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Females now make up 60% of restaurant employees in Iowa.

By Jim Duncan

“Woman-owned” is now a proud designation. Restaurants are flaunting that signage. It’s been a long time coming. Women make up 60% of restaurant employees in Iowa, but men still get far more notice. Cyd Koehn of Cyd’s Catering explained the challenge for female owners.

“First of all, banks really don’t want to loan us money,” she said. “I have been running my business for four decades now, and I still get the attitude that this is probably a hobby and they don’t think I am in it for the long haul. I don’t think that happens to men.”

She added that she recently sat through a tasting, by a major supplier, with a male restaurateur and only he was offered free sample cases of products. She also said that she thinks female owners are more apt to encounter customers playing hard ball over things like cancelation fees, breaking contracts and renegotiating prices.

Still, woman-owned food businesses have played a huge role in creating the city’s positive restaurant profile. Sixty years ago, women in the business were usually only owners in partnership with men. Johnny & Kay’s was the most famous restaurant in central Iowa during the 1950s and 1960s. The Compianos spun that off into Kay’s House of Pies, many of which are still represented with recipes served at Village Inn and Baker’s Square.

Red and Joe Giudicessi’s Christopher’s would likely have been called Red’s, like their earlier place downtown, if not for the fact that they inherited a large, expensive neon sign that read Christopher’s.

Female-owned Marge’s and Sherry’s were both successful on Ingersoll in the 1950s and 1960s but were short-lived. Marge Pardekooper’s place was an upscale diner before those were a thing. It later became the signal Peeple’s Music. El Patio was female-owned in its original Valley Junction venue and also at 35th and Ingersoll until Dahl’s bought them out. They remained female-owned a few more years in their present location on 37th Street.

After the early 1970s, Helen & Pat’s and Chuck’s in Highland Park were woman-owned. Linda Bisignano of Chuck’s was a beloved dynamo who represented Des Moines restaurants and the Italian community as well as anyone. Totally dedicated to the restaurant, Linda lived above the space. Ann Tancredi of Anjo’s in Windsor Heights owned the first truly European restaurant in town. After moving to Iowa from the Italian food center of Modena, she operated in Madrid for years. Legend has it that the Colby real estate developers offered her free rent for life to move her restaurant here. She kept on running the place till she had a stroke, working into her eighties.

Alice Nizzi’s family came to Iowa like Tancredi’s and Kay Compiano’s to work in Iowa coal mining areas. Her Alice’s SpaghettiLand was a destination restaurant through the 1960s. It is still so fondly recalled that both a major street and city park in Waukee are named for her.

But women remained secondary in the popular mind as restaurant owners till the last 20 years. Some restaurants today still feature female partners — Star Bar, Table 128, Irina’s, all the Dark Side of the Spoon restaurants, and Manhattan Deli are headed by husband and wife partners. Lola’s Fine Kitchen is headed by brother and sister — Hannah Elliott and Taufeek Shah. Their inspiration is the Pakistani and Filipino cuisines of their parents.

But female-run places are becoming more popular each year, particularly in the last dozen years. Christina Moffatt’s Crème Cupcake and Dessert Lounge is a high-end bar paired with a superb bakery specializing in desserts.

Women-owned businesses dominate catering in town. Cherry Madole and Susan Madorsky have elevated lunch with the new Tangerine at the Art Center and the Tangerine-operated Big Room at Mainstream Studios. Taste to Go! is owned by sisters Andrea Williams and Emily Gross. Catering by Cyd is solely owned by Koehn. All three bring an attention to detail that few men are capable of doing in such an elegant manner. Madorsky was on the line in the kitchen of, perhaps, the most legendary of American restaurants — Jeremiah Tower’s Stars. Madole worked some of the best restaurants in New York City. Trellis is owned by Lisa LaValle and usually staffs all-female help. LaValle’s soups are the best in town. Her sandwiches, pastas and desserts keep her place in Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens packed for lunches. Brandy Lueders’ Grateful Chef also makes exquisite soups, among many things.

Mexican women have contributed by establishing some of the best Latino cuisine in town. Tacos Marianna’s is as good a taqueria as Des Moines has seen. It has killer specials in midweek. Baja Cocina brings a real family atmosphere and a new style of Mexican cuisine. Baja calls itself “su casa, su rancho,” and the busy kitchen is filled with three generations of chefs in the kitchen, grandmothers and their progeny. Most everything is made from scratch, and the tortilla dishes are made thicker than at most places. Shrimp dishes, ceviche and fish dishes are worthy of a place named for the land between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez.

