clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Steakhouses Sell Themselves to Women

New, 32 comments
"Female-friendly" steakhouse chain STK advertises that it is not your daddy's steakhouse in Los Angeles.
"Female-friendly" steakhouse chain STK advertises that it is not your daddy's steakhouse in Los Angeles.
Photo: The ONE Group/Facebook

The steakhouse has had a manly reputation for quite some time. In 1905, actress Lillie Langtry tangled with New York's iconic Keens Steakhouse over its strict "gentlemen-only" policy. Langtry — who was, as general manager Bonnie Jenkins calls her, "a woman before her time" — eventually won women the right to dine at Keens. While the steakhouse proudly advertised that "Ladies are in luck, they can dine at Keens," Jenkins says there's evidence suggesting Keens persisted in seating men and women in separate rooms in those early years.

Today, women are often the decision-makers in dining, and many forward-thinking restaurateurs have made women's tastes a priority. But if marketing to women seems like a no-brainer, how a restaurant ought to go about doing so is not. Steakhouses have cut their own paths with women over the last decade or so, from Charlie Palmer's subtle reminders that all are welcome to STK's sexually charged ad campaigns. Last fall, Burwell's Stone Fire Grill — which is more in the Charlie Palmer model than the STK model — came under fire thanks to an ill-advised lingerie-related slip-up. But more on that later. These steakhouses might have different methods, but the goal is the same: Convince women that the steakhouse doesn't have to be a boy's club.

Men and Meat

Keens dark dining room has framed memorabilia and photos on all the walls Daniel Krieger/Eater

Even though women had the right to eat at Keens, not many did. Jenkins laughs at the idea of a flood of women coming in after the 1905 decision, pointing out "even 16 years ago it was more of a man's place." It's also worth nothing that a dinner held in Lillie Langtry's honor after she won admittance had a menu that emphasized seafood and poultry rather than red meat.

Keens' historical archives reveal 1920s bachelor parties, the men of an Olympic swim team of yesteryear, and an absolute dearth of women in management. Jenkins says she wasn't sure whether to accept when the restaurant's owner asked her to take over management 16 years ago. But she eventually came around to the challenge of being a woman in a man's world. Which, yes, does occasionally result in guests confusing her for the coat check girl or asking her if they can see the (male) manager. But, Jenkins says, "I think it's just the way of the world."

There's more women all around her now, to be sure. Keens has more female servers, and a lot of the restaurant's female guests are regulars who host events and parties. While Jenkins estimates that women were somewhere between 10 and 25 percent of Keens' clientele when she started her job, that number has nudged up to 40 percent in just under two decades. Jenkins can't explain why it took so many years to get to those levels. "I don't know if it was because it was men-only for so long," she says, later noting that women seemed to start coming in the early 2000s with the post-9/11 nostalgia for Old New York.

It's not just the steakhouse that been so closely associated with men over the years. It's the meat itself. A 2012 study titled Is Meat Male points to a link between meat (particularly muscle meat) and maleness. One of the researchers, University of Pennsylvania professor of psychology Paul Rozin, explains that they undertook the study since it's "in the folklore that meat is manly." While he says the connection was admittedly not as strong as he expected, people do tend to associate meat with maleness. The study muses that this could be just based on a higher male preference for meat, or maybe it's because people associate muscle meat with strength and power, stereotypically manly characteristics. Either way, Rozin says, "Is it easier to associate meat with male names and vegetables with female names? The answer is yes."

Modernizing the Steakhouse

Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images

Charlie Palmer Steakhouse, Photo: Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images

Charlie Palmer built his career on a progressive American cuisine and, given that, it's no surprise that he was an early adopter of a more progressive kind of steakhouse, too. "I didn't want the restaurant to be this men's club, he-man, bang on the table kind of place," he says, looking back at Charlie Palmer Steak's 1999 opening. "I wanted to be the kind of place where everybody felt comfortable." Palmer's team also looked at a national statistic indicating that it's overwhelmingly women who are making reservations. "Obviously we want to be on the right side of that," he says.

