21 March 2024

Penny raises a glass to all Women in Hospitality

| Karen Lateo
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Woman holding a bottle in front of a bar,

Penny Claiborne kicks off a WiHSC event at Wolf & Woman Distillery in 2023. Photo: Karen Lateo.

She may be the waiter who serves you, the bartender who mixes your cocktail, the chef who cooks your meal. Or she could be running a bakery, a food truck, a produce warehouse, a marketing agency. They are women in hospitality, and Penny Claiborne wants to create a safe space for all of them to meet.

Penny started the South Coast chapter of Women in Hospitality (WiHSC) in early 2019, joining with friend Jeanie Taylor – then manager of Wollongong bar The Throsby – to host a relaxed, convivial drinks night.

“We got the word out through social media and our networks,” recalled Penny, owner of Vinopenny, an Illawarra wine consulting, training and supply business.

“We wanted to create a community of women across all the facets of hospitality. Jeanie was in her 20s, so she had access to young hospitality people, and I had relationships with business owners.

“A great mix of women joined us for the first event. The mix evolved and, with the pandemic, changed again. Cliques started to form … and I wasn’t enjoying it. There was too much small talk. It became hard work, and it wasn’t sustainable.”

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It was work Penny did – and still does – gratis, beyond her role at Vinopenny and as solo mum to a teenage daughter.

The New Zealander’s first career was in physiotherapy, working in Chicago in the late 90s. But the grind of that job – dealing with the ordeals of patients, many the victims of street violence and shootings – took a toll.

“I’d have nightmares about not being able to help people. There was so much negativity, so much pain in conversations,” Penny explained.

“So I thought, what are my three favourite things in life? And I went, ‘Food, wine, travel. I’ll do one of those’.

“I wasn’t a good enough cook, and I loved travel but didn’t want to be stuck booking other people’s holidays. In wine, there’s science, which was a part of physiotherapy I’d enjoyed. And there’s the pleasure of bringing people together. So I found a job in wine retail.”

Two women standing and laughing.

Penny at the first WiHSC event in 2019, hosted with Jeanie Taylor, the then manager of Wollongong bar The Throsby. Photo: Women in Hospitality.

Fast forward through several years at a top Chicago wine emporium, specialising in Australian and New Zealand wines, to studies at the Chicago Wine School and formal sommelier qualifications with the prestigious Wine and Spirits Education Trust.

In an early precursor to WiHSC, she even ran a wine tasting group in her home, “sort of like a book club, but with wine”.

By 2002, Penny found the impact of the September 11 terrorist attacks had transformed Chicago into a depressing city. With her African-American interior designer husband in tow, the pair opted for life in Australia, where Penny had lived briefly after school and had family connections.

At 32, she found herself working in the high-pressure Aussie wine industry in Melbourne.

When Penny was 15 weeks pregnant, an ownership shuffle in the “heavily male dominated company” she worked for caused job losses, and snide cracks that she only survived the upheaval “because she was up the duff”.

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She worked a four-day week yet was constantly pressured to increase her hours.

Penny and her young family moved on, eventually settling in Kiama, because her father lived in nearby Berry.

Work saw her commuting to Sydney and Melbourne, ultimately eroding her marriage.

“I became resigned to believing the best years of my life were over. I was 41. I think about that now and it’s gobsmacking.”

In 2012, a friend suggested Penny start her own business, selling wine on commission. She consulted a life coach – the first of several she’s used in recent years – and Vinopenny was born.

“She really saw me and gave me a vision of something that I never would have seen – that I could make a living on my own, that my constant beating myself up was actually not helpful. I thought that was how you made yourself better!”

Two women facing each other and smiling.

Penny with Emma Huber of Millers’ Local Bakehouse, host of the next WiHSC event. Photo: Abbie Boyd.

It’s these poignant life lessons that Penny hopes to share in smaller, more intimate WiHSC meetings in 2024, starting with a gathering hosted by pastry chef Emma Huber, owner of Millers’ Local Bakehouse in Bulli, on Monday, 25 March.

The revised format was inspired by an unintentionally quiet event last September at Kiama’s El Corazon – a cold, rainy evening, attended by only four members (this reporter included), plus Penny, restaurant owner Kirsten Sigmund, and her sister and business partner, Vicky.

The sisters shared deeply personal stories, tears were shed, and something changed for Penny.

“It was totally powerful. And it shifts everything when you have that kind of connection,” Penny admitted.

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“I tell myself, even if it’s just one or two women who leave thinking, ‘I can do this, I’ve got this’, or they were feeling alone and find someone they can really speak to, it’s worth it.

“If you’re a woman in hospo, you’re always in customer service drive, particularly if you’re customer facing. You always have a mask on, and I don’t want that to be how people feel.

“How can you have the energy for that when you may also have roles as partner and mother behind the scenes, and you have to move the earth to get to an event?

“So to make it worth mine and everyone else’s time, I want to create a space, just for a short time, where you can connect in a real sense and feel inspired and leave the event with energy. That’s how we can make change for the good.”

Women in Hospitality South Coast meetings are for members only; there is an admission fee to cover food and wine, and attendance numbers are limited. Email [email protected] for membership details.

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