Food and romance go hand in hand. Sometimes, you can even make it work in a business. (Thinkstock)

For many people, working with their spouse would be a recipe for disaster, never mind a pair being at the forefront of Denver’s bustling restaurant scene. In an industry that’s notoriously tough on relationships, these couples have found a way to keep the flame alive. The Denver Post asked these restaurant industry couples for their recipes for success.

Josh and Jen Wolkon. Provided)

Josh and Jen Wolkon (Vesta, Steuben’s, Ace)

How did you first meet?

We met in Boulder in 1996 on a Fat Tuesday show at The Fox Theater (research shows it was String Cheese Incident). We were introduced by a mutual friend from the University of Vermont, where we had both gone to college, though never met. About two weeks into opening Vesta, we were sneaking around attempting to hide our newfound love. After about six months, we finally stopped the charade, which was not fooling anyone. We were having a blast, spending almost all our time together and building Vesta. Eventually we shared an office upstairs from Vesta and that experience was a true test of how we would succeed long-term as a couple.

What has been a challenge you’ve faced as a couple in the restaurant industry?

This industry is completely unpredictable and it can be a challenge to plan just about anything, whether it be a vacation, holidays, getting to our boys’ soccer games, or even dinner at home. Power outages, a VIP table, an unexpected national food writer, a staff shortage, a last-minute TV opportunity, or countless other scenarios and situations can unravel the best-laid plans. There really needs to be an understanding and “go with the flow” attitude among the whole family. We have truly dialed in the art of the last-minute vacation.

What is the secret of staying together in the restaurant industry?

We have always focused on taking advantage of the bonus time we get to spend together, having fun, when most of the more traditional workforce is on the job and the kids are in school. Weekday ski days, morning yoga classes, afternoon mountain bike rides and even being in the house together on a weekday morning gives us meaningful time together. We do love what we do and have learned to embrace the fun and sometimes chaotic lifestyle. One of the most important things is hiring amazing employees you can trust. The team of incredible, genuine, hospitality-driven people we have running Vesta, Steuben’s and Ace do more than we could possibly explain to support our marriage. We are so grateful!

 

Diane and Tom Coohill. Provided by Coohills)

Tom and Diane Coohill (Coohill’s)

How did you first meet?

We were living in Atlanta, working for the same restaurant group, which had 19 restaurants. I was the director of catering, and Tom was the chef at City Grill. I’d go from the corporate office to different restaurants for site visits and Tom would sort of follow me around the restaurant to get “details on the event.” We both liked each other right away.

What has been a challenge you’ve faced as a couple in the restaurant/bar industry?

One thing we’ve learned is that when we disagree we just argue it out — have the argument and get past it. We have a rule at home that we can’t talk about the restaurant, we have off-limits time. We have to keep that part of our lives separate, or we’d be bringing it up all the time. We’ve been doing this for so long. We’re older than a lot of Denver’s restaurateurs are, and that’s an advantage because there aren’t that many challenges we haven’t seen yet.

What is the secret of staying together in the restaurant industry?

We don’t try to tell each other how to run our separate parts of the restaurant. When we take vacations we’re totally off the radar, we don’t worry about the restaurant, so we can get a real break and come back refreshed. The industry is very stressful and you’re dealing with issues on a daily basis and get totally wiped out. We also go trail running together.

Mary Wright (her husband is McLain Hedges), owners of The RiNo Yacht Club and The Proper Pour (both inside The Source). Provided by The Source)

Mary Wright and McLain Hedges (The Proper Pour and RiNo Yacht Club)

How did you first meet?

McLain and I met 15 years ago through a mutual best friend and I’m not exaggerating when I say we’ve been inseparable every day since then. We were a couple kids who loved seeing live music and that spawned into a love of travel and eating and drinking.

What has been a challenge you’ve faced as a couple in the restaurant/bar industry?