And they're not the only ones. Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar executive corporate chef Russell Skall says that when the owners opened the steakhouse back in 1998, it was with the realization that women were the ones making the decisions, and, he says "being smart men we always allow them to make those decisions." It's not just steakhouses that started recognizing this phenomenon either. As marketing expert Kelley Skoloda explains, restaurants in general have started to recognize women as increasingly the breadwinners and decision-makers in their families.

"I didn’t want the restaurant to be this men’s club, he-man, bang on the table kind of place."

Charlie Palmer Steak and Fleming's went after women in similar ways, too. Palmer's steakhouses tend to be a little airier than the traditional steakhouse, decorated with muted colors. Its menu emphasizes dishes beyond just steak. Palmer estimates that just 60 percent of the menu is red meat-based. Meanwhile, Fleming's was also all about options. It boasts a 100-wines-by-the-glass program, appetizers from baked Brie to mushroom ravioli, small plates (which score especially highly among women), and more. Fleming's has also begun to keep closer track of the calories on its menu, he says. Technomic researcher Kelly Weikel — who was part of a January 2013 study, The Center of the Plate: Beef & Pork Consumer Trend Report — writes in an email, "I think there is a greater awareness on the part of operators that they aren't capturing the female market and that's why you are seeing more steakhouses reach out to women through staggered portion sizes? through cocktails and other adult beverage menus and through greater focus on a better-for-you positioning."

Other restaurants have made smaller, subtler changes. A 1998 AdAge headline reads, "Sizzler pins turnaround on new items, women: new menu offerings, ads part of effort to attract more females to chain." Last year, according to the New York Times, Ruth's Chris Steak House (founded by a woman, Ruth Fertel) partnered with Marie Claire magazine on a speaker series about women entrepreneurs. The chain also added new cocktails to its menu to attract women.

Even the traditional-as-ever Keens saw some changes over recent years, adding to its dinner menu the same smaller cuts that had long been available at lunchtime. But, as Jenkins says, this had nothing to do with appealing to women. "If anything we wanted more people of all different walks," she says.

STK Happens

[2001 STK commercial]

Things got complicated when STK hit the scene in 2006 with its ultra-sexy ad campaign featuring a scantily clad woman hooking raw meat (with a sex-fueled commercial to boot). As the New York-based chain's senior vice president Celeste Fierro says, "That was basically redefining what a steakhouse is. This is a sexy, sexy place and you see the back of her with a piece of meat and a meat cleaver saying 'here we are.'" She says that her team "wanted to do something that was female-friendly, that wasn't intimidating to women."

The marketing might have been attention-grabbing, but most of what STK did was more or less in line with what steakhouses were doing before them: the chain rolled out a menu full of new options, including cuts of meat in small, medium, and large. Fierro says she surveyed female friends and employees and, as the result, the restaurant layout was opened up to be more inviting and less clubby, with the bar serving more of a focal point. And, to combat the perceived stuffiness of the traditional steakhouse, STK blasts rock music in its dining room.

"This is a sexy, sexy place and you see the back of her with a piece of meat and a meat cleaver saying 'here we are.'"

But still the STK concept tends to hit a nerve among women who suspect they're being used as bait. Multiple Washington, DC-based press outlets savaged the chain when it announced its arrival in the nation's capital, with one pointing to a quote from a spokesman indicating that "where the girls go to play, the men will follow." When confronted with that quote, Fierro sort of cringes. "That's an aggressive statement," she says. "I probably wouldn't have said that. But I have to say, it's a way of life. People might not want to address it, might not want to talk about it, but at the end of the day it's the truth. Men are going where women are. We're just giving that opportunity to be one of the options."

And STK clearly does well enough among women to expand to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, Atlanta, London and, soon, DC. Fierro says that sometimes the STK dining room is 80 percent female, though a recent trip to the location in New York's Meatpacking district revealed more of a split with a lot of dates and even a young family. Fierro insists that women are not being used as bait for men, but she argues that both women and men like to go out to meet people. "I'm not saying you have to interact with people, but I'm saying that you can," she says. "And if you want to meet people then why not?"

