She Went From Sex Crimes Prosecutor to Restaurant Empire Builder

Updated 10/11/18
Martha Hoover—Career advice
Mallory Talty

When it came to describing the many female leaders of our time who are truly breaking new ground in their fields (or making new ones), we were struck as to how. Suddenly words were futile devices. For us, it was more about the energy and the spirit behind the movements these women were creating, which seemed impossible to describe. All of the buzzwords felt limiting and trivial, so we created a new one: Womaneer, also known as a woman who defies societal norms with heroism and tenacity to become a pioneering voice in her field.  

But rather than just decide on those women ourselves, we asked you, our readers, to help us uncover the next wave of leading voices, and you certainly delivered. We had over 100 nominations spotlighting the work of incredibly inspiring women who are making major moves and disrupting many traditionally male-dominated industries along the way. After several meetings, our Womaneer committee made its final vote, and we're beyond thrilled to announce that our first community nomination is Martha Hoover.

Thirty years ago, and with no experience in the hospitality industry, Hoover left her role as a sex crimes prosecutor to launch her first restaurant, Café Patachou, in 1989. Now she is well on her way to building an empire with 14 restaurants with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients. She is also a James Beard Award semifinalist, but there's so much more to Hoover's success story than her business portfolio. She is incredibly passionate about the culture, people, and communities of her restaurants. She launched Patachou Foundation to feed wholesome meals to food-insecure school children across Indianapolis and also teach them to create healthy habits.

This month, our co-founders Hillary Kerr and CEO Katherine Power will co-host our inaugural Womaneer Power Lunch in Los Angeles, where we will honor Hoover and nine other female pioneers to put a spotlight on their groundbreaking work. Read on to learn more about Hoover's incredible career, the challenges she faced, lessons learned, and why there is still more work to be done to ensure workplace equality. 

Tell us about your career path as a former sex crimes prosecutor and what you learned there. 

After graduating from law school, I fell into a job as a sex crimes prosecutor in the newly formed sex crimes division of the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office. The sex crimes division came on the heels of rape being legally defined as a violent crime. If ever there was a more transformative period of my life, this was it. Being part of an all-women department given authority and power to redefine the way the justice system classified women and children was almost a religious experience.

There is probably no one here who hasn’t seen at least one episode of Law and Order SVU, with its scenes of sex crimes cops and prosecutors busting open doors to a perp’s seedy NYC apartment. Well, truthfully we never referred to suspects as 'perpetrators' let alone 'perps,' but that was us except we were busting open the doors of the courtrooms, of emergency rooms, of police stations, making sure that people in charge understood that women and children were worthy of protection against predatory behavior.  

Having never before been in a police station, let alone an interrogation or courtroom hardly stood in my way of acting like I knew what I was doing, which actually was perfect practice for marriage, motherhood, and the opening of my first restaurant.

Can you recall that "light-bulb" moment or the trigger that motivated you to pursue your current path? 

In 1989, I found a complete lack of availability and access to high quality, scratch-made food like the kind I made for my family at home. There was no honor, zero cache, and even fewer rewards in being in farming, food, or restaurants. Charcuterie, craft beer, third wave coffee, and artisanal bread were literally unheard of.

Opening Café Patachou in 1989, with its focus on farm-fresh food prepared from scratch using high-quality ingredients, many of which were purchased directly from family farms and served in an environment similar to a student union in a neighborhood, might have been my original act of rebellion. If you don’t believe me, just ask my parents: first-generation Americans who thought that my working in a service industry was an embarrassing step backward.

What are some of the biggest differences between your former job and your role now? Why?

Besides the obvious differences of atmosphere and industry, I approached working as a sex crimes prosecutor quite similarly to breaking into the restaurant industry. You are serving people; you are solving problems and enriching the lives of your clients, customers, and staff. The newness of each position—prosecutor and restaurateur—empowered me and allowed me to redefine the industries as people understood them.

Career tips—Martha Hoover
Stacy Newgent

Did you face any immediate challenges? How has being a woman helped or hindered your progress?

I opened my first Café Patachou in 1989, never having worked in a restaurant. I was not a trained chef. I had no formal business training and I had never supervised any staff. I opened my first café not knowing that I was pregnant with my third child. What should have been a complete recipe for disaster, 29 years and 14 restaurants later, is a formula that seems to have worked. 

