The Choice: Industry Leaders Envision the Future of Food & Beverage

By: Amy Wang '24
A panel of experts discuss the topic on a zoom style webinar.

Lilly Jan, Ph.D. was joined by Daniella Senior, chief executive officer and owner of Colada Shop, and Elizabeth Tilton, chief executive officer and founder of Oyster Sunday.

Lecturer Lilly Jan of the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration continues to invite leaders to share their candid thoughts in a series of panel discussions on getting through the pandemic, moving forward, and creating a better future for the embattled food and beverage industry.

In a keynote webinar titled “The Choice: Industry Leaders Envision the Future of F&B,” made possible by the Nolan School’s Center for Hospitality research (CHR), Jan spoke with Daniella Senior, chief executive officer and owner of Colada Shop, and Elizabeth Tilton, chief executive officer and founder of Oyster Sunday. They discussed their personal experiences—both challenges and inspirations—as well as the F&B industry’s path forward.

Overcoming pandemic-related challenges

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, labor shortages have troubled the industry. Daniella Senior, a restaurant owner, listed some of the pandemic-related factors causing employees’ to leave their jobs: losing loved ones, moving back in with parents, or having more time to learn other skills. The pandemic, she noted, “exposed” the food and beverage industry’s long hours and lack of benefits, causing many employees to pursue careers in more worker-friendly industries.

With this shortage in mind, employers have been more eager than ever to hire. To retain and attract workers, Elizabeth Tilton suggested that employers take a step back and streamline their operations—for example, with smaller teams and scaled-back hours—to provide benefits like health insurance and salaried wages.

Technological innovations have also been foregrounded by the pandemic, with QR codes, contactless kiosks, and even “cloud kitchens” (kitchens without storefronts that prepare food for delivery only) coming into demand. Tilton was interested in seeing where this “expansion of technology” would go in the future, saying that the pandemic made people “less apprehensive” about using data and technology to inform their businesses.

Creating opportunities and changing the culture

With people from marginalised communities facing discrimination and fewer advancement opportunities in the industry, Jan invited the panelists to share how their companies are promoting inclusivity. Tilton’s company, Oyster Sunday, a New Orleans and NYC-based corporate office for independent restaurants, encouraged remote work at the start of the pandemic. This gave employees flexibility and enabled Tilton to build a team that was not “bound by [a] city.” They also removed education requirements from job descriptions, and created a free tool, Reopening: Critical Path, outlining steps toward reopening safely during COVID for operators who may otherwise not have had access to these resources.

Not only have they made strides in inclusivity, the panelists are committed to increasing employees’ benefits in general. At Colada Shop, employees with knowledge gaps are trained to use business software like Microsoft Excel, to prepare them for salaried positions and other opportunities—because, as Senior explained, it can be detrimental to promote those who aren’t ready yet.  Ultimately, Senior believes in supporting employees by giving them the tools to reach the positions they choose, while also supporting organizations that “[uplift] women and members of the LGBTQ community.”

Oyster Sunday is also shifting its work culture with initiatives to transition independent contractors to full-time workers within a set number of months. Working with “tiers” and giving the contractors timelines, Tilton made a point of being transparent with salaries, as well as ensuring healthcare coverage and providing unlimited paid time off. Since this webinar, Oyster Sunday has launched the Oyster Sunday Benefits Program, which aims to improve access to benefits for hospitality and food service workers.

Personal inspirations for a better future

As for why they were motivated to push for these changes, Senior and Tilton each cited some of their personal experiences. Growing up in the industry, Senior faced “constant abuse” while working in kitchens in New York City, where she was frequently the only woman—or among the few women—in a “sea of men.” There was not yet a culture of mutual support between women, she explained, because oftentimes there was “only one seat at the table.” The idea that her future children could be exposed to this culture drove her to “do [her] part” to create one in which all people could flourish.

Tilton spoke of her mother, a doctor and “rockstar in her profession,” as one of her major inspirations, imbuing her with the idea that she should not be bound by her gender. As someone who is dyslexic, finding her way through life drove home this concept that if “you want to get it done… you’ll find an alternative path forward.” As an adult, she has brought these lessons into her business, saying that she wants to provide people a space that resembles “a life they want to live.”

Going forward, both Senior and Tilton hope to see the industry offer more and better resources to employees. Tilton asserted that until the “huge void” of benefits and healthcare is addressed, situations like the pandemic will continue to find employees choosing “between wellbeing and compensation.” Owners should create an environment that gives as much stability as they can, Senior recommended, instead of overworking employees in the name of a “more, more, more” mentality.

At this unprecedented time for the food and beverage industry, leaders like Daniella Senior and Elizabeth Tilton offer brighter possibilities for the future. To learn more about their insights and the work they’ve done, watch the full keynote.

Learn more about the CHR

Amy Wang

Amy Wang '24

Amy Wang is a staff writer for the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration's Centers & Institutes. She is a prospective English major in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences. She can often be found writing for the Cornell Daily Sun and editing for the literary magazine Rainy Day. It is her appreciation for the written word that motivates her to produce articles on the research taking place at the Centers & Institutes.

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