Though Fierro says the restaurant doesn't play with the reservation books to play matchmaker among its guests, The Guardian's food critic Marina O'Loughlin writes in a recent slam of a review of the London outpost that a "chirpy" greeter intentionally sat her between two tables of men. O'Loughlin adds, "Finding tables of men to seat us between in this penumbral, Ibiza nightclub of a room is a cinch: there are lots of them, suited and bellowing and radiating pheromones. ... Perhaps it's a marketing masterstroke by owners The One Group: tell everyone you're targeting the ladies with an ad that looks like a softcore, Addicted To Love version of Boots' Here Come The Girls, then serve up hunks of grilled cow and whaddya get? Possibly actual evil genius."

STK Fallout

STK's sexy reputation somehow managed to screw over Charleston, SC newcomer Burwell's Stone Fire Grill by association, even though the two steakhouses have no affiliation whatsoever. Restaurateur Ken Emery had some bold hopes for the concept, which eschews the masculine, Mad Menesque atmosphere of the old-school steakhouse in favor of something more modern. The goal was nothing short of changing the entire landscape of the American steakhouse by creating something that appealed to both men and women. Or, as Emery put it at the time, "It is best explained with one simple word: lingerie. Both men and women love it!"

That didn't go over well.

"We don’t put miniskirts on our website. We’re not steak for stiletto."

Emery explains that once people heard a connection between steakhouse and sex, the immediate conclusion was that it was going to be Charleston's own STK. And, like elsewhere, there are plenty of whiskey-swilling, steak-eating women of Charleston who don't need a female-friendly steakhouse, thank you very much. But Emery had never even heard of STK up until the lingerie controversy broke. When it did, he says, his team took a trip to nearby Atlanta — where they were already headed to investigate modern (and leaner) cuts of beef — for dinner at STK. While he thought it was fun, he also says it was totally different from what he was trying to do in Charleston. "There's no sexual overtones here," he says. "We don't put miniskirts on our website. We're not steak for stiletto. This is a food-driven steakhouse that happens to entice ladies if you will because of the experience of this thing."

Yes, while Burwell's had embraced the female-friendly moniker (even including a section on its website explaining how it is female-friendly), the original point of the Charleston steakhouse was to become a next-generation steakhouse. And a big part of that next generation, as Emery and plenty of research points out, is the all-powerful female consumer as her role grows in today's society. As Emery says, "I don't care if you open a fish house, steak house, hamburger? you've got to consider that or you'd be nuts." So they introduced "smaller, leaner and cleaner" cuts of meat that were more affordable and with more fish and appetizers. In what is likely to raise the hackles of any woman who likes her bourbon, Emery also says that he and his team "work hard to try to make bourbon more palatable" to women. Yes, he recognizes that plenty of women like bourbon as it is. But some women just don't. This is for them.

"Female-Friendly" or Something

And that's sort of the crux of the problem here. Women are not a monolith. Some like bourbon. Some don't. Technomic statistics show that most women like to order the leaner filet mignon, but everyone probably knows at least one woman who will go for the bone-in rib-eye any day. One woman's sexist steakhouse is another woman's fun night out meeting guys. So terms like "female-friendly" have proven tricky ground in marketing a new-age steakhouse.

Emery says he has backed off the female-friendly term — even though it remains on his website — since that whole lingerie dust-up. It's not because women don't like it. In fact, Emery says he's gotten feedback from women suggesting that his update to the classic steakhouse has been well-received. Even some of the originally critical local media has acknowledged that Burwell's was not the sexist abomination they'd feared. But Emery backed off using the term because he found it too hard to explain without preconceived notions getting in the way. Instead, Burwell's is focusing its marketing on the notion of the next generation of the steakhouse.

Even Fierro at STK waffles a bit on the whole "female-friendly" thing. She still believes strongly in the company's advertising, saying, "We are female-friendly, we are sexy and that's what we're selling." But later on, when pressed as to whether she ever considered dropping the female-friendly branding, Fierro concedes, "Is it female friendly? Maybe it's just friendly. Maybe it's not exactly female-friendly, but I want it to be where more women come. It's more about just giving them another option." But don't expect any changes in marketing from STK anytime soon.

"We’re not just female-friendly. Every restaurant should be female-friendly."