I came to the industry with totally fresh and naive eyes. Several weeks after opening, I angrily questioned the highly regarded commercial kitchen designer I hired for what I thought were massive design mistakes, including not having a professional dish-washing system in place. His response: "I didn’t think you'd be successful and I didn't want to waste your husband’s money." Only open for three weeks, I embarked on a major remodel—this time designing it myself. 

I was just as naive when I opened my business as I was when I left the bubble of Bloomington or went into court that very first day at the prosecutor’s office. I thought that my restaurant, like all other restaurants, would be judged based on its food, service, and atmosphere. Never did it occur to me that my restaurant would also be judged based on my gender. Here I was running a serious enterprise, and there were people who assumed I was a hobbyist.

Meeting with real estate brokers, heads of construction companies, especially as I began expanding Patachou’s footprint, were tremendously frustrating experiences for me. Proposals and estimates went directly to my husband, who has always been remarkably supportive but extremely uninvolved in my business. An owner of a construction company interrupted me mid-meeting to tell me to smile. In that same meeting, as I was pointing to an area on the blueprints, the same owner of the same construction company grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze.

Patachou Foundation—community gardening
Stacy Newgent

Now, tell us about the Patachou Foundation and how it came about. What was that pioneering moment for you?

The Patachou Foundation grew out of one of the five pillars of our company’s 20/20 vision, which is a commitment to the community. Coupled with the fact that food insecurity and food access are growing issues in the U.S., especially in Indianapolis where we are consistently ranked worst for access to fresh and wholesome foods. Five years ago my company founded the foundation. TPF’s mission is simple: to feed wholesome meals to food-insecure school children in our community and to teach them to create healthy habits.

By the end of this calendar year, nearly 100,000 meals will have been served during the course of TPF’s existence. For the 2018 calendar year, TPF is on target to serve 35,000 after-school meals. Our model is simple and impactful: Meals are prepared using Patachou Inc.’s production kitchen, a lean foundation staff works out of Patachou Inc.’s administrative offices; meals are prepared by TPF’s chef and delivered to partner schools using a team of committed community volunteers.

The meals served are scratch-made using quality ingredients—always natural, often organic with an emphasis on nutritional denseness and taste. In addition to the meals being served, TPF has created a unique interactive academic component whereby students learn about the foods they are eating, learn about urban farming, and are exposed to foods that they otherwise would not have exposure to."

What did it take personally to break through the glass ceiling and be a pioneer in your field?

My primary focus over the last 30 years has been on how to scale a people-focused company. Patachou started small and grew slowly and strategically with an emphasis on being a bar-setting organization, and the brand Patachou cannot be separated from its internal culture. Patachou culture was built on the premise of being a radically different and radically better company, and we used the term 'radical' some 25 years before it became back into fashion.

We work daily under the guiding principles of being a bar-setting company that values the quality of the product, quality of customer experience, quality of employee experience, with a critical eye toward sustainability and commitment to the community. We have been committed to those values since the day Patachou opened its door at 49th and Penn. Scaling a people-centric culture that happens to serve damn good food has been my paradoxically simple and complex over-arching goal.

Martha Hoover—helping the community
Stacy Newgent

Do you think it's harder or easier for female entrepreneurs to start out today? Why?

Harder. White male food industry workers are often channeled toward the highest-pay management, bartender, and server jobs in fine-dining establishments. Women are pushed toward lower-paying jobs at more casual restaurants, and people of color are channeled toward even lower-paying jobs, such as bussing and kitchen positions. And today 81% of managers are white and male. Gender bias is real. That is why we are here.

In 2015, a mere 12% of venture capital went to support women-founded businesses—and the percentages since then have not improved. That percentage decreased by half to 6% in 2016. This year it is projected that a mere 4% of VC money will go to a female-founded business, 4% will go to male founders of color meaning that, in total, 96% of all VC funds get funneled to male-founded businesses. venture capital is not the sole way to raise funds, but it is a barometer of how our culture values women. 

Using the restaurant industry as an example, food journalists, award organizations and publications disproportionally reward and report on white male members of the industry over women, people of color, and immigrants. The New York Times published an article nearly five years ago that is ground zero for debate on this subject in the food world. The article was on top chefs in the U.S. and the growing food scene. It failed to mention one female or one person of color.

