Sonja Overhiser and Ashley Brooks are two women who have made their respective marks on the Indy food scene. In 2017, they came together to co-found Indy Women in Food, a local organization that lifts up women in the Indianapolis culinary space. We had the chance to catch up with them before they speak at the May 25 Member Meetup to get a taste of what it’s like to be a female in the Indianapolis food scene.
How did you two meet?
Sonja: Ashley and I met back in 2017. We both attended an event called Indy Women in Food, highlighting Indianapolis women working in food in collaboration with a visit by Kerry Diamond of Cherry Bombe. After the event, both Ashley and I were separately struck by the energy of the women in the room and the connections that were made. We were connected by a mutual friend, and from our first coffee date we had already outlined the beginning of the organization. Indy Women in Food officially launched in June 2017.
Ashley: Sonja and I were connected through the above mentioned event with Cherry Bombe. I was asked separately to coordinate a luncheon that day with Kerry Diamond and several female chefs from Indy, and Sonja was involved in the panel discussion, our connection formed from there and we were excited to keep the energy alive!
What inspired you to start Indy Women in Food?
Sonja: At that first event, there were so many women working in the food industry who didn’t know that the others existed. It was a lightbulb moment to realize that we were all working in our own silos. How much more could we grow and support each other together?
Ashley: Personally, I was needing to connect to the industry in new ways after having left my restaurant, Milktooth. Sonja and I shared very similar sentiments about connecting women in this food space and I was extremely excited to create a new opportunity for not only myself but for many women who felt a similar desire.
How did each of you get your start in the Indy food scene?
Sonja: I run the food blog/recipe website A Couple Cooks that serves a global audience. So while I’m based in Indianapolis, most of the work I do is national: part of why I wanted to really dig into local connections through Indy Women in Food! But A Couple Cooks started as a passion, just making recipes and photographing them with my husband Alex in our Indianapolis kitchen back in 2010. We’ve been able to gradually grow it over time and made the jump to both working on it full time about four years ago.
Ashley: I have been in the food industry for over 15 years, mostly rooted in Indianapolis. After culinary school I had worked in almost every corner of the industry, from cheesemaking to being a pastry chef and opening an Indy favorite brunch spot, Milktooth. For the past 5 years, my focus has been on creating culinary experiences like the Baby Got Brunch festival and consulting through my company, A.Rose Hospitality. I also co-founded the Garfield Park Farmers Market.
What makes the Indy food scene—or women in the food scene—stand out from other cities across the country?
Sonja: Indy is an incredibly supportive environment to have a food business! The women here are true cheerleaders and collaborators. Instead of a sense of competition, there’s a real sense of “open source” learning and growing together. It’s completely unique from what I’ve heard from other major cities.
Ashley: Indianapolis is unique because of its comparatively affordable cost of living, with a blossoming travel and tourism industry which brings in plenty of opportunities. It’s easier than most cities to build a business, as long as you have the right support systems.
What is a memorable “win” or “success story” from an Indy Woman in Food?
Sonja: There are so many examples of amazing collaborations that have come out of the group. Our community leads Tanorria Askew and Candace Boyd Wylie were moderators for our panel discussion events called the DiverseCITY Series, and they’ve gone on to speak together in other forums and start the Black Girls Eating podcast together. Through conversations in the group, Rachel Klein of Revival Almond Butter and Tulip Tree Creamery had a toast popup at Garfield Park Farmers Market. There are always exciting collaborations brewing in the group.
Ashley: With the encouragement and guidance of the group, one of our members has taken her meal prep and private catering business to the next level with a brick and mortar restaurant concept to the AMP at 16 Tech, a new and innovative artisan marketplace in Downtown, Indy. Tawana Gulley will be opening her concept, Healthy Soul, very soon!
How can women get involved with Indy Women in Food?
Sonja: If you’re a professional in food, join our community! We have a private online group for communicating with other professionals and several members only events. If you’re a supporter: we need you too! Sign up for our newsletter or follow us on Instagram or Facebook. And attend one of our public events—which we plan to re-start soon now that we’re re-emerging from Covid.
Ashley: Ditto, Sonja!
Aside from Indy Women in Food, you both keep pretty busy. What other sort of jobs/activities occupy your time?
