Belief Without Proof Of Existence

What happens when you close a restaurant, move across the country, and try to start again.

August 10, 2016 ● 6 min read

I imagine that closing a restaurant must feel similar to a marriage that starts well, but ends in sad, quiet failure.  

First you flirt with the idea that it could maybe work, then you fall in love with an idea of what could be. You plan your future, build a life around it, and revel in the happiness that it brings you. When things start to go bad, you tell yourself that you won’t let it fail; you won’t be a statistic. Then one day the exact things that used to make you happy suddenly feel so suffocating. You feel that you are dying a slow death. You blame each other; you blame yourself.  

When it occurs to you that there is a way out, you hold on and crawl towards it with everything you have. When you finally clear the finish line, you brace yourself for the sorrow — but it doesn’t come. You feel relief. Joy, even excitement, over what comes next.

So what does come next? What happens after you ride off into the sunset?

After we closed Thirty Acres, it felt like a million pounds had been lifted off of my shoulders — like I could fly. As someone who has worked a full-time job, sometimes two, every day since college, that freedom often translated to equal parts euphoria, boredom, and terror.  

After a few weeks spent with our families during the holidays, we arrived in Seattle ready to get our new concept off the ground. Once again, my husband Kevin and I would be the only equity owners, with no investors. We told ourselves we would give it until June, and if we hadn’t found a spot for our new place by then, we would admit defeat and get jobs.  

So much of being an entrepreneur is about faith. I wasn’t brought up in a religious family, and as an adult, I’ve never given it much thought. If anything, it’s something I looked upon with mild disdain. Faith requires belief in something without proof of its existence, which, objectively speaking, is ridiculous: why believe in something with no logical proof? The older I get, though, the more I find a kind of beauty in faith. It's almost a defiant act, believing in something despite everything and everyone, simply because you know it to be true.  

Kevin and I have been riding some type of faith for years now, leaning on the belief that if we keep working hard, keep pushing, keep thinking, keep trying, we will get where we need to go. The goal isn’t achieving some sort of final “success,” whatever that means, but just moving down the path, continuing towards that goal of happiness and fulfillment in our lives. We choose to believe that things are going to work out because we have to. Faith over logic. Heart over head.

It’s especially complicated being in business with your spouse. There has never been an “us” without a dream of a business together. Just as the dream of Thirty Acres was built into the fabric of our marriage, it was built into every day of my pregnancy, our daughter Vivian’s birth, and every day since then. Solutions to problems have been hammered out by yelling from room to room while one of us is in the shower and the other is doing the dishes, or one of us is doing laundry and the other is breastfeeding (okay, that’s usually me). There is no separation between personal and business for us; Viv comes with us to our site visits and our contractor meetings. She eats dinner with us while we hash out our ideas. She struggles when we struggle. She’s a reminder that it’s not just our lives at stake.

Faith does waver. After Thirty Acres, I was hurt, and a little trigger shy. I didn’t have the gusto I once had. An idea would bubble to the surface, and I immediately thought of all the people who would hate it, why it would fail, why we shouldn’t do it. I became so risk-averse it was an obstacle to progress. I relied on Kevin to pull me through that. He reminded me that we are good at what we do, and that we love what we do. We wanted this, and we needed it.  

When we first set out on our search, we were faced with three different options, ranging from worst to best: an existing restaurant being sold, with a good portion of the equipment we needed; a new build (generally a condo building with retail on the first floor) that was centrally located; or The Unicorn: an existing restaurant that had gone out of business. No key money, good rental terms, good neighborhood.

Almost immediately we found a spot that we thought could work, that we could afford if we took out a loan. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good neighborhood, had already been a restaurant, and wasn’t charging much in rent. They had most of the equipment we needed. We were cautious when it seemed too good to be true, and soon red flags began to pop up: a parking lot that we were told would belong to us in fact belonged to an adjacent condo building under contract; the key money was too much for what we were getting; the below-market rent was only locked in for three years, after which it would shoot up to an undetermined “market rate.”

After three months of negotiations, we walked away.  

We were a month and a half from our self-imposed deadline, and back at square one. A little voice in my brain kept insisting the smart thing to do was to admit defeat, to do anything else with the money. So I did what I always do: I cried, then went for a run. By the time I got back to the house, I was resolute. We were going to make this thing happen, because I wasn’t ready to give in to the alternative: giving up, tapping out, going back to working for someone else.  

From that point on, we were unyielding. We knew this would only be “meant to be” if we kept pushing and made it so. We spoke to anyone and everyone we knew who might have a line on a restaurant for lease. We scoured the commercial MLS. We hired a real estate agent to search for new builds, and then a second real estate agent. We walked up and down every street in the neighborhoods we wanted to be in, scanning for “For Rent” signs.

We also spent a lot of time with our daughter. We went to the beach, to summer camp, to the lake, to the swimming pool. We spent time with my parents and my sister and her kids, which I haven’t been able to do in over a decade. I ran a half marathon, with Kevin and Viv looking on at the finish line. We grilled in the backyard of our house — a real house! — and we made friends. I made my own sourdough starter and taught myself how to bake real things. We ate out less and cooked at home more and we drank wine more than we probably should have. We allowed ourselves to be happy.  

One day, we walked by a little empty building near our house.

It was in an industrial area, quaint and a little run-down. It had character. It sat between two larger buildings with old-fashioned metal-framed windows; together they reminded me of a ship, this small building in the middle its wheelhouse. Every time we passed it on our walk to put Viv to sleep in her stroller, I would smile. