Thank you to Delta Dental Iowa for sponsoring the 2020 40 Women to Watch!
Ali Bracket didn’t set out on a career path with the hospitality industry in mind. Communications degree in hand, she took an internship with the Des Moines Arts Festival, which led to a permanent position at Hoyt Sherman Place and now her current role at the Iowa Events Center, where she oversees hundreds of events each year. “I look back and am thankful for the amazing women I have worked for, with and beside,” says Ali. “They helped me become the professional I am today. It’s my hope to return the opportunity to influence young women in the hospitality industry.”
Allyson Tilk found a lifelong career with Raccoon Valley Partners, a locally-owned, family-run McDonald’s operating group in central Iowa. A 28 year team member, Allyson took advantage of every training opportunity provided and worked her way up through the ranks. She was most recently promoted to regional supervisor and now oversees four Des Moines area McDonald’s restaurants. Her team says Allyson brings a “unique flair” to her management style. It’s a style she shares as she now conducts McDonald’s Swing Management Development classes. Allyson is dedicated to ensuring patrons receive more than a “fast-food experience” and pays special attention the “details” that keep people coming back.
Amy Walsh warns people the hospitality industry can be addicting. The owner/operator at Mickey’s Irish Pub says, “If you try to leave, it pulls you back in.” She credits that pull to the infectious energy of customers and team members. Walsh chose hospitality because of the variety of career paths available. She speaks from experience having worked as a server, bartender, catering manager and now co-owner with husband Andy. The couple’s popular eatery has become a cornerstone in their community, receiving multiple awards for their charity work. An influential leader in and of herself, Amy serves on the Iowa Restaurant Association Board and also clerks for Representative Brian Best during the Iowa legislative session.
Ashton Johnson is a prime example of her personal belief that women can chart their own paths in the hospitality industry. She completed a degree in Art, but had always had a strong interest in wedding planning. She started in an hourly bartending role at Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery but quickly moved through the ranks–learning every part of the food and beverage business along the way. Today as Director of Hospitality Ashton focuses daily on ensuring customers are not just satisfied, but delighted by their experiences. In addition to creating memorable social and business events, Ashton is helping the Iowa-based company build a national wine and spirits brand.
After working behind the scenes in a popular taproom, Betsy Duffy took the leap into ownership co-founding Gezellig Brewing Company. It’s been a baptism fire owning the 14 month-old business which dealt with location changes, COVID-19 mandated closures and a derecho. Duffy has taken it all in stride. “A business is a direct reflection of the people that it is owned by, managed by and of every teammate,” says Betsy. “It takes tenacity, creativity, hard work and a love for people to survive in this industry.” That optimism is reflected in her award-winning brew names which include All the Goodness Farmhouse Ale and Hug Deal Gone Sideweiss Hefeweizen.
When Briana Smallwood created the mission statement “Bring people of all walks of life together through Soul Food,” for the restaurant she co-founded with her husband, she struck a chord. “Hospitality is: to feed and protect; to support and encourage; and the disposition of receiving and treating guests,” says Briana, who has a background in customer service, social media and marketing. Those talents have served her well in the award-winning restaurant. Briana is quick to say her role as a co-owner was to help bring the dream of her chef partner and husband to life. “Talent wins games, but teamwork wins championships,” says Briana. “We understand, support and respect each other’s roles.”
Chef Brittany Hannah chef/owner of Bistro 3Nineteen is a leader on the Marion business square which is filled with women-owned businesses. She is quick to support both her fellow business owners and the community—in festivals, progressive dinners, and outreach programs. She is known for her from scratch food and for keeping it positive through everything — floods, a pandemic, and now a derecho. “While I hope to never have to deal with things like this again, these tough times have reminded us why we do what we do,” say Chef Brittany. “Everyone coming together to help each other is not only being a good neighbor but is the essence of hospitality. We take care of other people so that they can better do their jobs.”
Cande Coulter started a women’s boutique with her daughter in 2019 and was excited to expand the business to include a luncheon café in January 2020. Even with the curve balls of capacity limits with Covid-19, the pair have adapted their business. Whether it was family meals to go, paper products and household items, produce boxes or bulk meat orders, they continually found ways to meet the needs of the community. “My cafe isn’t gourmet foods, fancy dressed plates or even a large menu,” says Cande. “Food from Simply Mae’s will fulfill your hunger needs and comfort your soul.”
Chelsea Johnsen was always drawn to hospitality working as a server, bartender, and cook. But she was convinced it could not be a “career.” Her desk job didn’t fill her heart so she opened a catering business on the side. Eventually she took the leap into hospitality full time, opening a small town café Sisters in Cheese. Chelsea has no regrets saying, “Hospitality is hard work–physically, emotionally and mentally. Shiny colorful social media posts can make it look very glamorous. It’s almost always NOT glamorous. But the shiny, colorful, glam times (even though few and far between) are extraordinary.”
Courtney Johnson is quick to encourage women to consider hospitality careers. Says Courtney, “There’s so much variety –sales, marketing, financial, culinary, mixology, human resources, management—they all play to different strengths, but if you are doing one, you usually have an opportunity to learn another.” Courtney knows this firsthand—having been a hostess, server and now GM. During the pandemic she spearheaded a complete shift in the business model from an upscale casual dine-in restaurant, to a carryout model including family packages, to go cocktails, and take-and-bake meals. She was in the 2020 Greater Burlington Leadership Class and has curated the restaurant’s Wine Spectator Awarded wine list for four years in a row.
Chef Cyd Koehn award winning catering business is a reflection of her personal belief that has whenever people gather around a table, the food should be joyful, nourishing, and eventful. She took the entrepreneurial step into private business ownership in 2011 after working as an Assistant Club Manager at the Des Moines Golf and Country Club and then Executive Sous Chef at the HyVee Corporate Offices. She is a strong voice for local food and was a visible spokesperson for Maytag chesses. Chef Cyd likes to keep simple saying her approach to events is to keep it “fuss free” for clients “and memorable for guests.”
In her role as Program Facilitator for the Culinary Arts Program at Scott Community College, Diane Stanley is a mentor for students and colleagues alike. She has established a reputation as someone who always finds time to provide extra time for students, an encourager of diverse opinions and a developer of leaders. Nominated by her colleagues, Diane is described as an educator whose empathy is her trademark. “Diane is committed to the growth of future hospitality leaders,” wrote her nominator. “She is motivated to excellence.”
Mother of five and owner of three hospitality venues including a popular rural Iowa Steakhouse, Heidi Baratta is hard to keep up with. She is a visible and energetic presence in all three locations. She credits her move into the hospitality to who husband, who grew up in the restaurant industry and always dreamed of opening a place of his own. “I’m the voice of our companies and my husband is the feet that make it go,” shares Heidi. She says women are the backbone of the industry and encourages them to chase their dreams. She notes, “You only live once, make it worth it!”
In her role as Regional Marketing Manager for Sysco, Jenn Mullin is known as “a force.” She’s been behind the scenes helping restaurants across the state with social media, marketing, menu design, carryout and delivery, and more. Her passion was put into overdrive during the early days of the pandemic when she helped deliver touchless QR code menus within 24 hours—helping restaurants adapt to the demands of the marketplace. “The creativity & passion in hospitality is hard to match in any other industry,” says Jenn. “From culinary curated masterpieces to innovative business concepts, the hospitality industry is the lifeblood of our communities.”
Jennifer Oaks, owner and baker at Sweet Oaks Bake Shoppe in tiny Collins, Iowa has never run from a challenge. The 26-year old mom of two (ages 2 and 3) opened her small town boutique bakery this year. Despite the pandemic, her bakery has grown and she has loved every day “working with food, being creative, trying new things, and making people happy.” Jennifer thinks more women should consider hospitality careers. “… it’s a male led industry…it needs more women in managerial roles,” says Jennifer. “Women bring such a unique style to the table, and are great at thinking outside of the box.”
Jessica Baldus owner of Taste by Unc’s in downtown Osage is quick to say that initially the “hospitality industry choose her” and that she was drawn in by the people. However, as a business owner she continues to choose hospitality back. Says Jessica, “Making decisions about the food we eat, how and where it’s grown, how and where it’s prepared, and the community and environment it’s consumed in, has a huge effect on everything from personal well-being, to agriculture and the environment, to political policy and societal roles.” Baldus lives out what she believes and has been honored for her philanthropy, food and community service.
