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Does Mpls.St.Paul Magazine have a woman problem?

In a word, no. It’s a magazine led by women — aimed at women readers. So how does a place with such a focus blunder into such an unforced error?

To say they were annoyed would be an understatement.

Within hours — five, if reports are correct — of the March issue of Mpls.St.Paul Magazine hitting newsstands, 35 local women, all restaurant owners or chefs, got together to vent their anger and fashion a response.

The problem? On the cover of the magazine was a group photo of the chefs commanding the “Top 12 Restaurants” in the local foodie universe — all of them male. (Only one wasn’t white, but that’s another issue.)

“We’re just so sick of it,” says Brenda Langton, who owns Spoonriver Restaurant in Minneapolis. “It’d be different if this weren’t such a long pattern of this stuff.” 

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Her thoughts got saltier and more specific after she went off-the-record. But let’s just say the women, roughly half of whom signed their names to a letter they fired off to Mpls.St.Paul’s food editor, Stephanie March, and her bosses, have about had it with the magazine’s regular celebration of “trendsetters” in the Twin Cities firmament and their “food that only a small fraction of the public can afford to eat.” 

For her part, March, not known for being shy, has a spirited defense, rattling off word and page counts to enumerate all the attention the mag has given women in  the restaurant industry in the Twin Cities, including recent coverage of the protest’s co-leader, Kim Bartmann (proprietor of Bryant-Lake Bowl, Red Stag, Tiny Diner and a handful of other successful eateries); adding the jab that if Bartmann were as concerned about the standing of women chefs in the Twin Cities, she could have hired more of them for her own restaurants. (Bartmann didn’t respond to a request for an interview.)

A quick moment of full disclosure: First, I briefly worked for Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. Second, for all intents and purposes, I know nothing about fine dining. Of the 15 gentlemen on the cover, I’ve heard of three of them. And with the exception of Tilia, where I once had a beer, I haven’t so much as set foot in any of the restaurants. The percentage breakdown of my interest in food is: 99 percent eating, one percent reading. Plus, I’m cheap.

That said, the public relations aspect of this flap has some specialized interest value. Knowing a bit about Mpls.St.Paul magazine’s demographic focus (without having access to their research), it’s safe to say that the readership of the magazine is somewhere north of 80 percent female, while a quick glance at the masthead, sales and ancillary staff included, shows a female-male split that spikes up higher than that. In other words, it’s a magazine by women for women.

So how does a magazine with such a focus blunder into such an unforced error? Especially since, as March freely admits, there’s nothing scientific about either the “Best Restaurants of 2015” (the primary editorial focus, which actually includes coverage of several of the women who are upset about the cover) or the problematic choice of what we’ll call the “15 Top Chefs”? (Is any reader really so gullible and credulous to believe that expensive Gallup-like polling goes into any of the hundreds of “Best of” lists spewed out by local publications? For the sake of the Republic, I hope not.)

“There were four of us,” who contributed to the food package, says March, referring to herself, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, who is something like the grand dame of Twin Cities food writers, WCCO-TV morning show host Jason DeRusha and writer Peter Lilienthal.

Mpls.St.Paul Magazine

It was those four who came up with the 12 Best Restaurants and the “Top Chefs.” Which is pretty much how it usually goes. Fine. Whatever. But we’re talking the decision to slap 15 men on the cover of a magazine heavily weighted to appeal to a female audience.

Since there was no science to the choice of the “Top Chefs,” there was also no hard and fast, ethical or legal reason not to re-fashion the cover, certainly once the Group of Four saw the total gender disparity of their food elite. What stopped them from pivoting to something — anything — that allowed them to mix in a few female (and maybe even minority) faces?

March, who railed eloquently against a similarly misguided 2013 Time magazine cover, says her cover choice was … a plate of food. “But,” she says, “the cover decisions are made by the executive team, Deb [Hopp the publisher] and Gary [Johnson, President of MSP Communications] and Jayne [Haugen Olson, Editorial Director].” Translation: I was out-voted.

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The women upset with the choice seem to understand how the regional city magazine game is played. Namely, a publication burnishes its credentials for being the place to go for what’s hot and chic in your market by paying very close attention to “the innovators, the people pushing the envelope,” to use March’s description.

The women understand it, but they’re tired of it. Says Langton, “this whole star system thing is like something out of the dinosaur era.”

That may be true, but the fact is cozying up to and slathering “celebrity chefs” is all the fad on cable TV and in every city magazine in the country. Mpls.St.Paul hardly invented it. And to March’s definition of the criteria for selecting the “Top” 12, the quality of “innovation” was essential: been feeding happy customers the same dishes for 10-15-20 years? Doesn’t sound “innovative.”

Mpls.St.Paul might have saved itself a little trouble by labeling the boys on the cover “The 15 Top Innovators,” but the grand city magazine tradition is basically to alternate the two words “best” and “top” in large font on the cover of every issue. Don’t confuse your audience with subsets.

Critics of the Pentagon and the defense industry’s self-sustaining model have a term that could apply to city magazines across the country. It’s called “a self-licking ice cream cone.” You create the market — and the demand that keeps you in business. The more you lick, the more the sweet stuff flows back to you. Again, you like to think everyone understands that.

Mpls.St.Paul demonstrably devotes time and attention to kitchens owned and operated by women — their bona fides are probably secure in that regard — so the issue here is more a marketing misstep. They look just a little too obvious in whose star they most want to bask. 

Finally, as a food illiterate, is there a list somewhere of talented cooks of color, people who haven’t yet maybe ascended to chef-dom, toiling in kitchens on Minneapolis’ Central Avenue or on University in St. Paul or —  god forbid — in the ‘burbs?