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Q & a

Molly Wizenberg: Do’s, don’ts of opening a restaurant

16qanda - Delancey author Molly Wizenberg. (Kyle Johnson)

Kyle Johnson

Molly Wizenberg.

When Molly Wizenberg’s husband, Brandon Pettit, decided to open Delancey, a wood-fired pizza business, in Seattle during a recession, the popular blogger became a somewhat reluctant partner. Wizenberg and Pettit faced the same challenges as many first-time restaurant owners — finding the right space on a small budget, doing much of the construction themselves, and keeping a marriage going during a grueling process. But because Wizenberg is the voice behind the wildly popular Orangette blog (www.orangette.blogspot.com), the pair approached this risky task with something other first-time restaurateurs don’t have: a built-in audience.

In her new book “Delancey,” which combines memoir and recipes, Wizenberg tells the story behind the launch of their successful 5-year-old business.

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Q. How did Brandon decide to start a restaurant?

A. We met because he was a reader of my blog. At the time, he was a graduate student in music composition. But he had worked in restaurants off and on, mostly as a server, since he was 16, just paying the bills like a lot of people in music. Food was his major interest outside of music. For me it wasn’t surprising that his life should take a turn more sharply toward food.

Q. Was having your own restaurant a dream you shared?

A. I tried working at the restaurant Greens in San Francisco when I was about 20. But what I discovered was that I really didn’t like working in restaurants. It came as a relief to me that the relationship that was comfortable for me with food is that of a home cook, the everyday quiet ritual of making food. A restaurant is pretty much the opposite of that. Every night is very different in ways that are exciting for some people and very challenging for other people like me.

Q. What were the highs and lows of starting Delancey?

A. I think it’s hard to overstate how little we knew. When it comes to the fundamental things of running any business — hiring people, purchasing equipment, the inevitable constancy of things falling apart or breaking — we were so dumb. The thing that was so wonderful is something that took me by surprise. It’s the way that our community rallied around to help us. We had friends come help us scrub out second-hand refrigerators and help us build the place. Gosh, a former employer of mine gave us use of her credit card because we were really short on money.

Q. People were reading about your progress on your blog.

A. In one way we were incredibly lucky that people were paying attention to this project from the minute we made it public. Despite the fact that we were opening in a recession and were opening a very risky type of business, we never had to worry about whether or not people would come. That was huge. But at the same time, we didn’t know what we were doing and I really feared that we were going to have a very public failure on our hands. It was not an infrequent occurrence for people to just stop by the site of the restaurant and poke their heads in to say hi to Brandon.

Q. What is your role at Delancey today?

A. I have been at the restaurant pretty much as a full-on general manager since shortly after our daughter was born. I’m there often during the daytime doing various administrative tasks that to anybody but an owner would be very boring. But to me they’re very satisfying. Unlike writing or parenting, with something like payroll, when it’s done you can check that box and it’s done for two more weeks. The restaurant is very satisfying to me these days.

Q. Now that you are a parent, do you stand by your statement in the book that opening a new restaurant is like having a new baby?

A. I think so. Like children or babies, this restaurant changes every day. It will take as much work as I’m willing to give it. At least at the end of the day my daughter, June, can give me a hug and all is right.

Q. You’ve been in business for five years. Why write about it now?

A. We have a tendency to look at something that’s successful and assume that the story behind it was an easy one and the people behind it knew what they were doing. I wanted to make it very clear that this was a really human story and that Brandon and I made a lot of mistakes. I wanted other people to know that it’s possible and it doesn’t take a million dollars to open a restaurant. But I also wanted to show the real struggles behind these things. What results in success is really hard work.

Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com.
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