Jonita Boyer started her venture at Tassel Ridge Winery 13 years ago as a field hand in the Vineyard, a place that given her agricultural background, felt natural. She learned quickly, being mentored by several winemakers and coworkers. Shea also learned on the job and took classes at Iowa State University. Seven years ago, she became the head winemaker for the winery and has created award winning wines every year since. She proudly represents Iowa’s wine industry in competitions across the country. Jonita takes great joy in her work saying, “it’s fun to take a tiny grape, see the chemistry side of winemaking, and create something people enjoy!”
Julia Punj’s natural wine bar in Fairfield Iowa is all her. She conceived, designed, and built much of her Veraison Wine Bar on her own- including cutting and welding the overhead polished copper rack that holds the crystal. A sommelier and trained chef she is the creative vision behind both the menu and wine program which includes 120 European wines, mostly organic, biodynamic or natural. Her interest in wine began in her culinary school days where she won an award for “most alcohol used in cooking.” Punj says her wine bar is an extension of herself and encourages women to study business or law, as well as culinary. “I’m passionate about what I do every day,” says Punj.
As District Manager with Full Court Press, Kathleen Gill oversees daily operations at the Iowa Tap Room, The Royal Mile, Truman’s and Rita’s Cantina. Like many women in the industry, Kathleen began her career as a part-time server and bartender during college and ended up falling in love with hospitality and making a career of it. “There are possibilities for women in every facet of the industry,” says Kathleen. “It is extremely fulfilling to make a career based on serving others and providing memorable experiences.” She says the possibilities are endless when it comes to creating a unique guest experience.
At only 29 years old, Kelley Carter is the Operations and General Manager of Guild, Ghosted Kitchen and the Guild Specialty Kiosk in the new Xtream Arena (seating capacity 5,100) in the Iowa River Landing Coralville. It was clear that Kelley’s future was in hospitality when at age 6, she accompanied her Executive Chef father to the restaurant, on her own picked up menus and started seating people for Sunday brunch. As a full-time student at University of Iowa, she started her own catering business. Upon graduation, she worked with the newly opened Doubletree Hotel in Cedar Rapids where she orchestrated large group events.
Kelley Crawford started working in Pizza Ranch at age 16 and never left. After graduating from college, she became general manager. Three years later she joined the company’s corporate team. Today, the mom of three is the Director of Purchasing for the $270 organization. She is also a franchise owner, with locations in Algona and Spencer. Kelley points to the flexibility of the hospitality industry as being a great draw for women. “When I was younger the excitement of busy rush periods was exciting,” says Kelley. “As my family grew I was able to transition to an office job and utilize more of my analytical skills.”
Kelsey Sutter, Marketing and Programs Director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, understands well the symbiotic relationship between agriculture and the hospitality industry. “Agriculture is a noble way of life that is essential and is an industry filled with hard-working people who require no praise” says Kelsey. “The hospitality industry is so similar.” The young mom who in addition to her role at the IPPA actively farms with her husband has done much to build the relationship between the restaurant and agriculture industries including orchestrating multiple annual state culinary competitions, engaging the IPPA with food and wine events, and helping select the state’s best breaded tenderloin each year.
Krista Stramel, General Manager of Red Vespa, a Neapolitan Pizzeria restaurant in Solon, is a true renaissance woman. She believes “authenticity” is the key to success and is continuously leveraging every opportunity to learn more about the hospitality business –from mixology to management. Since taking the helm at Red Vespa, she has redesigned the menu and created a seasonal drink menu to the delight of enthusiastic customers who clamor for her signature Vespa Whiskey Sour. “The restaurant industry gave me drive, motivation and stability,” says Krista. “I want to help pave the way and inspire women to continue their path in this industry.”
Over the past decade, Kristen Meyers has established herself and her business Party On, Des Moines! LLC as the “go to” source for orchestrating headline events including the Blue Ribbon Bacon Fest, the 80/35 Music Festival, and the East Village Pride Fest. She is also the creative energy behind many weddings, graduation parties, and family gatherings in numerous venues across our state, both rural and urban. Kristen’s advice to women, “Have a strong voice but use it at the right time.” She is currently helping to establish the Capital City Coordinators, an organization providing resources to local event planners.
