Rhode Island’s Top Women in Food
These entrepreneurs are making big moves in the culinary industry and they're helping other women rise to the top, too.
Kaitlyn Roberts, Ashley Vanasse and Danielle Varga of Easy Entertaining
There’s been a baby boom at Easy Entertaining. The catering company and cafe run by women on Valley Street in Providence didn’t expect all the babies to arrive at once but that’s what happened. Like most things in life, you can’t plan perfect timing. Executive pastry chef and Johnson and Wales graduate Danielle Varga (wife of executive chef Matthew Varga of Gracie’s) had a baby boy, Owen, in February and owner Kaitlyn Roberts welcomed twins that same month.
“Danielle and I had our babies five days apart,” says Roberts with a laugh. Her twins, Myles and Madelyn are now eight months old.
“You guys played tag,” says Easy Entertaining’s executive chef Ashley Vanasse with a smile. Vanasse is also a JWU grad, who went to culinary school after earning a degree in political science from another school, and realizing what she really wanted to do was cook.
The three women are sitting at a table inside the Cafe at Easy Entertaining after normal business hours. The mothers are talking about feeding their babies solids and how making dinner at home is now like “renegade cooking” with a screaming infant providing a different sort of pressure to get food on the table. Vanasse also has a one-year-old son, Domenic, and a three-and-a-half-year-old girl, Sophia, so she plays the “been-there-done-that” counterpart.
“I am like a goalie,” says Vanasse. “I have to deflect them off the oven at this point. ‘Don’t touch the oven. It’s hot! Get away.’ ”
Roberts’s Easy Entertaining has thirty employees with 80 percent female senior leadership, though the staff is equally divided. On this day, three men circulate the room chipping in wherever help is needed, taking guest orders and sweeping floors.
Roberts is changing the social norms of the culinary industry, which is known for long hours and stressful working conditions. “We wanted to be our own community,” Roberts says. “When you start doing that and making the environment more comfortable for women, then you start getting more women.”
Despite the hectic balance of family and career, the women are providing each other with the support that’s necessary to continue thriving as mothers in a profession they love. The women got maternity leave benefits through Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI), which paid 60 percent of their pay, then Roberts made up the 40 percent difference in their paycheck, and they were eligible for leave for up to twelve weeks. “Which, if I do say so myself, is extremely generous for a company of this size,” says Roberts, as companies with fifty or fewer employees are not required to hold jobs for new mothers after maternity leave.
Before Roberts founded Easy Entertaining, she was enrolled in law school and realized she didn’t want to be a lawyer. She decided to go to culinary school in Italy instead, and started out as a personal chef in Barrington in 2006. A life on the line in a restaurant wasn’t the life for her. “I definitely knew I didn’t want to work in a restaurant — as we sit in a restaurant,” says Roberts with a hint of irony, “though we are catering-focused.” While serving dinner parties and events, she took on more and more clients from Barrington to Jamestown, and the events got bigger and bigger, which demanded a full-scale catering company that could handle everything from baby showers to weddings.
Once she had the commercial kitchen in place at the Rising Sun Mills on Valley Street, she decided to offer breakfast and lunch options at the company’s on-site cafe, which was recently renovated last December. They source the majority of products locally, pulling from a 250-mile radius for the majority of ingredients.
Roberts nurtures women leadership because she says women are natural multi-taskers who can handle multiple projects at one time. “There’s no one better than a woman,” she says. “To be able to hear, remember and categorize all the stuff that they have in their heads on a daily basis, it just comes natural to women, whether they have kids or not. It’s just how our brains work.”
The team has longevity with Vanasse on staff for eight years, and Varga for five. Vanasse was the first of the trio to have children, and Roberts wanted to make sure it was a comfortable environment for her to return to work. Originally, Roberts had talked about putting in a daycare at the cafe for staff, but licensing proved to be too challenging. Instead, Vanasse brought her son to work one day a week and staff pitched in to help take care of him while she worked. “Everyone helped raise Domenic for a few months,” Vanasse says.
Roberts also grants her employees a flexible work week. “If you need to do things for your kids, you are never going to get in trouble for picking up your kid for having an ear infection or going to physical therapy,” says Roberts. The same goes for all employees, including men and people who don’t have kids, who may have to take care of another family member or a sick dog.
“We work well with each other,” says Vanasse. “We talk about who is going to come in in the morning, and who is going to stay later.”
“We’re always here, and if someone is in the weeds, we’ll help you,” says Varga.
“I’ll get the lawnmower,” says Vanasse with a laugh.
All three women work different schedules. Some staff members work best with a set routine, like Varga, who is in the building from nine to five to accommodate daycare hours, and Vanasse does mornings and some weekends and prefers to do organizational work from home after her children are in bed. Roberts spends mornings with her children and comes in weekdays by nine and tries to leave in time for dinner. Being able to function in this way is all about delegating.
“Being a business owner is very isolating and it’s kind of like being a mom with a new baby,” she says. “You have to do everything for it all the time, and it’s all your responsibility. So I try to put the ownership on other people so they feel like real decision makers. If you have senior leadership who can make big decisions, then the business is going to be able to grow, we’re going to be able to bring on more employees and do more.”
She treats her staff as equals, not employees. “I hire people I trust to make good decisions with expertise. They take it seriously, and everyone here treats it like their own.”