Restaurant Romance: Owning and Operating a Restaurant with a Spouse

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Petrakis portraitJames and Julie Petrakis

Drop into just about any restaurant on Valentine’s Day and you’ll find it filled with couples.

But in several Central Florida restaurants, you can find a couple any day of the year: They’re the married people who own and operate some of the area’s most popular restaurants.

What’s it like working every day with a spouse in such a demanding and fast-paced business? We asked some of them what they do to make it work. Here’s romantic advice from James and Julie Petrakis (Ravenous Pig, Cask & Larder); Katerina and Vassilis Coumbaros (Taverna Opa, Tapa Toro); Joey Conicella and Alex Marin (Hungry Pants); Hari and Jenneffer Pulapaka (Cress); and Trina Gregory-Propst and Va Propst (Se7en Bites, Sette).

James and Julie Petrakis (Ravenous Pig, Cask & Larder)

James and Julie Petrakis started dating in 2001 while attending The Culinary Institute of America and were married in 2004. They first worked together in the kitchen at Luma on Park, and then opened The Ravenous Pig in 2007.

When you started working together, did you have a discussion about how to avoid possible pitfalls or about the separation of duties?
Even though we both studied and had predominantly savory culinary backgrounds, Julie decided to focus on pastry( partially to give us each our own area to focus on in the kitchen), but also because she had grown more interested in baking.

As far as designing, opening, and operating the business- we really did not discuss a division of duties - but rather just learned and adjusted along the way!

What are the advantages of working together?
We both love what we have created together and have been through all of the ups and downs of the industry together. We also love that we can discuss and make changes as needed, vs having to have a board meeting with lots of red tape.

What are the disadvantages?
Sometimes bringing the stress home /everywhere with us. Rarely really being able to turn “it off.”

How do you “leave work behind” when you go home?
We have improved on this greatly over the years. We are more able to do so now due to the amazing managers and crew that have been with us for a very long time- we can trust them to run the restaurant- they are truly family.

What is a “date night” like for a restaurant-working couple?
We love to go out to eat of course! We still may get distracted (or inspired!) by seeing something that we do or do not want to occur in our restaurants, but going out for a delicious meal and a nice walk is still one of our favorite things to do together.

What advice would you give to a couple just starting out in the business?
Have a plan for a division of duties, even if it adjusts over time. Our focus and responsibilities have changed immensely with the growth of the restaurants and with becoming parents. Remember what your passions and strengths are and use those to solidify your team.

Coumbaros portraitKaterina and Vassilis Coumbaros

Katerina and Vassilis Coumbaros (Taverna Opa, Tapa Toro)

Katerina and Vassilis Coumbaros (Taverna Opa, Tapa Toro) have been married for 11 years and together 14. They have been working together since they got married.

When you started working together, did you have a discussion about how to avoid possible pitfalls or about the separation of duties?
When we first started working together, we never had a formal discussion. It was a little hard at first until we each learned to not interfere in each others roles. My husband runs the floor and kitchen, where I mostly oversee our marketing, sales, anything related with paperwork.

What are the advantages of working together?
They are your support and you are working with someone you trust.

What are the disadvantages?
Work is your life even if you try to leave it at work.

How do you “leave work behind” when you go home?
We have three kids, so once we step inside our home it's all about them. Dinner, homework, activities. We do get calls while at home from work, but it's the norm in our life right now.

What is a “date night” like for a restaurant-working couple?
We love staying home. If we go out on a date night it would be to try a new restaurant.

What advice would you give to a couple just starting out in the business?
Someone once told us "choose your battles". It's something that we have always lived by since.

Joey and alex portraitJoey Conicella, right, and Alex Marin

Joey Conicella and Alex Marin (Hungry Pants)

Joey Conicella and Alex Marin have been together for 15 years and married for 10. They previously owned and operated the Yum Yum Cupcake Truck for 5 years. They opened Hungry Pants three months ago.

When you started working together, did you have a discussion about how to avoid possible pitfalls or about the separation of duties?
Alex: It was more of an organic process. We didn't realize that we were swerving into each other's lanes so much until we started to hit some rough patches. It forced us to have tough conversations about respecting each other's area of expertise and not giving unsolicited advice.

What are the advantages of working together?
Alex: Joey and I opened a business together because we like being together. It's that simple. We love that we get to build our future together. We're both in the driver's seat, and that's a very special feeling.

What are the disadvantages?
Joey: Working together forces you to resolve conflict, even when you don't want to. That's not necessarily a disadvantage, but if you've had a disagreement during the day, you can't clock out and run home because your frustrations will literally follow you home. It forces you to figure things out, otherwise everyone in your life will feel the tension.

