Supporting each other: Womens Food Alliance makes the connection


By Tiffany Merlo Phelps

When Leigh Cort worked in the hospitality industry in New York in the 1980s, she was inspired by an elite and small organization known as “Roundtable for Women in Food Service” that invited her to join.

“It was a very rare breed of entrepreneurial women. I learned about the fellowship of women in the hospitality industry who cared about each other because there were so few of us,” said Cort, who grew up near Asbury Park, New Jersey. “We were there to support each other.”

That was the genesis for what was to come in Cort’s career as she founded Womens Food Alliance (WFA) 11 years ago in Northeast Florida after she made the move south with her husband in search of warmer weather. They first moved to St. Simons Island where Cort took a position as director of catering at The Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island for five years before eventually moving to St. Johns County and opening Leigh Cort Publicity in 2000.

“It was in my heart and soul that I always counted on women,” said Cort, who recently expanded the organization to Coastal Georgia with 30 members in that region so far.

There are 170 total members currently in the WFA, and the organization plans eight to 10 programs and events a year, always holding the events at member businesses. This includes a pre-event hour of networking and business exchange.

According to the WFA mission statement, the organization “cultivates and advances networking, education and collaboration for women in the culinary and hospitality industry in the Northeast Florida and Coastal Georgia region.”

For Cort, there is one memory from her career in New York that really highlights the power of professional fellowship and became the basis of the mission statement.

Cort’s first job as a party director in New York City’s Trump Tower included 1,500 guests honoring famed sculptor Erte. An hour before the party began, Cort realized that she had forgotten all about coat racks.

“It was winter in New York City, and I was panic stricken,” said Cort. “But I remembered that there was a woman who had just started a rental business of staff and then services. I called her, and she saved my life. She not only got me coat racks, but she got me staff because you can’t have coat racks without people taking tickets. I realized that my friends in New York were my backbone.”

That strength is now at the core of WFA, and Cort said she is most passionate about connecting women in a variety of different careers within the industry and lifting each other up.

“We are here to enjoy each other’s company and to learn what is going on in our industry,” she said. “The most exciting part for me is always watching our members thrive and shine.”

Member Kayshla Bentley of Mrs. Bentley’s Desserts said she joined the organization because of the warm welcome and support that she received from every woman in the alliance.

“Leigh’s energy and positivity were absolutely infectious. She is such a hard-working woman and is an absolute inspiration to me,” she said. “This organization has been very special to me in all aspects of my business. It has encouraged me to branch out of my comfort zone and learn to partner and support other women just like me. These women have all pushed me to be the best version of myself and has taken my business to a level I never thought it could be.”

Member Cindy Stavely, St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum and Colonial Quarter executive director, said she has been a member for 10 years, including serving on the advisory council.

“My connection to the Womens Food Alliance is driven by shared values, support, and networking opportunities. These amazing women provide a platform for collaboration, mentorship, and resources, helping in various aspects of my hospitality driven position in the community,” said Stavely. “Aside from the extremely informative guest speakers we’ve had the privilege to hear, the long-standing friendships and shared experiences will be a wonderful part of my professional journey. So many fun, loving and inspiring moments throughout the years.”

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