Pam Patton is pictured with, from left, husband Stan, Guy Fieri of The Food Network, and son Stanley. Fieri visited Patton's restaurant in October 2014. (Submitted photo)
Pam Patton is pictured with, from left, husband Stan, Guy Fieri of The Food Network, and son Stanley. Fieri visited Patton's restaurant in October 2014. (Submitted photo)

Despite Iowa ranking last in the nation in the number of women- and minority-owned businesses, Pamela Patton, owner of Patton's Restaurant & Catering in Des Moines, has let none of the statistics deter her from reaching her dream.


In fact, Patton is one of only three restaurateurs nationwide who will be honored next week at a gala in Washington, D.C. At the event, she will receive the 2015 Faces of Diversity American Dream Award, an honor given by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. The award is presented to diverse members of the restaurant industry who have, through hard work and perseverance, achieved the "American dream."


And those two traits are exactly what lines the road Patton took when opening her small soul food restaurant at 1552 E. Grand Ave. on Des Moines' east side.


Patton's path to her dream


The story of how Patton first discovered her life's passion is one she often tells. As a child growing up in Columbus, Ga., she remembers traveling with her family to the home of her great-grandmother, Gussie Hayes, who Patton said cooked "from sun-up to sundown."


"She cooked everything from scratch, and I was always so fascinated by that," Patton said. "Her house was always full of people, there was plenty of food to go around, and we were surrounded by all the things we loved."


Patton's great-grandmother taught her how to cook. Before long, Patton, at age 9, cooked meals for her entire family, which consisted of her parents and seven brothers and sisters. Still, Patton never realized where those lessons would take her.


"I never knew I was on this path, but I knew I was cooking and inviting people to our home and loving it," she said.


Patton rediscovered her passion many years later when she was working for Principal Financial Group Inc. in Des Moines and attended a conference in California. While there, she realized she wanted to get out of the corporate world and do something on her own, but she wasn't sure what her gifts were.


"The instructor there told us there were a couple things you could do -- one, take a card from everyone in this room. Two, do things in the order God gave them to you," Patton said. "That was my defining moment. I thought back to Big Mama Gussie, and I thought about what I learned from her and those lessons."


For a while, Patton -- who has a master's degree in human resources management -- balanced working at Principal and running a successful catering company out of her home. Eventually realizing she wanted to open a restaurant, Patton said it took her nearly a year to leave her full-time job.


"I was afraid, and I didn't know how I was going to do it," she said. "I wanted to start a business in the middle of a recession. I kept saying I was going to leave, but then I'd get a promotion or a raise and it was very comfortable where I was."


But one day, she decided no one would talk her out of it. Giving one day's notice, Patton made her exit.


Overcoming startup challenges


From the day she quit her job, It took Patton nearly 18 months to open Patton's Restaurant & Catering.


Still, she saved money while continuing her in-home catering business. She took SCORE classes through the Iowa office of the U.S. Small Business Administration and wrote a business plan with the help of ISED Ventures, now called the Iowa Center for Economic Success.


Despite her efforts, she couldn't find a bank willing to loan her the money needed to make her dream a reality.


"Restaurants were failing at an alarming rate then," she recalled. "All the banks were telling me no. There was a point where I sat down and told my husband I wasn't sure if I was supposed to do this."


But one day, she said, she decided to pick herself up and move forward.


"I didn't want to wallow in self-pity -- I was done with that," Patton said. "(My restaurant) was going to happen. I wasn't sure how, but I decided I couldn't rely on other people to make it. If they said no, I had to find 'yes.' "


In 2010, Patton found her "yes."


She secured a Targeted Small Business loan and opened her sit-down restaurant at 1552 E. Grand Ave. in January 2011. While these loans typically were given in $5,000 to $10,000 amounts, Patton was approved for a $30,000 loan.


How did she do it?


"I just went back and I was very persistent," Patton said. "When I have a down time, I don't go completely down. I just figure out how to fight and move forward."


Today, both Patton's restaurant and food have received national acclaim. Last year, Patton's was featured on Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," which airs on the Food Network.


Cultivating diversity


Patton said she chose the location of her restaurant because it was the last place anyone would choose to open one.


"I went against the norm, but if you look around this neighborhood, you see an Asian restaurant, a Mexican restaurant. There's no movie theater, no shopping mall," Patton said. "All my life, I've been around diversity, and I wanted this place to be in a diverse neighborhood."


She also makes it a point to hire employees who live in the same neighborhood. She partners with East High School in Des Moines to recruit potential employees.


"It's more than just coming to work. We want everyone who works here to become a better person and go on to bigger things," she said. "We nurture them and then send them out into the world."


Thriving in a male-dominated industry


One of the biggest obstacles Patton has experienced, she said, is earning respect in a male-dominated industry. According to a 2014 survey conducted by Bloomberg, while women make up 39 percent of cooks in the hospitality industry, the latest data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows only 18.7 percent of chefs and head cooks are women.


In the five years her business has been open, Patton has seen customers come into the restaurant and bypass her to shake her husband's or male dishwasher's hand.


She said women can't demand respect, but must show others the different ways in which she can run a business.


"I overcome it by introducing myself and being as professional as I can be," Patton said. "I get apologies, but it's not about that because so many times, people are just used to seeing a man both in and driving a business."


As a female business owner, Patton acknowledges the importance of networking and finding a mentor, but she also said women can only rely so much on others to help them find their way. In the beginning, she encourages future women business owners to keep their heads down and work hard. Once her business starts to grow, then she should focus on networking and building both her customer base and access to mentors.


"The one thing I've found out is there is no one out there doing this just like you, so you can't rely on someone else for all the answers -- you have to figure some of it out for yourself," she said. "If it's your true destiny, you'll figure it out."


She also said to expect feelings of defeat, but when those feelings come, you should work through them,


"You're going to make mistakes, but we don't go into owning a business because we're afraid to fail," Patton said. "If you dream big, have that passion and work hard, you won't fail."