How do you “leave work behind” when you go home?
Alex: We try to give each other 5 minutes to vent about the highs and lows of the day, and then we move on to normal life. We take long walks and release from the day. We have side projects at home. We don't check reviews at night. We build in parameters for the stuff we can control, because at the end of the day, there are plenty of things that will happen that we can't control.

What is a “date night” like for a restaurant-working couple?
Joey: Well for starters, they're rare, and they're not always at night. Sometimes they're as simple as a walk around Lake Adair, other times it's game night and good wine with friends. If we really need to feel human, we get dolled up and head to Hillstone.

What advice would you give to a couple just starting out in the business?
Joey: Gut check the foundation of your relationship. If there are unresolved issues from the start, the business (and your relationship) will ultimately suffer. It's perfectly OK to evaluate your relationship dynamic and fix what's broken before opening a business together.

Pulapaka portraitHari and Jenneffer Pulapaka

Hari and Jenneffer Pulapaka (Cress)

Hari and Jenneffer Pulapaka met in 2006 and were married on Yanert Glacier, Denali, Alaska on July 21, 2006. In addition to the restaurant, they each have a “day” job: Hari is a full-time, tenured Associate Professor of Mathematics at Stetson University, and Jenneffer is a podiatric surgeon with her own private practice – The DeLand Foot and Leg Center.

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When you started working together, did you have a discussion about how to avoid possible pitfalls or about the separation of duties?

HP: We certainly did. I was to be in charge of all matters food and Jenneffer was to be in charge of all matters beverage and service. The classic BOH/FOH (back of house/front of house) separation – on paper, at least. But, we never had any middle management, so we did everything. And I mean everything. From the execution to the administration to the marketing to the “baby sitting”. So, it was important that each of us gave the other latitude to do what they needed to do and how they needed to do it. In the heat of the moment, especially during service, those lines of separation of jurisdiction blur. But, very quickly, decisions have to be made, and the show must go on, which it did, always. At the end the day, despite any differences we may have had in the moment, we always find a way to return to each other as a married couple, deeply in love. It was never work before relationship. Fortunately, we’re both sticklers for attention to detail, so even if we disagreed, we eventually realized that each was simply trying to do their best.
JP: For the most part, I was running front of house, and Hari was running the back of house. We worked together to have the restaurant function as a single unit, but we maintained that independence of power within the division of front/ back of house. There were occasional bumps in the road, but everything was minor. FOH remained FOH and BOH remain BOH; we did not cross over unless assistance was needed, i.e., jumping in as the occasional stand-in dishwasher when they called out sick. We decided, in the beginning, to work as a unit together and not, one person dedicating all their time to the restaurant. We approached the restaurant as a team, and we maintain that mission to this day.



What are the advantages of working together?


HP: There are many advantages to working together, but here are three:
a. A keen knowledge of not only each other’s professional style, but equally importantly, their personality.
b. The opportunity to learn from each other outside the workplace.
c. When we come from a place of respect and love for each other, the collective input into the business is that much more powerful.
JP: Working as a team, we find that collaboration and assistance with activities of the daily business became less stressful, and we had a reliable, supportive team member who could help elevate you and divert some of the duties when needed. Working together for the past 12 years on the same project, we became a couple that uplifts and protects each other with sincere devotion. It's within that support system that we feel the ability to become advocates for causes that we are passionate about within our community and our nation.



What are the disadvantages?


HP: There are a few, but here are three:
a. The adage – Familiarity Breeds Contempt rears its ugly head at times. As much as knowing each other’s personality is an advantage, it can also be burdensome.
b. Disagreements can become very personal. However, almost always, unintentionally.
c. Taking work home.
JP: We have watched other relationships around us fail in the restaurant industry; therefore, we respected the lessons that they taught us a knew the pitfalls to avoid. Any real complaints are genuinely trivial and insignificant; hence I don't recall a story to tell.



How do you “leave work behind” when you go home?

HP: Please refer response c above. This can be challenging. Running a restaurant, especially as hands-on as we have been, is filled with adrenalin rushes and strong emotions almost on a daily basis. As human beings, we’re not well-equipped with on/off switches when it comes to basic emotions. So, after service at the restaurant, we would often stay downtown and decompress over a glass of wine. It gave us a chance to reflect, but also in some cases, hash out any issues before we went home. It is very difficult to leave work behind entirely. As a matter of fact, I think our all-consuming day jobs help us and force us to think about other things and not just the restaurant. I know that not everyone has that luxury. So, ironically, our two full-time professions complement each other in that way. They provide relief from each other.
JP: I think it's the most difficult challenge that we face is to separate work from our identities. Because as we developed a restaurant that has such global purpose and a devotion to community and global values, we find that it reflects who we are. Therefore, it expands well beyond the restaurant and into our daily lives with our other businesses, family, and friends. As much as people want to silence our discussion about politics, the truth of the matter is that food is political -the Farm Bill, health care is political - Obama Care, and climate change is political - sustainable/regenerative farming.

