On Valentine’s Day, it’s nice to hear a love story. Here’s one you’ve surely heard before: Two sweethearts, as passionate about food as they are about each other, quit their jobs to open a restaurant (or an ice cream shop or a wine bar or . . . ). It’s so romantic!
“When we first opened, we tried to make a rule that we wouldn’t talk about business when at least one of us was naked,” says Tse Wei Lim, who ran the now-closed restaurants Journeyman, Ames Street Deli, and Study with wife Diana Kudayarova.
“It didn’t work.”
The truth behind the sweet tales of entrepreneur couples living their foodie dreams is — like love itself — something more complicated. Starting a business is stressful, and restaurants in particular have a reputation for being relationship destroyers. People working in the food preparation and serving industry have an average divorce rate of about 37.5 percent, according to statistician Nathan Yau, who crunched the numbers from the US Census Bureau’s 5-year American Community Survey from 2015. That’s somewhere in the midrange — between actuaries, with the lowest rate at 17 percent, and gaming managers, who top the scale at 52.9 percent. (Bartenders beware: The occupation had the second-highest divorce rate, 52.7 percent.)
Meg Cadoux Hirshberg, author of “For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families,” is someone who knows the challenges well. She is married to Gary Hirshberg, founder of yogurt company Stonyfield. “Starting any business puts stress on the family in ways they can predict, like finances, travel, the way it chews up your time, the inevitable setbacks any business has,” she says. “Then there are also the challenges they don’t prepare themselves for, because they’re not aware they are going to happen. A lot involve the personal relationship and strains on that.”
So is starting a food business together romantic? She laughs. “That’s a loaded question. I think it’s more romantic in retrospect than it is actually going through the process.”
When we spoke with local couples involved in food businesses, what they had to say was remarkably consistent. And the lessons they learned in business apply to relationships too.
Communication is key (and constant)
“It is definitely not pretty to start anything in food, and especially not together,” says Melissa Stefanini, who with boyfriend Sebastian Galvez is behind empanadas-and-condiments company Buenas. “It’s not easy, just as a businessperson, and then you throw on top that you’re supposed to love and cherish this other person.”
The two, better known as Nini and Bass, respectively, started making empanadas, chimichurri, and the spicy Chilean sauce pebre when they lived in LA. Then Nini, who was a copywriter at an ad agency, got a job offer in Boston. “My boyfriend needs a job too,” she told the company. “If you let us sell our food in your agency, I’ll come.” Apparently someone in HR liked empanadas.
That was four years ago. Since then, the business has expanded, with breweries and restaurants hosting pop-ups, and stores such as Formaggio, Central Bottle, and American Provisions selling its wares. “Our bigger picture is trying to build the whole product line to be the Goya of first-generation kids,” Nini says. Next up is a Buenas storefront, set to open in May as part of Somerville’s upcoming Bow Market.
It hasn’t always been easy. “It would turn into big blow-up arguments about a sauce, which is dumb,” Nini says. Now the two are more able to say, “ ‘I’m not annoyed at you, I’m annoyed at all this other stuff.’ Communication is so important. You have to be even better about communicating.”
As Lim says: “You never stop talking about work, so you had better like your work, and you had better like talking with your partner about work. Those are all very different things, right?”
Respect each other’s strengths
Jenn and Matt Mason had successful careers. She worked in startups; he is a software engineer. But the plan was always to do something together. Enter Curds & Co., the Brookline cheese shop they opened in August. He continues in his full-time job while taking on things like accounting for Curds & Co., while she devotes herself to the store. Their daughters, who are almost 17 and 18, sometimes work there, too.
‘We both see what we’re good at and what we bring to the table. . . . It gives us an appreciation of that, and I guess you could say that’s the romantic side.’
“He works from home and holds down the fort,” Jenn Mason says of Matt. “He has been the backbone to this little cheesy dream. In some ways we are total opposites, and in some ways we are exactly the same. He’s very structured; he doesn’t throw paint on the wall to see if it sticks. I’m a trained artist and have attention deficit disorder. He can slow me down. He knows how to be an anchor. What we’re trying to do here needs a very creative and chaotic mind to always be thinking of things, but it needs a solid, stable person to hold that in check.”
The same is true at Buenas, says Nini. “We both see what we’re good at and what we bring to the table. If you weren’t here and I weren’t here, this would never work. It gives us an appreciation of that, and I guess you could say that’s the romantic side.”
Getting rich is not the real goal
When Jen Scott and Chris Hsi started having kids, it made them rethink their corporate lifestyle. “If I’m taking time away from my family, is it something I’m super-passionate about?” Scott wondered.
