In 2015, when Ariel Pasternak joined Chaia, a seasonal, plant-based taco shop opening in Washington, D.C., she and her colleagues encountered challenges familiar to any restaurateurs — developing a marketing strategy, sourcing fresh ingredients, and ensuring bills were paid on time.
What they did not find in the city's budding food scene was a sense of community.
"None of the women I was meeting in the restaurant world knew each other," Pasternak, 27, says. "I wanted to connect these women and have a space to explore ideas about food." She started hosting potlucks at home where women entrepreneurs, chefs, producers, activists, and policy wonks could meet and discuss their work and shared passion for food.
Pineapple Collaborative, which is part event-planning company, part online publication, was born out of those dinner conversations. Pasternak and co-founder Atara Bernstein, 28, say they chose the name because the Pineapple is a symbol of hospitality, and they aim to project a spirit of inclusivity and and fun.
Nearly three years later, Pasternak and Bernstein have organized more than 60 events in the D.C. area. These have included mezcal tastings featuring women-owned brands, a cooking class with best-selling author and chef Samin Nosrat, and panel discussions on topics ranging from fermentation to food justice. They've also launched a successful blog and podcast, which has attracted more than 20,000 followers. Just last month, Pineapple expanded to New York. The inaugural event there sold out within four hours, and drew a waitlist of 100 people.
"There's a hunger for community around food, especially as it relates to women and our collective identity," says Bernstein, and it's growing. She and Pasternak plan to launch a Pineapple Collaborative in San Francisco in the coming months. "We'd like to see thriving Pineapple hubs in all cities across the country," she adds.
Though Pineapple Collaborative launched well before the #MeToo movement brought sexual misconduct and gender discrimination to the fore of a national conversation, the company is resonating with many women who work in a male-dominated industry.
"The kitchen has not been traditionally the safest place for women," says Alison Cayne, the founder of Haven's Kitchen, a New York-based cooking school, café and event space. She hosted Pineapple Collaborative's first event in New York in February and moderated a talk on food and community-building.
Cayne, 45, says she hasn't experienced the egregious abuses catalogued in the #MeToo movement, but that being a female business owner has brought its own set of challenges. "People don't take women as seriously in food or hospitality industries. You're expected to be an Earth mother figure," she says.
She says Pineapple Collaborative has created a space for women to discuss some of these issues. "They're fostering authentic conversations among women who are interested in making food a part of their profession, and that's no small feat. There has to be a level of trust and solidarity," she says.
These conversations, stronger networks, and a rise in women-owned and run businesses could change the industry, she says. "As more women feel supported, connected and empowered, places with toxic work environments won't be able to hire people."
Sexism in the food business is not limited to misconduct, and Pasternak and Bernstein say they want to use Pineapple Collaborative's platform to address other issues, including the wage gap and unequal access to investor funding.
According to a 2016 study by Glassdoor, female chefs make 28 percent less than their counterparts, and investment database PitchBook reports that all-women founders collected just 2.2 percent of venture capital funding in 2017.
"We see a lot of economic value in this," Bernstein says. "Women in the Pineapple universe want to support each other by buying their products and investing in their businesses."
She says venture capital firms looking to invest in more women-owned businesses have approached them to ask about Pineapple Collaborative's network, and that they've secured partnerships with food delivery service Caviar and fast casual chain Sweetgreen (Bernstein managed social impact programs at the company before leaving to focus on Pineapple Collaborative full time), among others. She and Pasternak are also currently organizing a workshop on funding small businesses.
Echoing other women's movements that have taken root in recent years, Pasternak and Bernstein say inclusion is core to their mission. "It's not enough to be a feminist organization if we don't include the voices of women of more backgrounds," says Bernstein. To that end, she says they've organized events centered on the culinary history of immigrant women and ensure panel discussions feature women from diverse walks of life.
"The difference between a lot of other women-empowerment groups and Pineapple is that many tend to be from one perspective — they tend to represent one type of woman," says Krystal Mack, 32, the owner of Baltimore-based bakery BLK//Sugar, who spoke on a Pineapple panel last year about D.C.'s women-in-food-scene. "They [Pineapple] really try to step outside of themselves when they curate events."
Mack, a self-taught pastry chef, says many black women like her struggle to be taken seriously and find their niche in the food world. "A lot of publishers aren't interested in speaking with black women if it's not about soul food," she says. "They're not interested in what we might have to say about, say, fine dining." She says Pineapple has created a space where she can share this perspective and where she can envision a more inclusive industry.
"Places like Pineapple are embracing women from all walks of the industry, and also helping us have a conversation about what carving out our own space would look like," she says.