2022 Changemaker Sarah Ingram: Changing Restaurant Culture

Photo Sarah Whiting

A typical workday for Sarah Ingram is as varied as the lineup of sweet and savory entrees on the menu at Hope Breakfast Bar. She might be managing the restaurant for the day, running food, and checking in with staff. She might be working on social media — she especially enjoys the creative aspects of the business — or unpacking boxes for a new restaurant. But whatever tasks are on her to-do list, Ingram says she is focused on cultivating a healthy, safe culture in the hospitality industry.

Ingram is co-owner and co-founder of Purpose Restaurants, a partnership with her husband, Brian. Since the pair launched their first restaurant in 2019, they have opened six spots, and there are future locations and concepts in the works. It all began with the original Hope Breakfast Bar in Saint Paul, housed in a historic firehouse. There is also a Hope Breakfast Bar in Saint Louis Park and an express counter-service version inside Gillette Children’s Hospital. The Gnome Craft Pub serves up microbrews in Saint Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood, and the Apostle Supper Club boasts locations at the top of Duluth’s Radisson Hotel and in downtown Saint Paul.

For Ingram, providing a superb experience to restaurant guests starts with taking care of her employees.

In an industry known for punishing schedules and unhealthy work environments, Ingram says she strives to create safe workspaces, physically and emotionally, at all of her restaurants. For example, the standard industry expectation for a restaurant manager is a workweek of 60 hours or more. At Purpose Restaurants, Ingram says she encourages managers to work 40 hours per week to promote work-life balance.

“I was immersed in the corporate restaurant industry for my entire career,” Ingram says. “I have always noticed one constant — employee health and well-being were never prioritized. Historically, [management and workers] would praise people for working 100 hours in a week with no sleep or life outside of the restaurant. I saw the toll this had on far too many people in the industry, and I knew that when we started our restaurants this had to be the number one priority.”

Many people in the hospitality industry struggle with substance use disorders, something restaurant culture can exacerbate. “Shifties” (a drink during or after an employee’s shift) are normalized and encouraged at many workplaces. Ingram doesn’t want employees to feel pressured to drink alcohol at work, so they are prohibited from drinking at any of the group’s restaurants, on or off the clock.

For employees facing financial hardship, confidential assistance is available through Give Hope, Purpose Restaurants’ nonprofit arm, which the Ingrams founded in April 2020. The nonprofit provides hot meals, money for rent, and groceries. Give Hope also partners with other local organizations, such as Saint Paul’s Face to Face, which provides services to young people who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of becoming homeless. Three percent of Purpose Restaurants’ sales are donated to the nonprofit.

Purpose Restaurants also works closely with Project Black and Blue, an initiative that assists those in the hospitality industry who are dealing with mental, physical, and financial stress.

Ingram hopes that Purpose Restaurants’ business model can serve as a template for other restaurants.

“We want to prove that restaurants can still make a profit while giving back, whatever that looks like,” she says. “Maybe you run a neighborhood pub that’s been there for 50 years — how can you make a change in that neighborhood and your community? It will mean a lot to those people who come there every day for their burgers and fries.”

Ingram also wants Purpose Restaurants to lead the industry on issues around gender parity. She values being part of a diverse management team that includes cis and trans women and nonbinary people.

“It is a very male-dominated industry,” Ingram says. “We want women [and gender expansive folks] in positions you don’t typically see: general manager, head chef, sous chef, assistant general manager — owner.”