In our second interview with some of the talented women featured in our Top 10 Mom-Owned Restaurants in America spotlight, we spoke with Joan Schmitt and Susan Dunlop, co-owners of Joan’s in the Park in St. Paul, Minnesota. Joan’s opened in late 2011, has garnered many accolades locally and nationally, including a 2013 Diners’ Choice Award for Top 100 Best Overall Restaurants in America. The married couple’s blended family includes Joan’s children, Dan, 33, Mark, 30, and Kelly, 27, and Susan’s daughter, Lindsay, 26, all of whom work at the restaurant, either full or part time.
How did Joan’s in the Park come about? And, how did you balance your family life while opening a restaurant?
Susan: Joan and I worked together at Morton’s Steakhouse in Florida. At that point, we’d started talking about doing our own restaurant, but Joan was from Minnesota, and her kids were all there. Our thought, this was in 2006, was that we would make a plan to get back to Saint Paul and do the restaurant and have our kids involved in it as well. They were all in the restaurant business to begin with. So, we had an opportunity to do something with our children, something that they were already involved in.
Did you both know that you wanted to work in the restaurant industry, and did you always know that you were going to be a working mom at some point?
Susan: Absolutely. I think I really wanted to have children, but I wasn’t a person to stay at home and not work outside the house and have a career. That was always important. Both things have always been important to me. My whole life has been balancing that, trying to make that work.
Joan: For me, I knew my entire life that I wanted children and if I could have been a stay-at-home mom, I would have done it in a heartbeat. Working in a restaurant allowed me the freedom to be home all day with them and still be involved in school and everything, and then also have a career.
What are the challenges around being the head of your family and the head of a business? Can you talk about some of the challenges around that?
Susan: I think for us the biggest challenge was that we both came from working in a corporate environment where you have departments that handle different things for you. To go from that kind of comfort to just everything being on us, that was the bigger transition than our families. Our children were grown and out of the house and financially successful before we started our own restaurant. I’ve always wanted to have a restaurant, but it wasn’t feasible when my daughter was still in high school or going to college because of the risk that you take when you leave a really comfortable corporate position and take everything you own and put it into a restaurant. I think sometimes that’s just not realistic, if you have a family that you’re responsible for.
There is a juggling act along the way of having to make hard choices and maybe sometimes either disappointing your child or disappointing your boss, I’m sure.
Joan: I think that happens to everybody, but for me, it was really hard and to have three that were all very involved in school and with friends outside of school. I was the general manager at Morton’s, and it was many hours of responsibility, but my kids understood that we had nice lifestyle, and that was due to me having to work. They didn’t mind a lot when I had to miss things, and we just prioritized what the really important events were that I always attended and I just let the little ones go.
Susan: I think also that things have changed. People’s ideas about things have changed in the 20 plus years we’ve been doing this. In the beginning, 20 years ago, the expectation was, and maybe this is what we call old school, that you took care of your work and work was your priority. Nobody wanted to hear that you had a baseball game or something to do with the kids. After 9/11, though, I think it really put things in perspective for people that work didn’t have to always come first, and I think that made it easier to start making some sacrifices at work to do more things with your family.
My expectation now, for all my staff, is a lot different, as far as making accommodations for things that they want to do outside of work. We have two women working for us who both have children, and we’re much kinder and gentler, as far as making accommodations for kids.
Do you think there is anything that the industry could do across the board, either in big or small ways, to help women who want to be in the culinary industry and still have a family?
Joan: I would like to see more restaurants change their hours on holidays. It’s really hard to be a new person in a restaurant and have to work Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and that part of owning is really nice, that we’re able to say, “You know what? We’re not going to open on Christmas Eve, so that people can be with their families.”
Susan: I don’t think it’s the industry that needs to change. I think it’s people’s expectations of things — as a society, saying, “You know, I’m not going to go out on Christmas Day because I know people have to work to take care of me.” However, if you want to accomplish something, you’re going to have to put long hours in. It’s a personal choice.
