Meet the badass women brigade of Cecconi’s West Hollywood
How three colleagues are putting an end to the restaurant manager stereotype of men in suits
Tuesday 8 March By Abigail Hirsch
Walk into any restaurant globally and you’ll be stretched to find an all-female leadership team. At Cecconi’s West Hollywood, three women are leading the charge, bringing top-class Italian food and service to Los Angeles. Led by general manager Sara Fahlgren, the power duo of assistant general manager, Jenna Webster, and floor manager, Hayley Nemeth, work at the helm of Cecconi’s, maintaining a restaurant environment known for championing women.
Here, we chat to the trio about female leadership in a male-dominated field.
How did you get your break in the restaurant industry?
Sara Fahlgren: ‘I started at 15 years old, working at the only five-star hotel in Gothenburg, Sweden, doing room service and breakfast service on weekends. There’s something about this industry that makes me feel at home. At 19, I moved to London and began working at 40 Greek Street as a server.’
Jenna Webster: ‘I started waiting tables in college. I studied for a biology degree, but realised medical school wasn’t for me. After I graduated, I became more and more interested in wine. From there, I got my sommelier certificate and never looked back.’
Hayley Nemeth: ‘My degrees in sociology and psychology gave me a strong understanding of people. After school, I was working in fashion when I decided to pivot into the restaurant industry. I have both a passion for people and food.’
What led you to Cecconi’s?
SF: ‘I needed a change after a few years at Soho House West Hollywood, so when my boss Thomas Lennard asked me if I was interested, I said yes. While I was nervous at first, I couldn’t be happier that I took the role.’
JW: ‘I had been running the wine programme for Soho House West Coast for a while, and always loved doing training at Cecconi’s – the staff were so fun and really soaked up the information. I also loved the environment that Sara fostered for learning and development. So, when the opportunity arose to shift gears to an operations role, I jumped at it.’
HN: ‘I started as a server at the House and grew into management. It was thanks to Thomas for me as well after he approached me with the chance to move to Cecconi’s. He thought I’d be a good fit and I’m still here today.’
What are some challenges you face as a woman in a male-dominated field?
SF: ‘The assumption of a restaurant manager is a man in a suit. And while it’s a very old-school way of thinking, I see it in action all the time. How I deal with those situations helps me and the people around me grow. It’s not the easiest, but leading by example and ensuring my team feels I have their back is incredibly important to me.’
JW: ‘Early in my career when something felt biased or unfair, my first reaction was a feeling of exhaustion, anger and despair around it. I’ve since learnt that being able to speak clearly, calmly and loudly about the issue, as many times as it takes to solve, is the only way it will ever get better.
‘I feel an internal pressure that if I make a mistake or fail, it reflects on all women. While I know this isn’t true and we all deserve grace and room for growth, it is a challenge to remember that.’
HN: ‘Yes, this stereotype of a manager being a man in a suit that Sara mentioned; our clientele is prone to this traditional way of thinking. As a young, petite woman, people assume I am the hostess. Although changing perspectives can be challenging, it’s in these moments that the power of feminine grace goes in my favour.’
How does working in an all-female leadership team compare to prior restaurant environments you have worked in?
SF: ‘The consistent support and understanding for each other is huge. We are three very different women, but we complement each other well. I’m extremely grateful to work with these two. They challenge me, make me grow as a leader, and have my back when I need them. We’re all good at listening to our gut, our intuition, and just going for it. We avoid the noise in the background and focus on what needs to get done.’
JW: ‘The larger understanding of how important representation is, and also the skill of advocating for yourself as you advocate for other people is evident here. The culture is that once you hit a milestone or goal, the first instinct is to reach down the ladder to help those behind you come up as well. This creates huge openness and communication.’
HN: ‘Working on an all-female team is a refreshingly empowering experience. The three of us share a unique and open understanding of one another, which in turn uplifts our individuality. One of the greatest joys of my hospitality career has been being a part of this special team. It’s a bond that fosters support and success as a unit.’
Favourite dish on the menu?
SF: ‘My go-to is the branzino. I also love it when our chef makes me a spaghetti arrabiata; it’s my favourite bowl of pasta. Simple, best ingredients, full of flavour and so delicious.’
JW: ‘Cavatelli with lamb ragout – it’s such a treat.’
HN: ‘Same with me, the Cavatelli Lamb Ragout – a Cecconi’s classic.’