And the Boutique Makes Three
By CANDICE RAINEY, NYT
GILLETTE AND ZAK WING vividly remember the day in 2009 when they were walking down Atlantic Avenue on the cusp of Brooklyn Heights, peering into an abandoned store front and casually fantasizing about opening an antiques business. A local real estate agent was walking by and noticed the couple. “He basically said, ‘You want it? It’s yours.’ ” Mrs. Wing said.
Three years and two babies later, they are now the proprietors of Holler & Squall, a meticulously edited furniture and oddities shop capitalizing on the neighborhood’s old-is-cutting-edge aesthetic (the store’s name is from a Jimmy Martin bluegrass song).
Mr. and Mrs. Wing are part of a new generation of mom and pops that has thrived in regentrified Brooklyn, doling out attainable indulgences (freshly baked vegan cookies, American-made chinos, really good cheese) to customers who prefer to know their proprietors by name. On the surface, these “co-preneurials” seem to be living a new American dream.
But not so fast. Behind these perfectly imperfect facades, there is often mold on the cheese, wrinkles in the chinos.
“Merchandising is probably where it gets the hardest because it’s more sensitive,” Mrs. Wing said. “It’s one thing to tell the other person they did the accounting wrong. But taste is a little bit different. I don’t think either of us is very delicate about telling each other we think something looks like …” Well, let’s not stir up any more trouble.
“We’re both the bosses and we butt heads a little,” said Adele Berne, 32, who with her husband, Michael Kuhle, 35, owns a Smith Street clothing boutique, Epaulet, and a second store in Manhattan. “I’m like: ‘We should be happy. We’re working together!’ ”
In 2005 Dawn Casale, a former buyer at Barneys New York and founder of One Girl Cookies, decided to open a cozy bakery in Cobble Hill with Dave Crofton, a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. The two had met and married in a whirl of flour worthy of a Nancy Meyers movie.
But what Ms. Casale dubbed an “urban Mayberry” in the company cookbook soon became a thoroughly exhausting endeavor.
“We actually had a really great lifestyle before the shop opened,” said Ms. Casale, 41. “Because it was Monday through Friday. Then the brick and mortar happened and we were working like animals. We were a slave to the business.”
Mr. Crofton, 42, said it took the couple five years before they could take a three-day vacation.
“All we know is spending every day together, and that’s our relationship,” he said. (The business has since expanded to Dumbo.) “And talking about it in the morning and at night. And we love it. But if you were 30 and had two separate careers and you suddenly jam yourself into owning a business together, I don’t know how you would do it. I think you would kill each other.”
Indeed, a joint business venture has hardly proved a fount of bliss for Ralph Gorham, 54, and Susan Povich, 49, the proprietors of Red Hook Lobster Pound.
A furniture maker and former contractor, Mr. Gorham had tried for years to persuade his wife, a successful lawyer and graduate of the International Culinary Center, to start a business with him.
“Whoever made the most money in the house always rules the roost,” Mr. Gorham said. “And that never sat well with me.”
After one vacation of gorging on cheap, delicious lobster in Maine, he came up with the idea of hauling the live creatures on ice back to Brooklyn in his pickup, cutting out the middlemen.
Ms. Povich at first thought her husband was out of his mind, but gamely went in with him on a no-fuss picnic-style shellfish shack on Van Brunt Street. They were in the black within three weeks.
But though Mr. Gorham said he believed opening the Lobster Pound with his wife strengthened his position in the marriage, Ms. Povich had several bones to pick.
“I would say there are at least 10 days throughout the course of the year where I wake up and say I’m going to divorce him,” she said. “We are huge fans of each other, but we fight like cats and dogs. And we were never this way. Those arguments are all about the business. It’s really hard to remember to enjoy your relationship and your life because you’re just so dog tired. Date night doesn’t exist. Date night is literally like, ‘No one is here, it’s 7 p.m., what can we order on Netflix?’ ”
The couple also believe the constant thrum of shoptalk (the restaurant is six blocks from their house) has had a detrimental effect on their daughter, 7, and son, 13.