Fleming's never used the term female-friendly in its marketing, though the chain did highlight the lighter dishes when it rolled out a new menu a couple years back. And Charlie Palmer says that while his team talked a lot about being female-friendly, they would never use that term in their advertising either. "I think if you have to brand something female-friendly, that's not good either," he says, adding, "You can talk about it, you can stress the fact that we want it to be comfortable for everybody, but to brand it female-friendly and push it that way is not something we ever considered to be the right way or accurate. We're not just female-friendly. Every restaurant should be female-friendly if you ask me."

Jenkins over at Keens agrees. Though "female-friendly" is not a term the New York City steakhouse would use in its marketing, Jenkins says she often jokes that the restaurant which used to be men-only is now run by women. And she makes another good point about perception, saying, "I want to believe that the classic steakhouses were female-friendly, but women weren't drawn to them."

Consulting a Pro

So what kind of marketing could draw women to steakhouses? Ketchum partner/director of global brand marketing practice Kelly Skoloda cites the usual suspects that some restaurants and steakhouses have figured out already: portion sizes and leaner cuts, a friendlier atmosphere, an emphasis on nutrition and, depending on the woman, a family-friendly approach. After all, Ruth's Chris is a family favorite for Skoloda and her kids since the restaurant "treats kids like important little people." Happy kids make for happy moms, she says. Much of this positioning might not be labeled as female-friendly in advertising, but can still come across as in Fleming's print ads (above) that feature (but do not specifically refer to) women.

As for the "female-friendly" branding, Skoloda says that, "If it's done right, it can be a good idea." There's always going to be people who resent the implications, of course, she says, and women tend to see right through insincere attempts to appeal to them by slapping pink everywhere. If "female-friendly" rings true to a woman — on a menu, in the way women are treated — then it can work. But Skoloda concedes that there might be a generational divide in play here. Older women who grew up in an era when businesses mainly just catered for men are more likely to appreciate a restaurant geared specifically toward women. Millennial women that grew up outside of that mindset, however, might find the female-friendly tag "almost irrelevant."

And as much as its detractors might wish it weren't so, Skoloda says it's quite possible that even STK's ads are helping push the steakhouse out of its stereotypical masculine perception. "Just getting the conversation going is powerful," she says, explaining that even if women are turned off by the sexy STK advertisements, they might still convince women to think twice about steakhouses. "Just creating some news in the category starts people thinking," she says. And, she points out, women respond to aspirational advertising. Simply put, if a woman would like to feel sexy in a steakhouse, STK might appeal to her. (That which makes a woman feel sexy being subjective, of course.)

Going Forward

SHe by Morton's, Las Vegas. [Photo: Chelsea McManus/Eater Vegas]

Even though steakhouses have been appealing to women in some way or another for at least 15 years if not more, Technomic's Kelly Weikel says she thinks it "is definitely in the stage where it has gained speed and it's something we're seeing both independent and mainstream operators look at." Beyond STK and Burwell's Stone Fire Grill, actress Eva Longoria also opened a steakhouse geared toward women in Las Vegas named SHe by Morton's, and Miami briefly flirted with a female-friendly lounge named the pinkroom.

But it's not just the "female-friendly" gimmick that is proliferating. Russell Skall at Fleming's and Charlie Palmer both say they've seen American steakhouses evolve in the years since their concepts opened. Palmer points to The Capital Grille as an example of a steakhouse that started off more in the traditional vein and slowly evolved into something lighter, airier and with an expanded menu. "It's flattering that more and more people are wanting to be more female-friendly," Skall says. "They're kind of catching up to where we are, so we've got to keep ahead of that game a little bit with the menu additions that we do."

But, of course, classics such as New York's beloved Keens aren't going anywhere. Not even the restaurateurs behind these "next generation," "progressive" or "female-friendly" steakhouses want to see the end of that tradition. While Palmer says he believes the traditional steakhouse will always have a role, he's more interested in the progressive steakhouse model: "We're only doing a good job if we continue to evolve and push things and be current. You have to be current. You always have to think how to make it better. Things change in life and restaurants have to change and progress along with them."

Emery over at Burwell's Stone Fire Grill concurs. "This is something that might change the landscape of the steakhouse," he says. "I'm not saying that has to be us. I really hope somebody does. Not so other steakhouses go away; just so people have more choice." But tread carefully.