Valentines come in every shade of pink and red, but the rules of love are rarely black-and-white. One important exception involves entrepreneurship: “There is no relationship problem that can’t be made worse by a business,” says Meg Cadoux Hirschberg, author of “For Better or For Work.”
And yet couples persist in becoming co-owners. “For many couples I know, they couldn’t imagine realizing their professional life dream with anyone other than their life partners,” says Hirschberg, whose husband, Gary, is the founder of Stonyfield Yogurt.
While there isn’t any data showing that married couples are more likely to get involved in food businesses, wedded partners are well-represented in Charleston’s culinary scene. In addition to the many food trucks staffed by spouses, married couples own and operate Xiao Bao Biscuit; Tattooed Moose; High Wire Distilling Co.; Sugar Bakeshop; Annie’s Bistro; Two Boroughs Larder; Angel Oak Restaurant; Chow Down Charleston Food Tours; and Chez Nous. And that’s not even a complete list of local food-and-beverage outfits in which romantic partners are equal business partners, let alone ventures in which the ostensibly uninvolved spouse ends up keeping the books or drafting press releases.
As Hirschberg points out, for a couple on solid footing, there are advantages to working side-by-side. “It’s a great life adventure that you can share,” she says. “It can deepen your relationship and mutual respect; you can strategize and brainstorm together.” Perhaps most importantly, she adds, “You will be more forgiving of each other about things like taking calls on weekends or working late.”
According to Hirschberg, the arrangement’s success is contingent upon participants clearly defining their roles; re-evaluating the set-up on a regular basis and taking care not to contaminate their personal conversations with office chatter. “Best not to spring on your spouse that you lost an important client while brushing your teeth before bed,” she says.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, The Post and Courier visited with three local couples who are balancing marriage and joint restaurant ownership:
Went into business: 2010
Since meeting in 2002, Jennifer and Enan Parezo have become believers in the “opposites attract” cliche.
“I just never dated anyone like him,” says Jennifer Parezo, who was introduced to colleague Enan Parezo within days of starting work on Seabrook Island, her first kitchen job after graduating from culinary school in Scottsdale, Ariz. “I was an athlete, and he was kind of a hippie.”
The job at Seabrook was supposed to be the first rung on a ladder leading to New York City. But being around Enan led Jennifer to reconsider her planned trajectory. And as the couple became more serious, Enan Parezo started shifting his goals too.
“He’s grounded me so much, but I make him shoot for the stars,” says Jennifer, who’s still inclined to post motivational sayings on the wall.
Both Jennifer and Enan were working at Charleston Place when Enan, with Jennifer’s strong encouragement, quit to become a personal chef and caterer. The couple would often share ideas: Jennifer’s pastry background and Enan’s familiarity with savories resulted in items such as profiteroles seasoned with cumin. But they didn’t have as much luck sharing workspace.
“I’m trying to do 100 cookies on a six-foot table and he’s trying to put out shrimp-and-grits,” Jennifer recalls.
“We like things our own way,” Enan interjects.
Once their complementary systems (and separate worktables) were in place, the couple decided to launch Twenty Six Divine, named for the date of the month on which both Jennifer and Enan were born. On March 26, 2010, two weeks before the restaurant opened, they catered their own wedding.
The Parezos’ son, Grayson, was born in 2013. Caring for their child and their restaurant was simplified by the family living above the dining room. When Jennifer had to leave Twenty Six Divine for catering assignments, she wore Grayson on her chest.
“We’re very different than most people in this business,” Enan says. “We’d definitely be more popular and make more money if we served dinner, but it’s all about quality of life for us.”
Now, the Parezos are slightly expanding their cafe to include a front counter with prepared items. Enan internally flinches at the prospect of growth, which he fears will lead to more hours and more locations. “Can we just chill and relax?,” he asks. But the counter seems like a relatively manageable addition.
“Once we open the front up, we’re doing our thing,” he says.
Jennifer agrees: “We can do our thing. I don’t have to be a celebrity.”
Went into business: 2014
If there’s any marital situation more potentially fraught than opening a business, it’s quite possibly crossing the ocean together on a small sailboat. But that’s just what the Chateaus did between 2010 and 2013, after deciding to reorder their priorities.
