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Women's History Month Spotlight: Ruth Gresser

Category: Neighborhood Spotlight

Ruth Gresser, owner of Pizzeria Paradiso

March is Women’s History Month! At the Dupont Circle BID, we believe it is important to celebrate and support women-owned businesses, not just in the month of March, but year-round. Women play a huge role in the Dupont Circle business community and deserve to be recognized for the work that they do. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women earn 82 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn. Furthermore, the Department of Labor reports that the pandemic has set the participation of women in the US labor force back more than three decades.

To kick off Women’s History Month, we are highlighting Ruth Gresser, owner of Pizzeria Paradiso, an institution in Dupont Circle. Ruth started working in restaurants at the age of 16, a time when there were fewer women in the industry, and those who did worked in the front of the house. Her first job was at McDonalds. She started off working at the fryer and making shakes, and eventually worked her way up to the grill. She was the only woman in the kitchen.

Ruth stated that the restaurant industry was based on a hierarchical system, similar to that of the military or the French kitchen in the late 1800s. Kitchen work was historically free, because it was considered women’s work. When it became professionalized, it had to be given some sort of “credibility.” Their argument was, why would we pay for something that was free? So, men took over by forcing women out of the industry.

In the 1970s and 80s, an influx of women returned to the business and worked hard to make space in what was now a male-dominated industry. Their work as feminists led to the beginning of groundbreaking changes, such as the importance of work-life balance.

After graduating from Madeleine Kamman’s Classical and Modern French Cooking School, Ruth moved to Washington, DC. In 1991, she opened Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont Circle. She wanted to ensure that equity, inclusion, and community were a huge part of the culture at her restaurant. Soon after the restaurant opened, health insurance, disability insurance, and guaranteed 40-hour work weeks were offered to every employee.

However, there was still a huge disparity in the restaurant industry that did not sit well with Ruth. The staff in the back of the house were not receiving the same compensation as front of house staff. This was because those working in the kitchen did not have the opportunity to earn tips. This disparity led Ruth to get rid of the tip structure in her restaurant and implement a service charge in January. The service charge is 20 percent for dine-in customers and 12 percent on to-go orders. Ruth stated that she has wanted to make this change for over 30 years but did not have the belief that she could affect such change back in 1992 when there were very few women restaurateurs, and they were not given the recognition or credibility they so rightfully deserved.

Ruth has been a part of several organizations working to make systemic changes to ensure equity and empower women within the restaurant industry. She has served on the Board of Directors of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs; she currently sits on the Women’s Leadership Programs’ Advisory Board of the James Beard Foundation. She is a founding member of a group of women that joined forces during the pandemic to collaborate on promotional opportunities for women in the food community, and most recently joined the board of RE:HerDC.

While there are more women in the industry, Ruth sees two main obstacles that women still face today. Those challenges are accruing capital and receiving recognition. She states that many have perceived the face of the restaurant industry to be a tattooed macho man. While that is all well and good, she says, “it suggests there isn’t a place for women if that is the image everyone has in their mind; recognition, press, accolades, and capital all flow to that iconic persona.”

During the pandemic, there was a promise by the Restaurant Revitalization Fund that there would be a two-week period where women, minority, and veteran owned businesses would be given the opportunity to be funded first. However, according to Ruth, that didn’t happen. A lawsuit was filed to stop it, and as a result, funding halted for many-owned businesses. A lot of business owners were approved to receive funding, but it never came through while those who didn’t qualify during that two-week period received funding.

As part of Women’s History Month, Ruth, in conjunction with RE:Her, will be partnering with local women-owned businesses to feature special menu items. The businesses Pizzeria Paradiso will be collaborating with include: Puddin’, ANXO Cider, DC Brau, Denizens Brewing Co, and Ice Cream Jubilee. And the menu includes: Shrimp Etouffee Pizza (Pizzeria Paradiso and Puddin’) and a beer pairing with Denizens Brewing Co (Third Party Tripel), as well as, Boozy Beer Floats (ANXO Cider, DC Brau, and Ice Cream Jubilee). Rachel Fitz of Anxo Cider, pairs her Nevertheless Cider with Jubilee's Passionfruit Guava Sorbet and Mari Rodela of DC Brau pairs her Incurable Sadness Irish Cry Stout with Jubilee's Bold Vanilla Ice Cream.

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