Making time for each other. Even though we are together all the time at work, it’s imperative to remember that we like to do other things together (besides working), schedule time for them, and follow through. Sometimes this is scheduling a night to do nothing except watch TV and eat dinner on the couch, and other times it’s planning an escape or going to hear music. No matter how big or small, it’s the only way we’re able to stay sane and content with each other.

What is the secret of staying together in the restaurant industry?

Every industry has its temptations, but when you love each other, treat each other with respect, honor each other’s goals and ambitions, and make time for one another, it makes it a hell of a lot easier! Also, when you can’t imagine a world without the other person, you know you’re going to do whatever it takes, no matter what.

Whitney and Obe Ariss own The Preservery. Provided by The Arisses)

Obe and Whitney Ariss (The Preservery)

How did you first meet?  

It was spring of 2000. I was volunteering at University Hospital and one of Obe’s best friends from CU Boulder, Jamie, was my supervisor. I was 18 and about to graduate from St. Mary’s Academy and needed to complete a certain number of volunteer hours in order to do so. It was the night of my senior prom and in a typical act of defiance and disenchantment with high school rituals I decided to go work at the hospital instead of going to prom. Jamie was there and asked if I wanted to hang out with him and his friends at CU after our shift. I followed him up to Boulder in my 1982 Volvo station wagon and as we entered the party together, Obe was the first person I saw. He was super clean-cut with a dress shirt tucked into his jeans wearing a blazer and dress shoes and he was celebrating because he’d just completed his Comprehensive Exams (he was only 21 but already toward the end of getting his Master’s of Music at that point). I was immediately impressed with him. We started talking about music and our old Volvos (he had a 1978 sedan), and we went out into the parking lot to check out each other’s cars. When I left the party I wrote him a note and stuck it in his windshield wiper saying he should call me some time. But I forgot to leave my number on the note! Obe had to pester Jamie for a week before he finally gave him my number but he finally called me and we made our first date. We’ve been together ever since, almost 18 years now!

What has been a challenge you’ve faced as a couple in the restaurant industry?

Planning, building and operating a new restaurant has been a huge challenge in itself. Figuring out how to do it together without driving each other insane was an added challenge! I think there’s a tendency for couples to feed off each other’s energy, both good and bad, but when running a business, it’s really important to keep a clear head. To make thoughtful, logical decisions versus reactive, passionate ones. If one of us is freaking out about something, we have to allow for that without getting upset about the situation, too, and giving each other space to be frustrated but also not totally giving in to those feelings. That was really hard for us, especially in the beginning, and it continues to be a challenge … but we get better at it every day.

What is the secret of staying together in the restaurant industry?

I think for us, making sure that we set aside time to just be together —  not as co-owners of our business but just as a couple. Especially now that we are expecting our first baby in March, we are cherishing every single moment we have to spend together, knowing that our lives are about to get genuinely (expletive) crazy! We go on dinner dates, drives in the mountains, sometimes just spend an evening lounging on the couch watching TV, but we always make sure to carve out time each week to spend together.

Lenny Martinelli and Sara Stewart Martinelli (Three Leaf Restaurant Group). Provided by the Martinellis)

Lenny Martinelli and Sara Stewart Martinelli (Three Leaf Restaurant Group)

How did you first meet?

Lenny and I first met working together at a bar/nightclub in Boulder in about 1991.  He was a bartender, and I was a cocktail waitress/bartender. We were both graduating from CU with non-related degrees; he with a degree in Environmental Design and me with a degree in Anthropology.  Somehow, we ended up in the restaurant business.

What has been a challenge you’ve faced as a couple in the restaurant industry?

It can certainly be challenging to work together all the time.  As anyone in the industry knows, owning a restaurant means that if you are awake, you are working.  It’s very hard to take time off, because you always have to be aware of what’s happening at the restaurant.  Even when we travel, we have to check in often.

What is the secret of staying together in the restaurant industry?