Sonja: My full-time gig is as founder of A Couple Cooks (on Instagram here), and I’m author of the cookbook, Pretty Simple Cooking. So I get to write recipes and take photos of them all day long, with the help of my husband Alex! I also started a business Food + Wellness Equity Collective, a diverse group of content creators and entrepreneurs committed to being change agents for equity, diversity and anti-racism in the food and wellness industry. I love to be involved in projects that champion healthy food access for all people.
Ashley: Life keeps me pretty busy with owning my business consulting with restaurants and local food businesses and also being a single mom. In addition to what feels like 2 full time jobs, I also freelance for a cookbook publishing company doing recipe testing and contracted chef services, I am the president of a local non-profit farmers market in Garfield Park, and try to stay involved with local organizations that actively address food insecurity around Indianapolis and beyond.
RELATED: MONTHLY MEMBER MEETUP SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: KODA WITSKEN
What are some of the biggest challenges/barriers women in the Indy food scene face?
Sonja: Right now it’s recovery from the pandemic. It’s been a really tough year for the food industry, as you’re well aware. This is a great time to rally and eat at our local restaurants, read local food media, and advocate for food justice in our city.
Ashley: With the astounding rate of women having to leave the workforce or the industry during the pandemic, it is even harder to find the support to recover and re-enter after an extremely challenging year. Businesses will thrive again, but we need to work together even harder to make sure that women-led businesses are given opportunities to succeed after such a huge setback financially and with lack of resources.
Who are some women to watch in the Indy food space?
Sonja: So many! We’ve featured many exciting up and comers in features on our Indy Women in Food Instagram, so make sure to look there. The women I’ve mentioned as success stories (Tanorria, Candace, Rachel Klein), Ruchi Shah who runs chai pop-ups and products with her businesses Chai High Tea, and Asia Coffee who runs cake decorating classes and a successful Youtube channel.
Ashley: It will be very interesting to see who shines and what collaborations happen as folks start to emerge from the pandemic. Que Wimberly at the Missing Brick is always making moves and I can’t wait to see what she does next. Also, Taelor Carmine just opened an amazing craft bar and Thai Bistro that feels like it will become my new favorite patio where I make bad decisions. Chef Grace Seibert is also an exciting chef to watch, she is a co-founder of the pop-up, Thin Glizzy, has cooked at Con Todo and is currently a chef at Milktooth.
Who is a woman you look up to?
Sonja: So many! There are so many exciting things happening in the food scene here. Martha Hoover, who’s an incredible leader and voice for equity in the industry (the force behind Patachou group restaurants and foundation). Nina Takamure, an AMAZING sushi chef running a family business at Asaka. Victoria Beaty, who’s transforming our community as executive director of Growing Places Indy. Tanorria Askew, who combines her incredible personal chef business with anti-racism and equity training and resources. Mandy Selke and Carly Swift of Just Pop In!, who are a glue who hold us all together and naturally cultivate community everywhere they go. I could go on and on!
Ashley: I look up to every single woman existing in this food space and for putting up with the day-to-day challenges that come with working in a system with the dominant ideology of patriarchy. I also look up to the policy makers like Milele Kennedy, the city’s food policy coordinator who looks at the broader issues of food access and inequality and works every day towards justice and positive change.
What will you be speaking about at the Monthly Member Meetup on May 25?
Sonja: We’ll be speaking about our journey of creating a community, how to support women in the Indy food scene, and how equity and justice play a part in the way we eat.
Ashley: We hope to encourage action to help support the work of IWIF in the realm of food justice as social justice.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Sonja: Indy Women in Food is currently an organization that’s 100% volunteer. As we come up on our 4-year anniversary in June and look toward the future, we’re dreaming up how to keep it sustainable: to become an LLC or non-profit, or whether we’re serving our community best as is. There are lots of directions we could go! We look forward to collaborating with other community partners as we discern our future path.
To learn more about Indy Women in Food, visit https://www.indywomeninfood.com.
This month’s monthly member meetup is SOLD OUT, but be sure to check out our events calendar at the beginning of each month to RSVP for the monthly member meetups … and become a member for a first look & exclusive access to these events and more.