The James Beard Awards only recently began to include women and people of color as nominees in any noticeable manner, as have the major food magazines including Food and Wine and Bon Appetit. Immediately after the 2016 top 50 restaurants in the world list was released, Eater, the most prominent food culture blog, asked this question: 'What’s wrong with the World’s best 50 List?' Its sarcastic answer: Nothing for a guide that almost entirely overlooks an entire gender.'

And we haven't even scratched the surface of the #MeToo movement. In its wake comes the ugly realization that gender bias, misogyny, objectification, and predatory practices permeate our corporations, our institutions, and our media. The week after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, the Huff Post conducted a survey that revealed that nearly one in four men thought it was fine for bosses to expect sex from an employee. Any view of America as one thing—one color, one gender, one religion, one nationality bears little resemblance to reality. America is diversifying and so inevitably must its institutions, workforces, government and, lastly, its culture and even its restaurants. And with diversification, comes change.

Gardening—Patachou Foundation
Stacy Newgent

What does being a Womaneer mean to you? 

It's a true honor to be considered a Womaneer! I think a Womaneer is someone who uplifts, encourages, motivates, inspires, and paves the way for others—female and male.

How has the industry changed since you first launched?

Everything has changed. Things like food sourcing, menu transparency, sustainability, and company culture are front and center. These are the pillars that Patachou Inc. was built upon since day one.

What is one of the biggest misconceptions about your job?

A lot of people and customers see the position of restaurateur as a glamorously hands-off role. While I put an immense amount our trust in my staff, I am extremely hands-on from the slightest menu change to designing our next restaurant location. I handle all of my own correspondence, all negative and/or positive feedback from customers comes directly to me via our email, which I respond to immediately, and I meet directly with location staff daily to continue to improve everything, from communications to operations.

Gardening with kids—Patachou Foundation
Stacy Newgent

How do you shake off the fear and doubt to pursue your dream? 

"I prefer to diagnose myself with Pollyanna Dysmorphia, a term I am certain I just invented, as I refuse to give in to anything or anyone that devalues what I'm doing or how I am doing it. It’s a sure personality disorder. I have always possessed an unwillingness to believe that failure is a real potential. Having a keenly defined vision for the company I wanted to create, including a vision for the type of work environment I wanted to create, was a significant factor.  

Patachou might have quickly become known to the outside world for its cinnamon toast and omelets, but it also quickly became known internally for its forward-thinking workplace practices. These practices included having a non-negotiable requirement to treat others with respect (no pan throwing allowed), zero tolerance of sexual harassment. Patachou pays livable wages, treats people equitably and creates careers instead of jobs. Having good food was critical (duh, we are a restaurant after all), but so was having a safe place for staff that encouraged growth and big-picture thinking; a company that valued both collective responsibility and individual accountability.

The company was infused from day one with what were considered to be "soft values," but equally as critical to our long-term success was that the company was infused with women, or what we refer to as "female capital." Even though it was 1989,  years before #MeToo and Time's Up, there were women in our industry who fully understood that they were being devalued, held back, and objectified because of their gender. We may not have had the language to describe how we felt living in the patriarchal restaurant world, but we fully understood what we were feeling. Fortunately for me and for my company, lots of women found a home at Patachou.

Patachou Foundation—community garden
Stacy Newgent

Who has been your greatest mentor?  

I had many who were encouraging and supportive, but there were no mentors specifically walking me through the how tos of starting up a business, especially a restaurant. Most reminded me of the high failure rate of restaurants and told me what I could not or should not do. A lot has to do with the timing of the creation of Patachou. In 1989 no one cared about food; there was no food culture and small, local restaurants were not yet considered to be either chic or sophisticated.

If you could go back and change anything about your career trajectory, what would it be, and why? 

I would have sung the praises of Patachou more loudly and much earlier.

What mistakes have you learned from and even benefited from in your career?

This is not necessarily a mistake, but I have learned and have always had the mantra of not having a plan B.

If there was one lady boss you could power brunch with, who would it be?

Oprah, circa the mid-'90s.

Martha Hoover—female restauranteur
Mallory Talty

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