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Being a female business owner came with a good deal of frustration early on for Sandra Basanti. She opened Dangerously Delicious Pies with three other men in 2010, but as the years went by and the business grew to two sweet and savory pie shops and two food trucks, Basanti and her husband became the sole proprietors.
“There was this overlying assumption that I was someone’s assistant or someone’s employee,” she says. “No one assumed I owned the business.” She would write emails to her landlords and not hear back. But when her husband sent the same message, he got a response quickly. Worse yet, an equipment supplier once dangled a deep discount in front of Basanti. She could only redeem it if she went on a trip with him.
“He invited me into his fancy back office,” she recalls. “It was very elaborate with Persian rugs and antiques.” The meeting wrapped quickly, but later in the day the salesman called her. “He was like, ‘I can get you a good deal, why don’t you come to Saudi Arabia with me.’ It wasn’t a weekend getaway to the Poconos, it was Saudi Arabia!”
Behavior like this is not a far cry from the situations described in the story about celebrity chef John Besh‘s long history of sexual harassment published earlier this month. The article and the fallout got her thinking. She says it “shined the spotlight on this sort of machismo culture in the restaurant industry,” and she thinks she has a solution: Put more women in management positions and support women-owned businesses.
Like many, Basanti worked in restaurants growing up. “Spending so much time as a hostess and server throughout high school and college, I never really thought twice about the fact that I never had a single female manager nor did I ever remember seeing a female in the kitchen,” she says. “It was sort of understood that those jobs within the restaurant industry were held by men.”
Fast-forward to find Basanti in a position of power as a small business owner who makes hiring decisions at Dangerously Delicious Pies. The first person she brought on was a kitchen manager in 2010 who is still with the shop today. The female kitchen manager is joined by a female baker and a female floor manager. Basanti says she didn’t set out to promote women into positions of leadership, it happened organically.
“When it comes to our small crew, you really have to take people’s neuroses and quirks into consideration when you’re managing people,” Basanti says. Her team is more like a family than colleagues. “We help employees find apartments, we co-sign on their cars. There’s a lot of personal stuff involved … It just happened that it was majority women along the way who were able to step up and have that relationship with the people they were managing. There was a level of care and respect.”
Basanti describes female leadership “more like tough love instead of macho mentality,” and says it fosters a culture of mutual respect in the workplace. “I would be floored if anyone felt they were disrespected or not heard working for us,” she says. “I do take a lot of pride in that.”
She tries to give her employees regular positive feedback and leads by example. “Steamrolling over people and barking orders doesn’t translate well if you’re then in turn expecting your employees to treat each other with respect.”
Regarding the other half, Basanti says, “I don’t want to say men can’t hack it and don’t get it. There are plenty who care about employees and who are respectful, but a stereotype is a stereotype for a reason. It’s been a traditionally male-driven industry and there does need to be a shift.”
Dangerously Delicious Pies, 675 I St. NW & 1339 H St. NE; (202) 398-7437; dangerouspiesdc.com