“Some friends were very displeased with us,” Christiane admits.
When the Chateaus gave up their careers, they were living in a big house with an Aston Martin in the driveway. “If you refuse that, there are not so many people that understand,” Thierry says. “We had the privilege to make the choice.”
“You have to be happy in your life and with each other,” Christiane says.
The Chateaus met in 1989, when Christiane moved from Germany to Paris to study French and work as a nanny. Thierry approached her as a party. As he tells it, “I was at law school, and she was blonde.”
Thierry ended up at a high-powered law firm with a client list that included the European Parliament. Christiane held a series of executive jobs that led to her being offered the position of German consul to France. “It was such an honor,” she says. But after she accepted the job, the couple traveled to Thailand for three weeks. During the trip, they decided they’d rather go to sea with their two children, then aged 11 and 8.
“We were so happy to be just the four of us,” Christiane says. “That made us stronger as a family.”
After the boat came an RV. The Chateaus drove it around the U.S. and Canada, at one point stopping in Charleston: “It was time to settle down,” Thierry says. They persuaded another couple to help them open Saveurs du Monde in 2014; the bakery was supposed to be the first in a franchise of French-style cafes.
Almost immediately, the partnership fell apart, leaving the Chateaus to figure out how to perfect and replicate their concept. They already knew how to work together, since they’d learned during the roughest days at sea how to intuit who was feeling strongest and able to lead. They also had a pretty good idea of the way their personalities played out when making decisions: “I’m always the horse in front and she’s always with the reins,” Thierry says. “I think the most important thing is everyone keeps his area.”
Ultimately, though, what contributed most to the business’ success was a quality they share: “We’re passionate both,” Christiane says.
Went into business: 2012
Two days after Cillie St. Andre moved to Charleston to live with her father, who was coping with chronic illness, she laid eyes on Sean Mendes. “I’m going to marry him,” she decided.
Sean in 1993 was the assistant manager at the Blockbuster Video where Cillie took a job. While showing her how to collect videos from the drop box, he confided he was quitting. “I was crushed,” Cillie recalls. But the two ended up dating, and she finally coaxed him into marriage. “About eight years in, women are like, ‘Where’s the ring?’” he says.
Just before their first daughter was born, Sean joined Outback Steakhouse as an assistant manager. He left the restaurant in 2009 as the father of three to open Grindz Burgers & Brew with a friend. “We couldn’t get along,” he says. “Six months in, I was out.”
Feeling guilty about plowing his parents’ money into a failed project, Sean obsessed over what went wrong, slipping into what he calls a “little depression.” About a year later, his stepfather offered to bankroll another restaurant: “I have some money and I want to invest in you,” he told him. Sean was touched by his stepfather’s support, but struggled to come up with a viable business plan. Then he and Cillie saw an episode of “The Great Food Truck Race” on the Food Network.
“I went on Craigslist that night looking for a truck,” Cillie says. “We bought it the next day.”
Sean hired plenty of people at Outback, so knew he wanted a front-of-house person who was outgoing, experienced and fearless. In his opinion, his wife wasn’t any of those things. “But we didn’t have a choice,” he says. “It was the two of us and the kids.” Cillie was stationed at the ordering window on the Roadside Seafood truck.
The position required dealing with customers and her husband, who was notorious at Outback for being tough on cooks. “I’m not Gordon Ramsey, by any stretch,” he says. “But I was a mean little so-and-so.” Early on, Sean brought the same attitude to the truck.
“She’d give me a look, and I knew as a husband, I went too far,” he says. “I knew we were going to have a discussion.”
Cillie, who doesn’t even much like seafood, leaves all of the recipe development to her husband. And when it comes to logistics, she’s learned “it’s not an idea until it’s his idea.” But by 2014, when the couple opened a permanent location, they’d figured out how to work together without raised voices or hurt feelings. The love and playfulness that permeates their home (and inevitably embarrasses their kids) is palpable at the restaurant.
“Previous to the truck,” Sean says, “we couldn’t paint a room together without arguing.”