As president of Walker Homestead Farm & Winery, INC which she describes as a “small venue fit for special life celebrations and everyday blessings” Kristy Walker delivers true “agri-tourism” through her farmer’s table, gardens, orchard, vineyard and a pasture playground. Hospitality is a second career for Kristy, who spent 40 years in the HealthCare IT industry. Driven by a love of farm life, food and people, and an inherent desire to share the joy and restorative qualities of an agricultural setting, Kristy connects guests directly with the producers that grow the vegetables and the wine maker who crushes the grapes at the on property winery.
Lenore Zoll is the standard-bearer of a family legacy. Her first job was working for her aunt who owned and ran Boston Fish, an iconic Cedar Rapids neighborhood restaurant for more than 70 years. She returned to manage when her aunt became ill and passed on, staying even after the restaurant was sold. But a rebranding left her feeling hollow. She jumped at the opportunity to open her own restaurant and in March 2020 The Fish Store was born. It opened to enthusiastic patrons but pandemic closures and the derecho almost derailed her. Lenore remains optimistic. “I won’t stop,” says Lenore determinedly. “I will never walk away from this amazing community.”
Mariela Maya brought the flavors of Peru to Des Moines along with lifelong friend Fabiola Carlin. Mentored by Mariela’s brother-in-law who owned restaurants in Colombia and Miami, Florida, Mariela and Fabiola created Panka Peruvian. Mariela spearheaded much of the interior’s look and feel with local artist Gabriel Leuders. Today she focuses on the front of the house—making customers feel special, but also helping employees excel and grow. Even with the challenges of COVID-19, Mariela brings a positivity and joy to Panka patrons and her team. Noted one of her more than half dozen nominators, “She is constantly reminding us that everything is possible.”
Melissa Cervantes learned early on that she had an affinity for hospitality and food preparation when she worked at a summer camp. Says Melissa, “I’ve been hooked on the idea of creating that “home” feeling through food and drink every since.” She has held nearly every type of hospitality position – from barista to deli manager before launching her own businesses Lost Bear Coffee and Good Restaurant & Lounge. At only 27 years old she’s already found success winning “Best Coffee in Southeast Iowa” twice and recently being nominated for Best New Restaurant, Most Romantic Restaurant and Best Outdoor Dining in Southeast Iowa.
Michele Buzbee has been described by people as “what makes small town’s great.” A 20-year industry veteran, she and husband Aaron own Zeno’s Pizza, Wayward Social Alley and Eats and Fiddle & Whistle Irish Pub in Marshalltown. Says Michele, “There is no greater joy in the world than going out for a nice meal. Providing that kind of experience to others means everything to me. It makes me picky and bossy. But I know my family (that consists of 3 different families among my 3 businesses) can always count on me for anything. And we say “love you” before driving away. That’s what hospitality means to me.”
Okoboji native Millissa Reynolds grew up in a place where hospitality and tourism are the lifeblood of the community. She had worked in nearly every type staff role until she was suddenly thrust into management with the unexpected passing of her father. “I just woke up one day and was the boss,” recalls Millissa. “But I found out quickly that my dad had been secretly teaching me many of the things I needed along the way.” Millissa has excelled since taking the helm as Operations Manager for Hospitality at Parks Marina which under her tenure has doubled in size, tripled the number of employees, and opened 4 new locations.
Misty Fontanini is a change maker. She was the President of the Legion of Food Trucks for two years and during her tenure she helped get rules and regulations established across step to help food truck operators set up in communities. The bricks and mortar restaurant Curbin’ Cuisine, which she owns with her chef husband was first a food cart, then a food truck operation and then 2019 found a permanent home. This mom of three is committed to culinary tourism. “Inviting people to the community to try new things and discover what the area has to offer allows a community to thrive,” says Misty.
Molly Frana is the one of the first Iowa female brewery owner who is also the brewer. This trailblazer discovered her love of beer while studying food science at Iowa State University. “I love the chemistry behind taking grain, water, hops, and yeast and turning it into something that is and is universally enjoyed,” says Frana. In addition to creating the Brightside Aleworks with her husband, she uses her food science degree to as quality supervisor for the prestigious La Quercia Meats. Frana’s respect for the hospitality industry runs deep, “I love this industry because it’s difficult. Those who can’t grow from failures or face hardships are weeded out immediately. It’s an industry full of the toughest, most hardworking people I know.”