When we put together the list of Top 10 Mom-Owned Restaurants in America, we thought we’d come up with a lot more than we did. But, while there are many female-owned restaurants, there are far fewer of these women who are also moms. Does that speak to the fact that you waited until a certain point in your children’s lives to sort of tackle entrepreneurship?
Susan: Again, it’s personal choice. People for whom it’s really important — they would do it and find a way to make it work.
Joan: We have a friend, with whom we’d shared our dream of opening a restaurant. And he said, “You just have to do it. If you want to do it, you just have to do it.” We weighed the pros and cons, financially, and we took everything that we had to buy the building and start the restaurant. We didn’t get any investors. We talked with our kids and made sure that they were all on board to partner with us to run the restaurant. We’re also married, so this is both of our incomes. This is what pays our mortgage and everything. It was really scary, but you just have to say, “I’m going to take the risk.” Luckily, we had our kids to help us.
Susan: We just kept talking about it every day and kept wanting to do it every day. We didn’t have a penny, and we were talking to people about our restaurant. We had no idea how we were really going to pull it off, but we just said, “You know what? We’re going to do it.” We were looking at spaces when we didn’t even have a dime to put into it, but we kept driving along and every day doing a little something toward it, and here we are.
One foot in front of the other.
Susan: That’s basically what we did. Just every day, we did something toward opening the restaurant.
Some of the chefs that were speaking at this conference had very young children compared to yours. They felt the only way to be a chef and a mom is to own your own restaurant. Would you agree, or is working for a corporate restaurant group another way to manage both?
Susan: I think being in a corporate environment, rather than having your own restaurant, is less of a risk factor. I knew I had a paycheck coming every two weeks. I knew I was going to get a raise and a bonus. I knew that I could request two weeks off or two days off. The nice thing about the restaurant industry is that there is a lot of flexibility with your schedule. If you plan it, you can switch shifts with a coworker. It happens all the time in our industry.
Joan: I think it’s easier definitely to own your restaurant to make it work with your family and kids, but, financially, it is difficult to take that time off and not worry about it. I certainly wouldn’t discourage anybody or say, “Don’t do it. It’s too hard.” Those women that are opening their own restaurants, they’re smart. They’ll be able to figure it out.
Can you talk about any parallels between owning a restaurant and being a parent?
Joan: They are almost identical. The skills that good mothers have are those that good restaurant managers have. Each is very good training for the other.
Susan: Both require the ability to multitask — being able to concentrate on one thing and work on another thing and balance and juggle a lot of different stuff at one time, problem solving, everything. When you’re in the restaurant, even the kitchen … most of your day is problem solving.
You have a good support system at work and home because you have each other and you have your kids. Is that what makes it all work and is there anything like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t live without my iPad?”
Susan: For us, and I’m sure a lot of other married couples, it’s that we have to manage how we take care of our work responsibilities as far as who does what, who has the decision making, because we want to get along personally as well. If we have an issue at work, we’ve really tried to balance that. I take care of the kitchen for the most part. Joan is responsible for the dining room, and we each take the lead in those decisions. If we have different ideas about things, a lot of times, we just have to say, we’ve got to table this, so that we can take care of our personal relationship, too. Also, on Mondays, we’re closed. That’s our day to relax, to unwind. We try and plan not to have any responsibilities — just to sit back and go out to dinner. To me, that’s my sanity.
Joan: Actually, OpenTable has helped a lot because we don’t have to be here to take reservations. People can make reservations anytime. That really is true that if I miss a phone call, we think, “Well, they can go online and make a reservation.” That really is a helpful tool.
A lot of the women I’ve talked to have felt that the notion of balance, especially when you have smaller children and your culinary career, is basically a myth.
Susan: There is no such thing. In any career where you’re going to spend a lot of hours outside the home with a lot of responsibility, to say you’re going to balance it, it’s unrealistic; you don’t.
Do you have any advice for women who want to own a restaurant and have a family?
Susan: Just say you’re going to do it, and every day do something toward it. Even if you have no idea what the consequences are going to be or how you’re going to finance it, just keep telling yourself you’re going to do it.