That Toronto’s discerning food lovers have rated Sanagan’s so highly is no surprise. That achievement owes much to the character of the man whose name the business bears. Peter Sanagan cares a lot, and not just about meat. The same intelligence and ethics that inform his decisions about what to sell are applied liberally to the business as a whole. Having a conscience and acting responsibly is Peter Sanagan’s stock in trade.
I’m not here to learn the secrets of the meat business. I’m here because Peter Sanagan posted a thoughtful comment on an essay I wrote about female chefs. He wrote about having a professional commitment to equitable hiring and advancement, and accused some of his male peers of foot dragging on this front. I was curious to know more about Sanagan and his business practices.
I’ve been a professional chef for more than 25 years and, since 2010, have actively applied myself to helping young women advance into leadership roles in the food business. While I’ve discovered several businesses where women are in charge, I'm frequently embarrassed by how little my generation of chefs, now in our 50s and 60s, has done to advance gender equity. I hold out hope that younger cohorts will do much more.
It seems natural that young people in their 20s and 30s, raised by working women, are ripe for change. Sanagan, who’s 38 and was himself raised by a “very strong maternal figure” in a family whose politics were left of centre, tells me he has noticed an “attitude shift” in the young professionals he employs.
In 2012, when Sanagan expanded his shop into the space formerly owned by European Quality Meats and needed to appoint managerial staff, he looked for leadership potential from among his existing employees. He knows such qualities are not gender bound but recognizes they manifest themselves differently in men and women. And he doesn’t find that threatening. He’s happy to let the differences exist rather than squeeze people into a dusty, dated, bland leadership model.
Head butcher Lisa Giraldi says that when she started working at what the staff fondly dub “Little Sanagan’s” two years ago, the shop had four employees—two men and two women. The current, greatly expanded Sanagan’s employs two head butchers and a small army of help.
Giraldi is the physical antithesis of the strapping European butcher. She admits that early in her career some people considered it strange that she wanted to be a butcher but that changing attitudes, particularly among her peers, have made it less of a deal. She knows of four other women in similar positions in Toronto; together they’re redefining the trade. According to Jerry Kokorudz, Sanagan’s assistant head butcher, many customers do a double take when they ask Giraldi if they can speak to the head butcher.
Giraldi came to butchery with an interest in animal welfare and a passion for quality products. She honed her skills with some of Toronto’s finest butchers and chefs, including Paul Bradshaw, Mark Cutrara and Ryan Donovan. She likes people, which is important given that she interacts with the public every day. And, she also likes the people she leads. She knows, as does her boss, that the fundamental challenges of leadership—how to get work done and help people realize their potential—have nothing to do with gender.
Giraldi is learning how to lead, and tells me she’s been reading a book called Quiet in which the author draws a distinction between aggressive and soft power. The distinction resonates with Giraldi who thinks less of the former—the predominant North American business model—and takes pains to explain that she asserts her own authority in a respectful manner.
I’m most impressed with the collective willingness at Sanagan’s to embrace the ambiguity in creating this new order. A good beginning has been made but there’s still some way to go. During my interview interesting ideas surface related to female assertiveness. When Sanagan tells me that he has noticed that “the young men he employ's don’t get their backs up about women in charge,” I wonder how important it is that men feel comfortable? Is this a benchmark of increasing tolerance for female authority? I also question, when Giraldi tells me she doesn’t want to be thought of as a “bitch,” if her concern for what others think isn’t too traditionally feminine.
Jerry Kokorudz tells me that when he began his butchery apprenticeship right out of high school 10 years ago, women were employed as wrappers and counter help. He’s happy with the way things are at Sanagan’s and is not shy in expressing respect for Giraldi whom he says “is one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever worked beside.” He thinks that people had the trade wrong from the start—butchery requires as much finesse as muscle. There it is, the yin and the yang, the masculine and the feminine of the trade. Of the gender issue, he quips that it “ain’t no thing.”
Sanagan’s Meat Locker is the right kind of place for a young woman like Mo Morrison-Brandeis to land. She came to the shop from a high school co-op program and was hired on after her two-month term was complete. She’s building skills and heartily echoes the respect and pride other employees have for the kind of values that run deeply through the business.
In his comments on my essay Peter Sanagan wrote that in the “food industry the collective agreement is to push forward with better ways of cooking; better ways of serving customers...We need to push forward and through that glass ceiling as well.” Sanagan loves the industry’s active search for improvement and wants it to include more women leading and receiving their dues. He’s put ideals into action and is building his business in just this way. He wants women to apply for jobs in his shop. For now he reluctantly agrees to be exceptional in these matters, but he’s hedging his bets on change. Because when the young people he employs look beyond his shop for the next thing, they’ll surely be influenced by their experience and the values Sanagan promotes. The odds are high that they will look for or create more of the same. Because the search for better ways inevitably leads to better places.