Cassie Womack knows how to create a vibe.
Womack, the bartender manager at Bidwell, has seen and met plenty of people in her years working at the Union Market eatery, the first full-service establishment of its kind within the year-round indoor market. Chef John Mooney’s restaurant prides itself on local, organic, and sustainable ingredients, and it seems that ethos – of celebrating the finest the DMV has to offer – resonates with the staff almost as much as its founder.
Union Market’s unique offerings as retail space and test/pop-up kitchen have brought many creative and talented people through those doors, all committed to providing customers with the finest quality eats and drinks. It’s the kind of naturally collaborative, random-encounter-fostering space that more traditional work spaces dream of. And it was such a chance meeting that convinced Womack of her new mission: to help highlight the women who make our city’s burgeoning restaurant and mixology scene tick.
Womack is the visionary behind “Women’s Empowerment: Still We Rise”, an event that seeks to connect women in Washington, DC’s culinary scene to each other, as well as highlighting LGBTQ businesses on the rise in the District. Proceeds from the event will benefit “Together We Bake”, an empowerment based job training program for women in need of a second chance within the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.
Casual in a Bidwell t-shirt, jeans, and high-top sneakers, Womack cuts a distinctive figure, even for the restaurant industry. With a modern haircut (high up top, clean line work on the sides), neat horn-rimmed glasses, and with colorful, stylized tattoos on each of her forearms, she has a confident demeanor and an easy way with words. It’s a Saturday afternoon in early April when we sit down at the bar at Buffalo & Bergen, Union Market’s “New York Bagel” shop. Womack is chatting with a few colleagues and comrades in arms – on this gorgeous day, most of the patrons are sitting outside soaking in the sun, and a hodgepodge of off-shift staff from the market’s different businesses are sitting, decompressing and shooting the shit.
Unsurprisingly, Womack leads the flow of conversation from the get-go.
“We opened and we had to set the statement,” she says of her early days at Bidwell, as a young man, introduced to me as one of her coworkers, nods in agreement. “I made it a point to get to know every single customer that comes in there. I know what you want, and I know what you’re eating, and I’m going to make it a point to give you the best experience you can have.”
It was precisely one of those casual conversations with a fellow restaurant industry professional that got gears turning for the seemingly tireless Womack.
“I was at work and there was a pastry chef who came in, and she had a lot of great ideas. We got talking about how there are so many mixologists and culinary arts individuals who come up with great things, but don’t have the opportunity to express themselves, because they might not have the money, or the right connections.”
That seemed patently unfair to Womack, who recalled her early days as a server at the National Harbor Public House, moonlighting after her Department of Defense job to make ends meet. It would be a few years before she would leave her government job behind full-time, replacing it with a career in the service industry.
“There are so many talented people working in this industry, and you don’t know who these people could become. They have so much untapped potential,” she says, in between sips of a Stiegl Radler. “People shouldn’t be limited in what they can achieve because of who they know; not knowing people doesn’t mean you don’t matter.”
Womack understands how fortunate she’s been in her career so far, surrounded by supportive mentors and a caring staff – she specifically name-checks Bidwell owners Chef John Mooney and Mick O’Sullivan, as well as AGM Kathy Doe.
“I wanted to start doing events where we could showcase these people, because they matter, and they’re doing great things. They could be the next great chef, or the next top mixologist in DC – you don’t know that. They do matter.”
The list of sponsors and collaborators for the event include some of the newest women-led businesses in the Washington metropolitan area: alcohol purveyors include Republic Distillery and Denizens Brewery, eats by Chef Shannon from Brookland’s Finest, and cocktails from Copycat’s venerated mixologists, all using Magnis gin and bourbon. Bobby Van’s will be providing a good diversity of small bites and heavier hors d’oeuvres, with many dishes incorporating the spirits and beers donated by sponsors. The first edition of the event featured Kathy Phung (formerly of Union Kitchen, currently at Pineapple and Pearls) as well as Kat Hamidi, from Capitoline Vermouth.
Womack says these collaborations happen naturally with people she meets in her line of work, even if there is no real prior relationship. The goal, she explains, is to work together to celebrate the great work women are doing in the culinary arts in our city.
“I’m all about creating an environment, creating experiences, and creating relationships that can’t be broken,” Womack says, flashing a big smile. “That’s what I thrive on. Networking is everything, and we can help each other.”
Women’s Empowerment: Still We Rise is this Friday, April 29th at Bobby Van’s Grill (1201 New York Avenue, NW), from 6pm to 11:30pm. The event benefits Together We Bake. Tickets are available here.