Why you should care
Because she’s taking the “bro culture”’ out of the food industry.
Inhale … exhale. Servers, cooks and bartenders sit in rows of chairs in an Indianapolis restaurant doing a square breathing exercise. They’re here for a mandatory training session, and their boss wants to create a calm atmosphere in the space. This afternoon, they’ll do some role-playing.
The mere fact that Patachou Restaurant Group’s employees are here sets them apart: Restaurant culture, long male-dominated with a fast pace and boozy late nights, is not typically friendly to implicit bias training. But Martha Hoover, a former sex crimes prosecutor, is not the typical restaurant CEO. After the square breathing is done, she takes the microphone to tell her employees that recognizing their own bias is the first step to overcoming it.
Hoover, 65, ditched her law career in 1989 to open Cafe Patachou, a French restaurant that proved to be a pioneer both in bringing farm-to-table cuisine to Indianapolis and creating an inclusive workplace. “I didn’t know what the industry norms were, so I didn’t know I was ‘supposed’ to treat employees poorly,” she says.
Today, Hoover owns 14 restaurants and bars under Patachou Inc., including a pizza place, a farmers market–style cafeteria and a cocktail bar. Patachou is one of the few employers in the country — and one of the only restaurant groups — that requires employees to take anti-bias training. Last year, North Carolina–based Foodservice Training Portal launched a program that now provides online anti-bias training to more than 3,500 food service and hospitality companies across the country. And while some other restaurant chains (Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C.; AC Restaurants in Raleigh, North Carolina) incorporate bias training, Hoover’s in-person, all-day sessions are unique.
The middle of three children to a physician father and stay-at-home mother, Hoover’s strongest memories of her Indiana upbringing come from the table. “My own family dinners were not always happy — Dad had lots of mood swings,” she says. “But they were always significant.”
Heavily influenced by Julia Child’s TV show, Hoover went to France for the first time at age 17, learning how to cook a chicken (and wring its neck and pluck its feathers) from the family she stayed with. “I could’ve stayed there forever,” Hoover says, but she came home at the end of the summer and instead of heading to culinary school, she enrolled at Indiana University to pursue her “default profession” of law.
On the front lines of second wave feminism in the 1970s, she was outnumbered by male colleagues but saw herself as their peer. After graduation, she helped launch a sex crimes unit in Marion County, which includes Indianapolis. “The only people who wanted to prosecute sex crimes were women, so we became this task force,” she says. The experience left her with a profound understanding of how society marginalizes women and children.
We have a noticeable lack of toxicity in our work environment.
Christina Pippen, Patachou brand manager
She stayed for eight years, but the Julia Child itch returned, in part because she was dissatisfied with the Indiana restaurant scene in the late 1980s. She launched Cafe Patachou — working as head chef, manager and server — with no professional restaurant experience, while unknowingly pregnant with her third child. She brought dishes uncommon for a second-tier Midwestern market: sustainable smoked salmon bagels with capers and onions and something called “mesclun mix” (today, we’d call it field greens) that had to be shipped from out of state and picked up from the airport. Cafe Patachou’s 2019 menu boasts dishes like curried lentil pâté, and sweet corn cakes with avocado, arugula and pickled beets.
Hoover’s norm-busting continued when it came to the way she treats her employees. “I practice a degree of hospitality with my staff just as I do with my customers,” Hoover says. To that end, she offers medical and dental benefits, paid parental leave and an emergency loan fund, in addition to financial literacy workshops and psychiatric counseling services for her 400-person company. This has resulted in low turnover, but when people do leave, she hopes they share the company values with other organizations.
The anti-bias training, implemented in 2018, came about for two reasons. A few years ago, a customer overheard an anti-Semitic conversation between two longtime servers. Hoover, who is Jewish, was even more shocked when “both servers acknowledged making those statements with zero remorse, zero shame or zero apology.”
Then came #MeToo, which hit the misogynistic culture of restaurants — including big names like chef Mario Batali — in the mouth. Hoover was asked to join the advisory committee of Women in Hospitality United, a national activist group whose founders pitched her on anti-bias training. Recent developments aside, Patachou has been able to avoid the restaurant “bro culture” since it opened.
“We have a noticeable lack of toxicity in our work environment,” says Christina Pippen, Patachou’s brand manager, who’s been with the company for more than 20 years. “There were other restaurants I worked in where men felt entitled to ass-grab and make gross comments, and nothing was done on the part of management,” says Pippen, who credits Hoover’s prosecutor background and tirelessness for keeping the culture strong. Plus, “she’s always rocking badass shoes,” Pippen says, noting a pair of Hoover’s Balenciaga sneaker socks.
But can Hoover’s methods spread across an industry full of small businesses barely scraping by? “A lot of restaurants still don’t have the means to implement anti-bias training like Patachou’s,” says Natasha Knight, founder of Co-Creator Collective in Las Vegas, which provides customized solutions for restaurateurs. There’s often no orientation structure, Knight says, and high turnover means managers are often hiring people last-minute without adequate time to check their background. There are still issues with female leadership as well, says Knight, given the industry’s historic male dominance. “When you’re a female working in a restaurant, you’re watching out for yourself.”
Away from the job, Hoover enjoys sleeping, reading and watching “too much Netflix.” Sleep comes somewhat easier now that her three children (with husband of 38 years John Hoover) are grown. Two went to culinary school, and the third is Patachou’s director of sustainability.
Hoover’s latest venture draws from her love of music (Notorious B.I.G., Tupac and Wiz Khalifa are among her favorites). Most bars have terrible sound systems, Hoover explains, but Bar 114 is different. “I built the most perfect bar and listening room with an incredible sound system.”
It’s another place where her employees can be heard too.
OZY’s 5 Questions With Martha Hoover
- What’s the last book you read? A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, but usually I read nonfiction.
- What do you worry about? I worry about a lot because I have 400 people who rely on me every day. I want to make sure things are perfect.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Good music. It depends on my mood but I love classical music, the Rolling Stones and hip-hop.
- Who’s your hero? Today my heroes are Melinda Gates and Michelle Obama. They are voices for truth, access and opportunity.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? I’m not a very comfortable traveler. I love Paris because I know it really well, but my bucket list is to get out of my comfort zone and go to India.