Women in the Restaurant Industry: Jane Zimbler & Sari Smith

According to the National Restaurant Association, 61 percent of adult women have worked in a restaurant at some point in their lives. Much of that experience has translated into management and ownership, making the restaurant industry one of the fastest-growing sectors for female leadership. 

To highlight the growth and impact women continue to have on the industry, we’re sharing the stories of three women leading restaurant businesses. Next up, our series shines a spotlight on two women, sisters Jane Zimbler & Sari Smith, co-owners of sweet time cafe in Northfield, Illinois. What started as a love for food, a passion for baking and an eye for business has turned into a sweet success story.

Jane and Sari join their chefs and employees in cutting the ribbon at their restaurant’s grand opening.

How did you get your start in the restaurant industry?

We never truly intended on being in the restaurant business! We inherited the foodie gene from our father. We always loved dining out, but we really enjoyed baking. Both of us always dreamed of owning a little coffee house featuring our sweets, and the cafe sort of fell into our lap!

We started a sweets business in 2012 and needed somewhere to bake our treats. As it turned out, the cafe’s previous owner was looking for a new buyer. The idea of a place where we could bake day and night was too good to pass up, so we decided to jump in and buy the cafe. We’ve been serving breakfast, lunch and, of course, our sweets, ever since.

What are the greatest challenges you face as a restaurant owner, and what are you doing to overcome them?

We aren’t getting as many customers as we’d like. City and building regulations determine how much visible signage we can have, so outside customers don’t know we’re in the building. If you don’t know we’re here, you wouldn’t know to look for us.

Advertising is also a big expense – one from which we haven’t found much return. It’s also difficult finding enough time to bake during the day. We initially wanted to use the cafe as a vehicle to bake our sweets – but between cooking, cleaning and serving, there are limited day time hours left to bake. We’re here 24/7 — even when we’re closed!

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The people! Our cafe is in an office building, a real life version of the “Cheers Bar” — we know everyone’s name, their stories and what they like to eat!  And, as an added bonus, we didn’t stray far from our roots since our cafe is in our neighborhood. So friends and family are always stopping by to visit. It makes coming to work that much more enjoyable.

What obstacles have you faced as women in the restaurant industry?

Honestly, we’ve faced many of the same challenges men do. It’s a 24/7 job! There’s always something that needs to be done – cooking, cleaning and getting ready for the next business day. But we enjoy it!

We’ve always had strong female role models. Our mom and her sister were business owners for over 40 years, and their mom (our grandma) also owned her own retail clothing business for over 50 years. Prior to opening sweet time cafe in 2012, we both had several years of business experience under our belts.

In 2005 we opened our temporary employment agency, temp time, inc., which, along with the cafe, is still thriving today.  As women (and sisters), we weren’t sure if some people took us seriously in the beginning. Now that we’ve been cafe owners for over two years, our customers are grateful we’re here serving them! We are successful entrepreneurs, and that’s something we’re both extremely proud of. We were also taught as business owners to not accept tips. We raise money for various charities in the cafe by donating 100 percent of our tips.

Being your own boss is both a blessing and a curse. We love being in control of our business. But if something goes wrong, the responsibility is entirely our own.

What advice would you give to women just starting their careers in the restaurant industry? 

Persevere and pursue your dreams. We fully believe you can do anything you set your mind to. Give yourself the opportunity to follow your heart and your passion – and have no regrets about doing it! You only live once, so give it a shot.

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