Amy Morales’ homemade chocolate sauce always won her rave reviews, so 10 years ago during the recession, she began giving it to friends for Christmas instead of buying gifts.
Birthed out of the new financial reality she and her husband, who worked in the construction industry, found themselves, Morales eventually decided to turn “Amy’s Amazing Chocolate Sauce” into a business she calls “Sweets for the Soul.”
Coming from a career in education, Morales had no idea how to get the word out about her business until joining Womens Food Alliance, an organization that according to its mission statement, “cultivates and advances networking, education, and collaboration for women in the culinary and hospitality industry in the Northeast Florida region.”
“They accepted me as a product in process, which I thought was great,” said Morales, who gave a talk about her sauce and passed out samples at an afternoon alliance tea party Feb. 26 at the South Ponte Vedra Beach oceanfront home of one of its members.
For Womens Food Alliance Founder and President Leigh Cort, helping Morales promote her business was what it is all about. Cort has been helping support women in the food and hospitality industries for seven years. And through organic growth, the alliance has gone from an original eight members to 135, and growing, today.
Members come from all facets of the hospitality industry and include chefs, restaurateurs, hotel owners, wholesale bakers, food service professionals, caterers and more.
Membership has even branched out from Northeast Florida to Southeast Georgia, South Florida, New Orleans and even as far away as Sitka, Alaska, because the organization is so diverse and unique.
Laddie Dwyer, a talent and music agent, has owned an entertainment company for 50 years.
Mimi Lan is a chef specializing in Vietnamese food with global influences.
Kelly Mabry owns Tropical Smoothies of Nocatee.
Pat Mack, a food writer and successful cookbook author, comes to monthly gatherings from Cocoa, Florida. She was among the 23 members to attend the tea party at Ocean Blue, a beachfront home owned by Linda Granfield, which is available for rent for family reunions and similar group events, and which members got to tour.
“I drove two and a half hours to get here,” Mack said. “I wouldn’t miss it because there is nothing else like it in the culinary industry.”
Mack is also a huge fan of Cort, whom she has known for years. “Leigh is an absolutely fabulous person, glamorous and exciting,” Mack said. “What she has done with Womens Food Alliance—month after month coming up with fabulous programs—it’s camaraderie, it’s friendship, it’s networking. We are all learning and sharing.”
“I try to fill our events with our members’ current successes and challenges, so we can help them,” said Cort, who has worked in various capacities in the hospitality industry for 40 years. “In the food industry,” Cort said, “I’m one of them.”
Cort transitioned into the hospitality industry in her late 30s, after a career as a singer and actress in New York City. Beginning in New York and then through the years she took on a variety of roles, including planning celebrity events, working in the hotel industry and founding a frozen food company.
In the 1990s, she was director of marketing and special events at Sardi’s in New York’s theater district, planning parties for celebrities such as Katherine Hepburn and Jerry Lewis.
In 1995, she moved to St. Simons Island, Georgia and shortly after that spent five years at the Ritz Carlton in Amelia Island as director of catering.
“That put me in the heartbeat of Jacksonville,” Cort said. “It put me into the growing culinary scene of North Florida.”
In 2000, Cort resigned and move to St. Augustine, launching her public relations company, Leigh Cort Publicity, which she still operates, specializing in historic inns and hotels.
In 2013, Cort said she realized a strong desire to give back to the hospitality industry, which had “been so good to me,” and founded Womens Food Alliance as a result.
But the real catalyst, she said, was her adult son, Jeff Serebin, who was battling brain cancer in New Jersey at the time.
“I couldn’t be there,” Cort said. “I had my PR business and I was up all night worrying and crying.”
Needing to do something with her grief-fueled energy, one night in the middle of the night she got up and wrote the mission statement for Womens Food Alliance. The next morning, she invited eight “fantastic women,” including a food photographer, food writer and restaurateur, to join her for dinner at Ocean 60 in Atlantic Beach to discuss the organization.
All said they wanted to join.
And the female food alliance has been growing and going strong since then.
Serebin lost his fight with cancer and Cort sees it as a tribute to him, her beloved “foodie” and “eater.”
It is also, “my legacy to hard working, creative, dynamic, caring women,” she said. “It is my favorite project in my entire life, and I say that with love.”
Photos by Maggie FitzRoy