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The pioneer of sustainable gastronomy

Restaurateur Martha Hoover sits at a laid table and looks into the camera.
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Martha Hoover sets an example as a restaurateur for a sustainable future.

Martha Hoover opened her first restaurant, Patachou, in her home town of Indianapolis in 1989. She has since built her business up to a small empire of 14 restaurants and several hundreds of employees. Hoover sources her ingredients from local producers, provides the best working conditions for her employees, runs a foundation that finances lunches for school children, and uses as few resources as possible for each of her restaurants. The result is more than just good food: it’s a system of values that the food industry is no longer contented with keeping on the back burner – a system of values that Hoover has been successfully pioneering for 30 years.

Your company is considered especially worker-friendly. What do you do that your competition doesn’t?

Let’s look at a typical restaurant employee. Often, their lives can be quite difficult; they struggle with bad pay, extreme pressure and an atmosphere of apparent indifference to their personal problems. At my restaurants, we focus on what’s best for our employees – and not just while they’re clocked in, but 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

What do you mean by that?

For starters, we provide all of our employees with free access to psychological, financial and legal services, and we finance our own emergency fund from which employees can borrow money, which they pay back without any interest. We also give our full-time employees a much better parental leave package than what they would normally get anywhere else. The United States is still lagging quite a bit in this regard.

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But you’re an entrepreneur and surely have to think about your business. From this perspective, why does it make sense to treat your team well?

You know, working in a restaurant, things tend to become incredibly chaotic. I think that the more order is established in a person’s private life, the more organised their work life is. Besides, we can’t afford to treat people poorly. Hiring and training new employees is expensive. If a person is treated well, paid fairly and feels comfortable and appreciated at work, they will be happier and more loyal, and they will do a better job.

Sustainability, civic responsibility, farm-to-table: these are all hot topics in the food world – and for you particularly for 30 years, since you opened your first restaurant, Patachou.

My restaurant is the way it is because I didn’t have a drop of experience in the food industry beforehand. I was shielded from the toxic atmosphere that’s so prevalent in many kitchens. All I wanted to do was open up a restaurant where I myself would want to eat and work. From day one, we’ve been conscious of our impact on the environment, how we can help our neighbours, where our food comes from. Even the idea of serving a sandwich prepared using home-made bread was considered radical back then.

How much more difficult did you have it as a female entrepreneur?

I think that, because I was a woman, many people thought I was only running this business as a hobby. That’s also the reason Patachou didn’t get nearly the amount of attention it deserved in the media. That I am sure of.

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Today, you employ a notable amount of women.

A lot of our management positions in particular are filled by women. We first and foremost look at a person’s qualifications when filling a position, but surely we attract a lot of female talent because women know that we will offer them opportunities for advancement that they might not get elsewhere. Many women in the food industry are stuck for years working as waitresses because society perpetuates the stereotype that women are more friendly and better at taking care of other people. I don’t want to reinforce this cliché; women can work just as hard as men, be it in the kitchen or as a manager. However, I do believe that women add more humanity to the food industry. And if we want to see the industry change, we need to see more women occupying a variety of positions across the board.

How optimistic are you that the food industry of tomorrow will get serious about sharing responsibility for people and the environment?

I see the industry as a reflection of society as a whole. Movements like #MeToo have exposed injustices that were commonplace for so many years and effected considerable change, and I think the industry is finally beginning to catch on. Whenever I look at our younger employees who are part of the millennial generation, I see how important the topic of sustainability is to them. At my restaurants, we collect rainwater, we compost and recycle, and just try to generate as little waste as we possibly can. Our younger colleagues are especially active in embodying this philosophy, which has had considerable resonance with our millennial customers. They expect restaurants to take a stand, and they support the restaurants that do. I think we’ll see more of that in the future. After all, it’s good for business.