Naples’ First Ladies of Food

Ingrid Aielli, Sukie Honeycutt, and Monika Czechowska triumphed in what was a largely male-dominated industry

Ingrid Aielli at Sea Salt. Photography by Michael Caronchi
Ingrid Aielli at Sea Salt. Photography by Michael Caronchi

The restaurant business has traditionally been an old boys’ club, but things are beginning to change. In Naples, a few pioneering women in leadership positions have paved the way for others. We sat down with three of them to get their perspectives on opportunities for women in hospitality.

The leading ladies:

Ingrid Aielli The Aielli Group—Sea Salt, Barbatella, Dorona, and Grappino

Sukie Honeycutt Ridgway Bar & Grill, Tony’s Off Third, Bayside Seafood Grill & Bar, Sukie’s Wine Shop

Monika Czechowska Fuse Global Cuisine, Fuse BBQ

Monika Czechowska at Fuse BBQ, photo by Michael Caronchi
Monika Czechowska at Fuse BBQ.

NI: Why did you decide on a career in hospitality?

Aielli: I didn’t choose a career in hospitality, it chose me. I dove into the field after marrying my chef husband [Fabrizio Aielli]. 

Honeycutt: After doing graduate work and playing in a folk-rock band, I fell into the restaurant business. I worked as a server, bartender, and sometimes even found myself in the kitchen. While I was working at Barnaby’s on the edge of the University of Bridgeport campus, the two owners asked me to manage the restaurant. I became so engrossed in the requirements of running a restaurant—creative thinking, energy, long hours, training staff, dedication, and, most of all, passion—that I quit graduate school and gradually developed into a successful
restaurateur. This business is so demanding—you’ve got to be all in and love it with all your heart and soul.

Czechowska: I’ve always enjoyed conversing with and meeting new people. This attraction and my artistic side led me into the industry. The hospitality industry is fun and exciting, and the opportunities to grow are limitless.

Sukie Honeycutt at Ridgway Bar & Grill, photo by Michael Caronchi
Sukie Honeycutt at Ridgway Bar & Grill.

Did someone mentor you along the way?

Aielli: I was inspired by Nora Pouillon, who owns Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., the country’s first certified organic restaurant.
Alice Waters, who started the farm-to-table movement at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, also had a great influence on me.

Honeycutt: I was predominantly self-taught. They say you learn through your mistakes—such a true statement. One of Barnaby’s two owners, Fred Samuels, was a prominent New York City designer. His restaurant knowledge was limited to dining, but he was a whiz when it came to understanding how to train and motivate people, and how to earn your employees’ respect. He had an immense influence on my people skills.

Czechowska: Steve Gunter, owner of the Tap Room at Dubsdread in Orlando, and his operating partner Barbara Teal. They both have a great work ethic as well as extreme business savvy. I find myself often thinking, “What would Steve or Barbara do?”

Ingrid Aielli at Sea Salt, photo by Michael Caronchi 2

What were the opportunities like for women when you started?

Aielli: The hospitality industry was dominated by men in the early 1990s, but there were always opportunities if you were willing to work hard. 

Honeycutt: It was difficult to survive in what was a male-dominated business in the ’70s and ’80s, particularly in small towns. Women had better opportunities in larger cities. Julia Child and Ruth Reichl were media celebrity chefs, but they never had to deal with the intensity and sometimes chaos of busy restaurant kitchens. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley paved the way for the next generation, women such as Nancy Oakes [the executive chef/owner of Boulevard in San Francisco], Susan Spicer [the renowned New Orleans-based chef], and Traci Des Jardins [chef/operator of multiple acclaimed San Francisco restaurants].

Czechowska: I moved here from Poland 20 years ago without knowing the language and with almost nothing in my pocket. Now I’m the owner of two successful restaurants. In my opinion, we don’t have a discrimination problem in this country based on gender. We have a problem with work ethic, entitlement, and attitude. If you are not willing to push yourself to succeed, you have no one to blame but yourself. 

How have things changed for women nationally and, specifically, in Naples?

Aielli: Things have changed significantly. There are so many successful women-owned (and/or women-operated) restaurants now, both locally and nationally. 

Honeycutt: When I arrived in Naples in 1979, I was hired as an assistant manager at The Chef’s Garden and Truffles. We had female servers in Truffles, but The Chef’s Garden was a totally male bastion. The owners were men, the bartenders were men, the servers were men, the bussers were men, the chefs and cooks were men. They all decided to shut me out, in hopes that I would quit and things could return to normal. I may have seemed small, I may have seemed quiet, and yes, I was a woman—but they had no idea how strong a worker I was. I ran rings around everyone and worked my butt off until they capitulated.

Czechowska: I find this question slightly divisive in nature. I’m focused on succeeding. Truthfully, I don’t feel that gender is a contributing factor in limiting the success of an individual.

Monika Czechowska at Fuse BBQ, photo by Michael Caronchi 1

 Are you actively involved in mentoring women who are starting out?

Aielli: I am a proud supporter of many organizations that mentor young women, including Champions For Learning [The Education Foundation of Collier County]. 

Honeycutt: At my level I am not involved with training new staff members. I do observe them and go out of my way to compliment them on their performance, or to thank them for all that they do. I do work closely with all of my front-of-the-house and wine managers, male and female, making suggestions, teaching them how to do things by example.

Czechowska: I will mentor anyone who is willing to put forth the effort to learn. 

What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment? Your greatest challenge?

Aielli: I’m grateful to have served as the co-chair for the fiftieth anniversary of Youth Haven of Southwest Florida, the shelter for children and teens, and I’m proud of the more than 400 jobs we have created in Southwest Florida. The biggest challenge at the moment is finding talented team members. Despite that, I’m blessed with so many great and talented employees at my restaurants. 

Honeycutt: They are one and the same. In the early 1990s, we owned or managed seven restaurants, several country clubs, a commercial bakery, and a large catering facility. We had multiple partners. By 2001, for a variety of reasons, we were left with a smaller version of Tony’s Off Third, a reasonably successful Bayside Seafood Grill & Bar, a failing Terra restaurant, and we were down to two owners: Tony Ridgway and me. I considered looking for a management position with another restaurant, but I just couldn’t abandon Tony, who had been and remains a terrific business partner and friend. We decided to reinvent ourselves—for Tony to return to the kitchen, for me to take control of the front of the house, and to rename the restaurant
Ridgway Bar & Grill.

To this day, 20 years later, one of us is almost always on the premises at Ridgway Bar & Grill, greeting and conversing with customers and attending to all the details that make our restaurant comfortable, welcoming, and special.

Czechowska: My biggest accomplishment is opening and running my two restaurants, Fuse Global Cuisine and Fuse BBQ. The biggest challenge? Exactly the same. But through focus and hard work, we’ve attracted a loyal clientele for the cooking of my partner, chef Greg Scarlatos, and I’ve been able to build one of the most comprehensive whiskey lists in the area.

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