Raising Businesses and Children

by Lauren Passero Brookes, Owner/Operator of Kensington Cafe, The Haven PizzeriaDEL SUR Mexican Cantina

I’m a woman, a business owner and a mother. That’s all you need to know about me in no particular order. And my story’s punch line is really an exercise in circular logic: Pregnancy turned me into a better business owner; being a better business owner made me a better mother.

Now let’s mix in a few more stereotypes and judgmental factors about my business acumen:

  • I opened a restaurant but I can’t cook.
  • I launched it at the height of the Great Recession.
  • I try to make everyone happy and dread upsetting anyone.
  • I opened a second restaurant when I started my family.
  • I opened a third restaurant with a toddler and newborn.

Growing up, I was always better at knowing what I don’t want to do than what I really want to do. I’ve been working in restaurants since the age of 15. I waited tables throughout college because it gave me flexibility while going to school, and the money was great. It was just work, though. I was biding time until I started my “real” career.

I ended up graduating with an advertising degree. I wasn’t necessarily passionate about it but I was good at it. Also let’s face it, the courses were much more entertaining than other majors. When I started my “career” in an advertising agency, I’d often watch the lady caring for our office plants with envy because she got to eventually interact with people in the outside world while I’d stare at a screen all day, not really feeling all the creative(ish) stuff I’d write, read or design.

In comparison, restaurants gave me variety every day. They introduced me to wonderful people, provided a sense of family with customers and co-workers. That advertising desk job made me realize how much I missed these interactions. Craved them, actually. As hard as I worked to get out of that world, here I was finding my way back to it. And that’s why I opened a restaurant at the height of the Great Recession with no cooking skills.

It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. I’d regularly create workarounds to avoid dealing with things that made me uncomfortable – especially if those involved asking people to do more. I assumed they’d be upset and I’d really rather make people happy than hurt their feelings. No surprise then that those were the situations I really needed to take on directly. As business owners we tend to be a pretty confident bunch, but we also have our blind and weak spots. It took a while, and I’ve since figured out a balance: I don’t have to be motherly all the time. I can be direct and ask for help. When I do that, everyone does their job better. Myself included.

Just as I was getting a handle on this running-a-restaurant thing, I got pregnant. Being a mother isn’t easy: the most obvious, painful lesson in parenting is the crashing realization that you’re not the center of the universe anymore. That was true at the restaurants too: I couldn’t be in the middle of everything to make it work. Having to remove myself from being involved in every part of the business helped us build the right structure.

When my business partner Kate & I jumped on the opportunity to start The Haven, we talked openly about my imminent parenthood and how that would affect us. We had to reorganize. I had to learn a ton about delegating and changing my role. It may not be as social and outward facing as it once was, but it really works best for our restaurants that way. Our staff may not do things exactly like I would but they’re empowered to take leadership and make decisions. We get way more out of people when I trust them than if I try to control every detail.

Another perk of motherhood: it’s great to put stuff in perspective… especially when your emotional reserves are depleted from sleep deprivation and round-the-clock attention. So it was a matter of sheer practicality to knock things off my work plate and not sweat the small stuff.

I rarely spend time dwelling on my path in this industry as a woman, but I wish I could tell my old self to definitely trust her instincts. That she doesn’t have to fit into a stereotype (all work, all the time, go go go!) to make it work. In retrospect, the fact that my business partner Kate & I are women has helped us end up with three successful restaurants. We’re emotional; instinctive; caring; family-oriented. We are comfortable knowing what we are.

We’re definitely not trying to be the coolest restaurants in town. We’re really proud of our three family-, vegetarian- and dog-friendly community spaces. Our restaurants are our customers’ special place, their “3-times-a-week” place where they’re always welcome. If we were to do it all over again, we would do the same three things again.

Three restaurants in, I still can’t cook but I know that my gut has good instincts. Birthing my business was all about humbly making it up as I go, because there was no step-by-step guide. Bringing a child into that mix was the biggest disrupter of all.

But if we ever create a time machine, I’d tell my old self that motherhood will help her develop new skills and grow as a person, as a family, and as a company.

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