'A different perspective': Two female suburban restaurant owners share their successes

  • Amy Morton, left, owner of Found Kitchen, The Barn and Stolp Island Social, and chef Debbie Gold, who helms the kitchen at Found and The Barn, have worked together for a long time.

    Amy Morton, left, owner of Found Kitchen, The Barn and Stolp Island Social, and chef Debbie Gold, who helms the kitchen at Found and The Barn, have worked together for a long time. Courtesy of Galdones Photography

 
By Samantha Nelson
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 3/18/2022 8:06 AM

The restaurant industry remains dominated primarily by men. But this Women's History Month, we spoke to two female restaurant owners about their successes and ambitions.

CD Young owns Winnetka's vegan restaurant Spirit Elephant and just opened the fast-casual offshoot Elephant + Vine in Evanston this week. A second Elephant + Vine location will open in April near DePaul University in Chicago.

 

"Women bring a different perspective," Young said. "We just do. I have been really lucky with the team here at Spirit Elephant and Elephant + Vine. The people that work for this company are 100% committed to getting more women involved. We're incredibly inclusive."

Spirit Elephant owner CD Young, left, recently showed off her vegan restaurant to actress Tabitha Brown.
Spirit Elephant owner CD Young, left, recently showed off her vegan restaurant to actress Tabitha Brown. - Courtesy of Spirit Elephant

Young studied engineering and marketing at Northwestern University, and wasn't looking to get into the restaurant industry until she became a vegan 10 years ago.

"My relatively newly adopted vegan diet just did so much for me in every aspect of life that I wanted to share it," she said. "That evolved into 'why don't we open a restaurant where we can really showcase how great this type of eating is.'"

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Amy Morton owns Aurora's Stolp Island Social and Evanston's Found Kitchen and Social House and The Barn Steakhouse. The daughter of Morton's founder Arnie Morton, Morton has been in the restaurant industry most of her life, opening her first restaurant with her brother in 1988.

Morton had two female chefs at her Chicago restaurant Mirador, which she sold in 1993, and when she opened Found after leaving the industry for 15 years to raise her three daughters, she knew she wanted to work with a woman again. Nicole Pederson served as her opening chef and James Beard Award-winner Debbie Gold, who previously worked with Morton at Mirador, now helms Found and The Barn.

"It's not a coincidence that so many female/women-owned businesses work primarily with other women," Morton said. "We just speak the same language."

Morton wanted to be an actor, and opened her own theater company after college. Like many performers, she worked in restaurants to pay the rent, but she quickly moved from waiting tables to management.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Amy Morton, owner of Found Kitchen, sets up the tables at the Evanston restaurant.
Amy Morton, owner of Found Kitchen, sets up the tables at the Evanston restaurant. - Courtesy of Galdones Photography

"I wound up doing more than two full-time jobs," Morton said. "I was a manager by the time I was 25. At one point, I just went the route of restaurants. My brother and I just got excited about doing some stuff and that's the direction I took."

Family always comes first for Morton, and she makes sure her employees can also have a strong work-life balance.

"It's really fundamental to everything I set out to do," she said. "There are a million great restaurants, but the burnout level is so high. Creating a quality of life to me, especially having three girls, when I went back to work, was paramount to everything that I knew I needed and that I wanted to give my team."

At a time when many restaurants are facing staffing shortages, Young said she had more applicants than she could hire for Elephant + Vine.

"I don't know if that's because we're near universities and young people want to work in a plant-based business, but we have not had any staffing issues at all," she said. "We are really lucky. We also have great benefits. We really look after our people. We have health insurance. We have 401(k). We have full dental and benefits packages for anyone working 30 hours a week or more."

Spirit Elephant owner CD Young, back right, feels that inclusion is really important for her restaurant team.
Spirit Elephant owner CD Young, back right, feels that inclusion is really important for her restaurant team. - Courtesy of Spirit Elephant

Fast-casual restaurants fared better than fine dining ones during the pandemic, inspiring Young to expand into the space. She founded Wild Thing Restaurant Group with Roti and Potbelly veteran James Pierson as COO, with the goal of opening two more Elephant + Vine locations in the Chicago area in the next two years.

"Small, fast-casual restaurants such as Elephant + Vine and Chipotle are easier to grow fast," Young said. "Our goals are big. We do want to be nationwide. We want to be in every state."

Morton opened her latest venture Stolp Island Social next door to Aurora's Paramount Theatre in December 2019. The restaurant closed during the pandemic and only reopened in December 2021. Morton said she faced more pushback about enforcing vaccine and mask mandates in Aurora than she did in Evanston, but hopes that the end of those restrictions and the start of spring will bring business back.

"We were going out during COVID, but the majority of people were going to places that were in their comfort zones, the places they knew, the places they trusted," Morton said. "As people become more comfortable and feel safer, I think we will be having more new guests, which I'm very excited about."

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