They were, however, super-passionate about wine. Now they have three kids and two businesses: Taste Wine Bar & Cafe and wine store Common Vines, located across the street from each other downtown. “I’ve never experienced such extreme ups and downs, but at the same time it’s the most rewarding and fulfilling thing we’ve ever done except having kids,” Scott says.
And it’s really the kids they did it for. They wanted a lifestyle that would embrace the whole family, she says. They could all go on business trips together. They could pass along the things they value and appreciate. “It was that romantic idea about this family lifestyle. We’re not trying to be rich. That’s not what this is about. We want this to feel like a family for everyone who works with us. It’s not about building wealth; it’s about building a lifestyle and supporting the people who work with us, too.”
But stability is important
Hsi took a leave from the corporate world when the businesses were new, but now he plans to return for a while. You need “someone who’s stable and someone who’s building the dream,” Scott says.
Nini’s copywriting career enabled her and Bass to launch Buenas; she continues to work on a freelance basis. “The corporate job was the thing. If I didn’t have that, I don’t think we would have been able to start,” she says. “It kept us going. When you first start a business, especially food, it’s not like you’re making any money. On top of it, we do wholesale, so it’s even less until you hit volume and scale. If it wasn’t for the job, there would have been no way.”
Aaron Cohen runs Gracie’s Ice Cream in Somerville, named for his daughter; he and wife Jessie Ratey also have a son. Cohen also founded the long-running Bacon & Beer Festival, along with a series of popups. While he dreams up things to do with marshmallow Fluff and sugar cereal, Ratey is a senior program officer who works with a family foundation on educational grantmaking. “The weirdos that open businesses need a normal to not open businesses, and the normals need a weirdo,” Cohen says. “It’s like the Paula Abdul song.” (That would be “Opposites Attract.”) “Then someone will have health insurance and a steady paycheck, and someone else can have dreams.”
Flexibility is, too
“Even the irresponsible decisions I’m making, I’m trying to make pretty responsibly,” Cohen says. He does worry about money and whether he’s earning enough. On the other hand, he says, “I do 95 percent of the pickups and drop-offs for daycare; on Thursdays I stop working at 3:55.”
Deena Jalal and Hin Tang are also in the scoops business: They founded FoMu, the plant-based ice cream company. Before that, they both had corporate jobs; the children of entrepreneurs, they had seen how hard their parents worked, and they wanted a more traditional schedule for their family. “But it became really apparent when we wanted to start a family that the flexibility we thought we would have wasn’t there, and the passion wasn’t there. If you are going to give up time away from your kids, you want to be doing it for a good reason, for something you love and you think is adding value to yourself, your kids, your community,” Jalal says. They now have three sons, the youngest 6 weeks old.
There are compromises involved when both members of a couple leave behind financially stable jobs. From time to time, Jalal and Tang have wondered whether one of them should return to a career that comes with health care. But every time they thought about it, they remembered all the hours they used to work for someone else, at something they didn’t feel passionate about. “We work 24 hours a day, but if we need to pick the kids up at 3, we’re able to make those decisions for ourselves and feel great about it,” Jalal says.
Meaning comes in moments
“We still struggle,” says Jenn Mason of Curds & Co. “I think we just had our slowest day ever. . . . Then you just have the sweetest people walk in and thank you for opening. I work hard not to cry when people come in and say nice things. A little kid came in and saw the display about how cheese is made, and the monger sat down and answered all his questions. And I get to give people cheese every day!”
Entrepreneurial couples often fall into the trap of tending to business now and putting off life for later, says Hirshberg. “That might be travel or something as serious as having a child. You delay these life experiences at your potential peril. It’s really important to live life and carve out moments together.” In Stonyfield’s early days, sometimes she and Gary Hirshberg were too busy to do anything but take a walk down the block and back together. They would leave their cellphones behind and talk. “It was a small thing, but it was huge,” she says. “I noticed a difference when we didn’t do it.”
Challenges can be romantic
Lim and Kudayarova closed their restaurants. Both are now at startups — he is consulting and working in advertising, she is working in business operations. In the annals of stressful life changes, he says, “closing a business is usually up there, and anything like that is going to test your relationship. We’re still married. We still have two dogs. We even did another pop-up recently. So whatever happened seems to have been survivable.”
Says Jenn Mason: “If only somebody could tell you that you would have exactly 20.5 fights or 13 money breakdowns, but there’s no way you can do that. You’ll feel guilty; he’ll feel tired. How it affects your family is never what you planned, so how are you going to plan for what you haven’t planned for? We’ve also renovated a house together, he taught me to drive a stick and play chess, and we still are really happily married. Life’s too short not to follow your dream.”
So yes, says Hirshberg. Starting a food (or other) business together can be romantic. “If we interpret the word ‘romance’ to mean [in part] this feeling of deep reward and connection to your spouse because of this common enterprise you’re engaged in, I think that’s very possible.”Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.