What is a “date night” like for a restaurant-working couple?


HP: We have lots of date nights! We had one just last night. Some of our date nights involve trying new restaurants. Some of our date nights involve staying at home and cooking for each other. Some of our date nights involve inviting good friends (usually couples) over to our modest 700 square foot house and entertaining. Last night, we went to a nearby restaurant, one we frequent, that we know has a good wine list, dim lighting, and plush furniture, so we could have our pre-valentine’s day dinner. In fact, we’ve always made sure that we had our Valentine’s dinner together although never on February 14th , what with a restaurant and all.
JP: We have always set aside time for date night, whether it once or twice a week or it four nights a week. I believe that's important for us to come together, talk, have discussions, invite friends to eat, drink, go out to community events, listen to what's important in our lives, and the lives of the people around us. And it's also something I look forward to every time we ask each other, "Hey, do you want to go out for date night? I call it.", and we skip a way to have our date night. One of our most hysterical date nights was Christmas Eve. We finished up at Cress and headed out to have our Christmas Day off, but we were so hungry at 11pm, so we ate at a dive bar in New Smyrna Beach. I had an egg salad sandwich, and Hari had chicken wings, sipping on beers and crappy wine, we were laughing about what a good time we had.

What advice would you give to a couple just starting out in the business?
HP: Never forget why you are together in the first place. What got you to be a couple. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the business. It was because you cared for and loved each other as human beings. Never place the business over the relationship. There will be highs and lows. Celebrate the highs, of course. But never let the lows degrade the core of your relationship or worse yet, become points of no return. The business will be gone or at least to the back burner long before your vows to each other to be together forever. But as long as you are together in business, always acknowledge (publicly and privately) each other’s strengths and contributions. Ultimately, while it’s just food, respect the business because it gives you more time with each other – a double-edged sword, but also an opportunity many couples would love to have.
JP: I would encourage couples to work together. Build such strong and bonds between each other around your core restaurant values/missions. Designate your boundaries, designate your duties, designate who's in charge of those areas. You learn how to lift-up your partner and expand your skills. Gain empathy towards your partner's views and their daily tribulations within the business. It's true; you are stronger together and harder to divide and conquer.

trian and va portraitTrina Gregory-Propst, right, and Va Propst

Trina Gregory-Propst and Va Propst (Se7en Bites, Sette)

Trina Gregory-Propst and Va Propst have been together for eight years and married for seven and have worked together for all seven years they’ve been married. (Seven seems to be their lucky number.)

When you started working together, did you have a discussion about how to avoid possible pitfalls or about the separation of duties?
Trina: We are the yin and yang of each other. There are things she excels at and things that I excel at, we acknowledge that in each other and have a huge amount of respect for what we both bring to the table
We’ve gutted and rebuilt 3 restaurants and a house. We can do ANYTHING at this point ..... because we’ve already made it through some of the hardest challenges life throws you .... together

What are the advantages of working together?
We already know how the day went for each other so we don’t have to spend our time discussing what went right or wrong ... it makes the rest of the time more valuable to us as quality time

Also sometimes a stolen moment and a kiss in the walk-in ...... lol

What are the disadvantages?
We’re in the boat together. So if it’s flooding we are both going down. Since we work in separate parts of the kitchen, we don’t see each other constantly. We actually still like each other.

How do you “leave work behind” when you go home?
As the owners of the businesses we just don’t. Our work and the brand we are building is such a huge part of who we are to each other and our family. We do talk on the way home from work so we can get any logistics or criticism out of the way so when we get home we can relax and enjoy a little quiet time before bed.

What is a “date night” like for a restaurant-working couple?

We are actually on a date right now. It’s Monday and we are having dinner at Boheme and then going to a wine tasting through one of our vendors – this will be our Valentines celebration – and it’s perfect. Honestly any time away from work is a “date” with her!

What advice would you give to a couple just starting out in the business?
Respect what each other brings. Listen and listen with patience. Neither one of you will always be right; you need to be ok with that. At the end of the day always remember you are both working towards the same goal, and success is what your goal is, which requires you to live like most people won’t so one day you can live like most people can’t.
Oh, also always remember why you married them, especially when you want to bop them in the head with a sheet pan or smack their a$& with a spatula.