“The fact is, your family suffers,” Ms. Povich said. “It’s all work all the time. At dinner — well, after the first few years when we could come home for dinner — the kids are begging us, ‘Can we please not talk about work?’ That’s their mantra. But within 10 minutes Ralph and I are having an argument about it. And we can’t leave. We have to be in troubleshooting range.”
Mr. Gorham agreed. “It’s getting to the point where it’s affecting the kids and our quality of life,” he said. “We need to get one step removed.”
The Casale-Crofton team has also struggled with dialing back the industry-speak in front of their 3-year-old son.
“We’ll be deep in a conversation about work and he’ll be doing something and then all of a sudden he’ll say, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Ms. Crofton said. “And we’ll always say ‘the cookie shop.’ I have this feeling like, ‘Oh, my God, is this kid going to grow up thinking like all they do is talk about that damn cookie shop?’ ”
What about the working parents’ fantasy of toting the little ones along to scamper about the cake stands and antique coffee tables?
“We don’t bring him here,” Ms. Casale said incredulously. “The kitchen is a dangerous place. And we’d have to give him like 7,000 whoopie pies. How do you bring a 3-year-old and say you can’t have anything?”
Then there is dealing with employees, who can seem like unruly stepchildren themselves.
“When you have a couple that runs a business, they never know who to go to,” Ms. Povich said. “Or I have my crew that goes to me and he has his crew that goes to him. They can make it really difficult. They can drive a wedge.”
Ms. Casale said she would not be surprised if one employee, who is also an actress, wrote a play about her bosses.
“I feel like sometimes she looks at us like we’re Archie and Edith,” Ms. Casale said. “Like we’re having the same old arguments.”
The Wings get by with only one hired hand, which perhaps keeps the dynamic simpler.
“I worked for a couple that has a business together and they would literally fight in front of us,” Ms. Wing said. “And we’d get pulled into it. That was like watching your parents fight. The last thing you want is to witness somebody else’s misery, especially in a retail setting, where I feel like we all put on a big happy face.”
One couple whose happy faces seem genuine are Michele Pravda and Patrick Watson, who oversee four food and wine endeavors in Brooklyn: Smith & Vine, Brooklyn Wine Exchange, the JakeWalk and Stinky Bklyn. Maybe that’s because they no longer have a strict down-the-middle collaboration.
During a recent visit to Stinky, executives from the Brooklyn Nets were being wooed at a tasting by Mr. Watson in hopes of supplying the Barclays Center’s corporate suites with cured ham and creamy rennets. Ms. Pravda offered coffee and doughnuts to a reporter, laughing wearily as she recalled dust-ups over the placement of Parmesan on a shelf or Mr. Watson’s obsession with researching fudge while his wife labored over product descriptions and wine pairings on four hours of sleep.
Both used to work 80-hour weeks. But after the birth of their daughter, Ms. Pravda decided to step back from the businesses, though she still subs for absent staff members and manages the books.
“I always hear, ‘Oh, I never see you anymore,’ ” she said. And “I was there all the time. I’m still obviously having some issues about it. It’s hard.”
But the dream of small-town entrepreneurial bliss in the big city is compelling, and even when the issues overwhelm the enterprise, some couples keep on hauling, baking and folding.
In 1998 Melissa Murphy opened Sweet Melissa Patisserie on Court Street in Cobble Hill with her husband at the time, Wade Hagenbart, with $60,000 from selling a Corvette he had won at the telecommunications company where he used to work. They eventually divorced, due to, as Ms. Murphy said, “a combination of things,” but continued to run the business together for two more years before they split their ventures (he got a bar they owned, she ended up with the bakery).
“It was pretty awful,” Ms. Murphy said. “The problem is, if one’s person’s stressed with their job and the other one is not in the same place, you have someone who can balance it out. But when both of you are stressed about it, it’s hard to find a way out of that feeling.”
And yet Ms. Murphy is taking another shot at the Brooklyn mom-and-pop ideal with her fiancé, Chris Rafano, who runs the wholesale arm of her confectionery.
“In my relationship now, I’m constantly warning, this is what you have to be careful of, you have to know when to shut it off,” she said.
The pair hoped to marry this month after a six-year engagement, but those plans are on hold.
“Every time we save money to put toward the wedding, the walk-in fridge goes down or we need a new washer,” Ms. Murphy said.