International Women’s Day may be reserved for a single day in March, but the hardworking women among the city’s hospitality pros are a force to be reckoned with, and deserve to be honored year-round. In a largely male dominated industry, female chefs and restaurateurs like Kiran Verma, Christine Ha, and Evelyn Garcia have earned plenty of recognition and fanfare, but in Houston, top tier female talent reaches far beyond the kitchen.
At the moment, some of the city’s lauded restaurant groups have females at the helm, who operate behind the scenes and are responsible for their brand’s rapid growth. From founders and CEOS to Creative Directors, these women are serious about taking their hospitality brands to the next level. Meet some of the female power players who are making waves in Houston:
Katie Barnhart, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Adair Concepts
Katie Barhart (formerly Katie Adair) was born into a Houston hospitality family, but has since gone on to earn a reputable name for herself among the pros. The eldest child of Gary Betsy Adair, who opened Skeeter’s Mesquite Grill in Houston, and later acquired the Los Tios restaurants, joined forces with her brother Nick in 2012 to open Adair Kitchen, and currently serves as the design visionary for all Adair Concepts. “I always laugh that I don’t remember ever making the decision to become this involved in our family’s business, but it just happened along the way,” she says.
Barnhart recalls her and Nick taking a “boots on the ground approach” as they navigated the ins and outs of building and operating a new restaurant. “I have found that being able to speak my mind and standing up for my vision when dealing specifically with contractors, vendors, and co-workers has been the biggest learning curve throughout my career – just finding my own voice along the way,” she says. “ Luckily, I am fortunate enough that I was also surrounded by men who built women up, and my father and brother are great examples of that.”
Today, the family-owned and operated restaurant group encompasses beloved Houston restaurants like Betsy’s at Evelyn Park and Bebidas, along with multiple locations of Los Tios and Adair Kitchen.
Cinda Palacios, Owner and CEO of Palacios Murphy Hospitality Group
Cinda Palacios is the wife of Armando Palacios, the namesake of iconic Tex-Mex restaurant Armando’s, that the couple opened together in Houston in 1978. In the 45 years since, they have gone on to expand their footprint in Texas, creating a presence in Round Top, with Cinda leading the charge of their brand’s expansion. In addition to Armando’s, their portfolio includes Hotel Lulu and Popi Burger in Round Top, and outposts of Lulu’s and Mandito’s (opening soon in Bellaire) in both cities.
“I used to do everything from handling reservations, to bussing tables, and managing the floor,” she says. “I think I have done every job in each of our restaurants at one point.” After hiring Chief Operating Officer Alex Curley in 2020, Cinda was able to work on growing the group’s executive, operations, and culinary teams so that she could prioritize its growth. “Now I can focus on holding our teams accountable and leading everyone toward a common goal.”
Despite the countless challenges restaurant owners have been facing in a post-Covid landscape, Cinda has powered through, managing to grow the brand significantly in the past two years. Palacios Murphy employs 100 workers now, and is expecting that number to grow to 150 when Mandito’s opens this year.
“I have all of the tools I need to be successful, and 30 years of experience as a professional in this industry has taught me that I am just as capable as anyone else in the game,” she says. “Being a CEO now offers me the opportunity to run our group in a way that I want to exist in the world, and we have created a team that I am proud to sit at the table with—regardless of gender, life experience or anything else.”
Lukkaew Srasrisuwan and Miranda Leotkhamfu, Co-owners of Kin Dee
For Houston transplants Lukkaew Srasrisuwan and Miranda Leotkhamfu, both natives of Thailand, a chance meeting at a local networking event led to a thriving restaurant partnership. The women shared a passion for educating the community about their Thai heritage, and as a result, launched Kin Dee, a Heights restaurant that showcases a menu rooted in tradition.
Srasrisuwan, a veteran of the oil and gas industry, leads the business side of things, while Leotkhamfu, a former chef-partner of a Thai fusion restaurant in Queens, leads the restaurant’s culinary program. Since opening in 2020, the duo have earned a reputation as rising stars within Houston’s food community, and Kin Dee is just the beginning. Srasrisuwan is currently working on a follow-up concept called MaKiin, another Thai concept with a focus on authenticity and Thai culinary art, that is set to debut at Hanover River Oaks this summer.
Nina Quincy, Director of Operations for Underbelly Hospitality
Nina Quincy has come a long way since working her first job in hospitality as a retirement home line cook in the early ‘90s. As the current Director of Operations for Underbelly Hospitality, Quincy has been tasked with hiring and mentoring leadership teams, all while piecing together the infrastructure of the growing hospitality group.
“There have been plenty of challenges coming up in a male dominated industry, but ultimately those challenges made me stronger and better,” Quincy admits. “I had to work harder than some of my male counterparts to be recognized in the same light. I learned early on in my career that I will have to fight and be my own advocate to get paid what I deserve. I’ve learned to have a thick skin, that words are powerful, and that life isn’t fair, and because of this, equity matters to me deeply.”
Quincy is responsible for tracking the brand’s growth and profitability, and under her leadership, the group is slated to open three concepts, including new outposts of Wild Oats and Underbelly Burger, plus a new Italian-rooted concept called Pastore in Regent Square, neighboring sister-restaurant Georgia James. “I am not a good female leader; I am simply a good leader. That’s it. What I look forward to is a time when my gender is left out of my accomplishments!”
Tracy Vaught, Owner of H Town Restaurant Group
Long before she became the wife of James Beard Award recipient chef Hugo Ortega, and one of the city’s most prolific restaurateurs, Tracy Vaught was working in the oil business and looked at venturing into hospitality as an alternative to her career. She partnered with her uncle, Jack Blalock, to open Backstreet Cafe in 1983 and learned as she went.
“In the beginning, I was less specialized in my role — I was new to the industry and learning on the job, and I had to do a little bit of everything: bartending, hostessing, bookkeeping and food running,” she recalls. Forty years later, Vaught manages the H Town Restaurant Group along with Ortega, which encompasses lauded restaurants like Hugo’s, Caracol, Xochi, and Urbe. “Now, my role is more goal setting, financials, company mission, how to stay on moral track, and helping some with menu — looking at things on a higher level.”
Vaught’s dedication and hard work has landed her many accolades of her own, including being inducted into the Texas Restaurant Association’s Hall of Honor in 2020, and being named a four-time semi-finalist for Outstanding Restaurateur by the James Beard Foundation Awards, but her journey has not been without challenges. “I have the same challenges as men, or any owner of the business,” she says. “And there are many challenges we have to face these days – high costs of product, and still recovering from the pandemic in hiring people.”