just one brand and just one advocate for equality and female entrepreneurship within foodservice. The pandemic has been a significant trauma for the industry – in the context of female employment and for so many other reasons – but the opportunities are out there. The industry is reevaluating itself, and there’s a place for everyone.