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? Continue reading…