Rebecca Casey is advocate for, and entrepreneur in, the Des Moines area restaurant industry. The Owner/Operator of MyTown2Go/Delivery.com, a third-party delivery service that focuses on local relationships with restaurants is trying to change the image of huge nationally-based delivery programs. “We wanted to be able our partner restaurants to have a local contact they could get a hold of at any time,” says Rebecca who is almost always the voice on the other end of the phone for her customers. “It’s about growing the community and their business. It takes a village and we need to watch out for each other!”
Twenty-nine year old Rhea Vrana is the chef/owner of two Downtown Davenport establishments, Fat Sacks, an eatery with creative food truck style food options and Cavort, set to open this month as a fine dining establishment with elegant small and composed plates. Rhea has a little bit of culinary school, some great back of the house experience, and a whole lot of entrepreneurial spirt. She encourages other young women to chase those dreams of ownership, “It’s going to be tough, people will doubt you. Let them—that’s your secret power,” says Rhea. “Find what it is that you do well and do that.”
Food stylist Sammy Mila’s hands are famous. In fact, they have been viewed millions of times on Facebook and Instagram as she demonstrates the recipes she dreams up and styles for videos and the covers and pages of magazines like Better Homes & Gardens, Allrecipes, Eating Well and more. “Being a food stylist allows me to create recipes that, not only taste great, but look even better! Cheese pulls, chocolate drizzles, melty butter- I love making people hungry and sparking their creativity in the kitchen,” says Mila. “Food brings people together! It’s so much more than just sustenance. It is a scent that sparks curiosity and conversation.”
Sarah Chem and husband Toney’s love of New York style bagels and coffee were the energy behind the creation of 5 Borough Bagels. The couple say their heart and soul were put into creating the recipes and espresso drinks served in their Des Moines shop—which is also well-known for its stellar service. But Sarah is equally recognized for her passion to help people struggling with mental illness and depression. She has been transparent about her own struggle. “I have tried to use our restaurant as a tool to help others,” says Sarah. “Advocating for women who need access to resources to better their well-being will always be a priority for me.”
Sondra Romeo has worked for more than 25 years in the hospitality in positions in restaurants, hotels and casinos. Today as Human Resource Director for Lakeside Hotel Casino in Osceola she is known as a champion for the 200+ employees and key influence on a positive team culture. Sondra is says she’s not sure if she chose the industry or if it chose her. When I took my first job as a hostess, I wanted to make some extra cash. I went on to serve and bartend and loved it all,” says Sondra. “The work is hard, the money is great and the memories you make are priceless.”
After 20+ years of brewing beer at home, Susan Frantz and her husband decided it was time to make their pastime a profession. They opened Fenceline Beer Lab in November 2019 in a historic building on mainstreet in Huxley. “It’s a place for the community to get together,” describes Susan. The beer offers experimental twists on popular craft beer formulas using different ingredients including locally-sourced vegetables in the brew process while the menu features “elevated” traditional pub foods. Susan’s advice to aspiring operators, “Find a mentor, learn from other women’s experience and put yourself in in a variety of settings.”
As the District Manager in the eastern part of the state for Wine, Spirits and Beer Distributor Johnson Brothers of Iowa, Teresa Court helps restaurants and bars create profit-maximizing wine lists that patrons love. With more than 20 years of experience, Teresa is often recognized as one of the most passionate and tenacious advocates and partners Iowa’s hospitality establishments have. She leads her high performing team of professionals by example and has been a mentor to dozens of successful sales professionals over the course of her career.
Vivette Perry was there in 2011 when popular Des Moines eatery and cocktail lounge Americana opened its doors. A talented professional, she was immediately charged with training the front of the house team. She was recently named General Manager of the restaurant. Vivette loves the growth opportunities and energetic nature of hospitality. “The restaurant industry opens us up so many experiences,” says Vivette. “It teaches us how to work together, timing, organization, family and how to deal with all types people … it’s many of the same life skills we use in our everyday lives. My love of this industry is real.”
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