Kim Anh heads the all-female family restaurant Pho All Seasons. She grew up in her parents’ restaurant on Ninth Street. When an assessment for an ordered grease trap upgrade was more than the property was worth, the family moved to Phoenix and operated a Vietnamese restaurant there. A buyer offered more than the family thought it was worth. All the women in the family moved back to Des Moines, and the men stayed in Arizona. Fawn’s is a woman-owned Asian restaurant with a legion of fans. Fawn Soulinthavong was one of the first people in town to offer a pan-Asian menu with Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian dishes. Des Moines likes that.

Three newcomers to Des Moines have regenerated the local food scene with special cuisines and stories. Brenda Tran’s Vietnam Café is a testimony to female perseverance. The middle child in a family of five children, she took on responsibility to feed the family after bombing separated her father from the rest during the Vietnam War. Her mom and two older sisters went to work, so Brenda was charged with taking care of her younger siblings.

She traded their meager savings to buy sugar and began making candies. Traveling village to village by bicycle, she traded candy for rice as a very young entrepreneur. Because her uncle had worked for the Americans in the war, he was an early boat refugee to Iowa. He then invited his niece and her siblings to join him here. After seven years of red tape, they arrived in Des Moines 36 years ago, not knowing any English at all.

Tran worked three jobs and dreamed of owning her own restaurant, as cooking for others had also been her sustaining passion. She opened Vietnam Café in the Merle Hay Mall food court 11 years ago, coming in early to cook and then working at a nail shop during serving time. Eventually she could work her own place full-time.

She survived the virus wars by upgrading her service with decorative bowls and personal contact with customers. She instituted a Friday “all you can eat” buffet, and it started bringing in as many as 500 customers a month. Intrigued by Tran’s courage and love of cooking, many came back several other days of the week.

They return for more than appreciation of her indefatigable spirit. This place serves some of the best Vietnamese food in Des Moines, and Des Moines is famous for its Vietnamese restaurants. Among the specialties, which might change daily, are her bánh xèo, Vietnamese crepes inspired by the French colonial history; betel nut leaf rolls stuffed with meat; bún riêu (crab soup); fermented seafood soup; and banana bread.

What does she think is the hardest part of female ownership?
“It’s the physical challenge,” Tran said. “Cooking is physical work. Heavy equipment must be lifted and cleaned.”

Chrissy Johnson’s Joppa Experience is a second example of female inspiration in the Merle Hay Mall food court. She grew up in the hard knock streets of southside Chicago’s foster world. A single mom of a single mom, she dreamed of a culinary life and made it to culinary school. But to take care of her kids, she worked two jobs, one with the Chicago school system and one as a personal caretaker. Her daily regimen took her away from the kids from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

After many years, she moved her family to Des Moines. Here, she says “I bet on myself.” Giving credit to the helpful organizations of Des Moines, she learned business skills at Evelyn Davis Center and opened Joppa in the midst of the corona wars.

She brought the tastes of her childhood to Iowa, like Tran. She serves southside Chicago all-stars — oxtail, catfish, greens, sweet potatoes, Chicago-style Italian beef sandwiches, steakburgers, Polish sausage, etc. She makes regular trips to Chicago for provisions.

Johnson says the hardest part of being a woman owner is the stress of fickle business during COVID.

“Today is payroll day for me, and I am crossing my fingers that I have enough business today to make it,” she said.
She also appreciates Des Moines.

“If you have an entrepreneurship dream, Des Moines offers the networking resources to make it happen. Chicago didn’t.”

Mariela Maya is a Peruvian immigrant. She came to the U.S. in 2001 and immersed herself in English language studies in her pursuit of the American Dream. She opened Des Moines’ first Peruvian café in 2019 with Fabiola Carlin. Maya says it was an effort to hang on to and share her cultural roots while becoming American. She reminds you that the first Peruvians were probably Asians 6,000 years ago. After Incan agricultural genius added to the cuisine, Spanish conquerors took it to new levels of fusion.

The Japanese population of Peru is the largest in the Americas, and their influence is huge in Peruvian cuisine, sometimes called Nikkei. Some of America’s greatest Japanese chefs, including a guy named Nobu, came to this country, like Maya did, from Lima. Lunch specials, Peruvian and Nikkei dinners, and an aggressive happy hour have introduced many an Iowan to the fusion magic of Peru.

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