I think the thing that’s worked for us is finding each of our individual strengths and creating a workflow that really emphasizes that.  It has given each of us room to grow and to explore the things that we find interesting, while creating an environment where we are each able to cultivate our own creativity.
Also, we don’t work in the same office. That might seem silly, but it helps to give us a sense of individuality and space, while maintaining a professional connection through the day.

It definitely helps that we have similar visions and goals, and that in the end we’ve determined that this is our journey, our life.  We look at the entirety of it and, like all couples, work to respect each other’s opinions and compromise when we need to.

Max MacKissock (BarDough, Señor Bear, Tap & Burger, Tap & Burger) and Jen Jasinski (Rioja, Bistro Vendome, Stoic & Genuine, Ultreia)
(Provided by Rioja)

Max MacKissock (BarDough, Señor Bear, Tap & Burger, Tap & Burger) and Jen Jasinski (Rioja, Bistro Vendome, Stoic & Genuine, Ultreia)

How did you first meet?

We first met at Rioja. One of Max’s friends, Merlin Verrier, was my sous chef at Rioja, and I noticed Max right away, thinking he was very handsome. Then I went skiing with him and some friends in Keystone, where he was a chef.

What has been a challenge you’ve faced as a couple in the restaurant industry?

One of the biggest challenges for Max and I is when we are both really tired and have the same set of issues at work, we really both want to vent and the other is like “I’m going through the same thing.” Sometimes it is hard to be compassionate when you are in the same boat.

What is the secret of staying together in the restaurant industry?

It’s the secret of staying together for anyone. Like anything else it’s communication, compassion, understanding and love.

Hadyn Barnie and Amy Cohen, Stowaway Café

How did you first meet?

We met while living in Japan teaching English about 12 years ago. We both lived on the small island of Shikoku, Hayden on the east coast and me on the west. We met through mutual friends at a conference and have been together since then.

What has been a challenge you’ve faced as a couple in the restaurant industry?

The biggest challenge has been to keep to our own areas of expertise. We’ve had to draw an invisible line between matters of the front of house and back of house. Hayden is the front and I am in the back. We both have strong opinions about how things should operate and if we don’t mind our line, things are liable to get hairy.

What is the secret of staying together in the restaurant industry?

There are probably many different keys for different couples, but for us I guess it’s been having to reach a compromise. If we don’t agree on something, we’re learning to work toward something that suits the both of us. When it’s still not working, it’s better to leave it alone because in the end, our relationship is far more important than a business.

Shannon and Stephanie Duffy (Tender Belly)

Shannon and Stephanie Duffy (Tender Belly)

How did you first meet?

Shannon and I first met back in 1993 when we were all starting college.  Our best friends started dating each other and I was at a different school from all of them.  Our paths would cross on occasion when I visited my friend at college.  Fast forward to 2002, we both stood up for them in their wedding, then one month later I had moved to Chicago, was at a train station heading to a concert and as I was looking around I saw Shannon at the end of the platform.  Surprisingly, he had just moved there as well. We began hanging out, a month later had our first real date, and a month after that, he moved in.  Now here we are married and with a son!

What has been a challenge you’ve faced as a couple in the restaurant industry?

Since Tender Belly was founded we have always taken extreme care with our clients, partners and distributors, which can mean then that you are “on” 24/7.  As a couple, and eventually a family, that can be a challenge when you are aren’t dealing with traditional 8 to 5 hours and jobs.  You need to find balance. In the beginning when you are first starting out and trying to build and grow, there is no balance. You just have to find small moments and times when you can reconnect and always, always, communicate and share a kind word with each other.

What is the secret of staying together in the restaurant industry?

Communication and support of each other.  You set those tenets early in a relationship, so really regardless of what industry you find yourselves in, you should be able to tackle anything and always find your way back to each other at the end of the day.  All that and sharing a nightcap after the little one is in bed … ha!



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