Sunday, August 13, 2006

Chain mothers

Long before the industry appreciated the need to foster opportunity for women, Esther Johnson was finding plenty of it. In 1947, when many of her gendermates were resigning their wartime factory jobs to make room for homecoming soldiers, she managed the day shift of a restaurant in Seattle, where she’d landed after serving as a surgical nurse for the WAVES, the Navy’s female auxiliary. Among the 27-year-old’s vendors was a baked-goods salesman named Harry Snyder. In short order he switched from pushing breads and buns to pitching her on becoming his wife. He was a good salesman.

Within a year, they were married and living in southern California, planning to make a living by feeding the suburban-minded Americans who hoped to drive away memories of the war with the comforts of raising a family. They opened a restaurant in 1948 where Harry worked the counter and manned the grill while Esther chopped and prepped, hand-forming burger patties from fresh ground beef. They called it In-N-Out Burger, and its six-item, low-priced menu was a hit.

Before long, the Snyders were opening more restaurants. Esther managed the books and the paperwork while Harry functioned as the outside man, looking for sites, hiring the managers, cutting the deals. Along the way, they found time to raise two children, Guy and Richard, who were pressed into the business at an early age.

The family empire prospered and grew, expanding company unit by company unit until it stretched to several dozen drive-thrus, then more than 100. Around the time the Women’s Foodservice Forum set a goal of having at least three women in every restaurant-company executive suite by 2010, In-N-Out hit the 200-store mark. By that time, Harry, Guy and Richard had all passed away at early ages, but Esther was still tending to their brainchild, now as president and chairman.

It’s unclear if business or her extensive charitable activities led Esther Snyder to an acquaintance with the former Margaret Heinz, for whom the line between family and a restaurant company had also been erased, in her case by an impromptu act of capitalization. In 1941, her husband, Carl Karcher, had taken a $311 loan against his Plymouth to raise funds for a hotdog stand, but was still a few dollars short. Margaret took $15 from her purse, and the deal was consummated.

The cart would later be put in display in the lobby of what is now CKE Restaurants, the $1.2-billion-a-year parent of the Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, La Salsa and Green Burrito fast-food operations. Margaret Heinz Karcher saw it grow from that first hotdog venture, through a power struggle that pushed Carl out of operations, to his triumphant return, to its takeover by an associate. Along the way, the Karchers would have 12 children.

Esther Snyder died on August 4 at age 86. The company she’d been crucial in building has been left to her sole granddaughter, Lyndsi Martinez, age 23.

Margaret Heinz Karcher had passed away almost exactly a month earlier, at age 91. She left behind 51 grandchildren, some of whom have worked in the business.

Today, smart companies spend far more than $15 to steamroller whatever barriers tend to keep women from rising into leadership positions. But 40-odd years before that commitment became a veritable business commandment, women like Esther Snyder, Margaret Heinz Karcher and Allie Marriott were already proving that gender matters less in the restaurant trade than hard work, dedication and partnership. Their efforts may not have been widely known, but they were true trailblazers, before there were awards to recognize such a contribution, or publications to laud their achievement in a pants-centric business.

It’d be woeful to overlook the loss of such true pioneers, and the differences they quietly made in the lives of so many in foodservice.

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