Tiffany Gellner-Lane and Owen Lane of The Magpie Photo byJay Paul
You just had the BEST IDEA. You were hanging out at Casa Grande sipping margaritas with your better half, and it hit you: You should open a Mexican restaurant called Holy Molé. You grin as you sketch a plate of enchiladas with a halo over it — bam, there's your logo. It's so good. You hand it across the table, leading with, "You're great at cooking, babe. Let's do this." Better Half agrees, astonished at your innate knack for on-the-spot ideation, and you picture the two of you holding court at the big, fancy party you'll throw for opening night. Everyone who's anyone will be there, slugging back a Bar Nun (your signature cocktail) and getting a huge kick out of the real communion table you found at that silent auction. It's restaurant gold — it'll run itself, right?
While it IS massively fun to run through these mental scenarios — maybe even fun enough to inspire an investigative drive around town looking at for-rent signs — the gloves come off at Step Two: A Realistic Picture of Restaurant Ownership. It is hard. (Potential restaurant owners: pause here to pour a stiff drink.) There's market research on what sells in your city; there's balancing the menu prices for dishes with the cost of ingredients AND comparable prices at other restaurants; and there's the training of cooking/service staff (with the expectation that those positions will turn over frequently). Add to that to-do list fun bits like pest control, equipment and refrigeration service contractors, linen service, dishwasher service companies, business insurance, and city and county governmental fee payments. Yikes.
It's no surprise that many restaurateurs choose to go into the biz as a partnership. Divvying up that list can make things more manageable, not to mention lessening the financial burden for each individual. And not every chef has a great handle on the whole decorative thing — you might cook bolognese like Batali, but no one's going to eat it in the Bargain Depot showroom from 1992.
Among the Richmond partnerships who are mastering the front of the house/back of the house balance in a big way are Tiffany Gellner-Lane and Owen Lane of The Magpie; Michelle and Caleb Shriver, and Phillip Perrow of Dutch & Co.; and Jay Bayer and Adam Hall of Saison. They all follow the chef/manager dichotomy and break down duties along the lines of menu creation, food prep and stocking versus the space, the service and business management.
"When we were starting out, we brought different influences to the table. Owen had an idea about what he wanted to do with the food: a higher-end, game-heavy menu with an eclectic twist," says The Magpie's Tiffany Gellner-Lane. "When I started to design the interior, I kept his likes in mind — the antler tie-backs and heavy wood — but most of the interior was my choice, as well as the style of service I wanted my staff to offer."
It can be a beautiful thing. A partnership relieves some of the burden of responsibility; it frees you up to tackle more of what you're good at. Jay Bayer and Adam Hall try to nail that at Saison. "I enjoy being out in front of people and discussing what we are about, what we are creating, and what our inspirations are," Bayer says. "Adam loves the details and craft of creation, of careful consideration of profiles and plating."
Of course, there's the decision-making mechanism of the partnership. As a threesome, the Dutch & Co. team found a handy solution. "Some things were hard to envision, like the guys' ‘champagne room,' " says Michelle Shriver. Luckily, we have a unanimous vote policy, and nothing happens unless we all agree."
But that may not play so well when the breakdown is 50/50. "Problems crop up when we don't communicate well, or when the direction one person wants to take isn't the direction the other has in mind," Bayer says. "But most difficulties are just of ‘I thought you were taking care of ...' ilk."
So is structuring a restaurant business just a matter of personal taste? "When you get started, you have the same aspirations, or so you hope," he says. "Managing the ambitions with realities on the ground and maintaining a course trajectory can be tricky business." Weighing the occasional or creative difference against flying solo through every detail of a stressful profession is a balancing act.
"[Ultimately], we each work in the sphere of the biz that we're stronger in," says Bayer, "and try to play to our strengths."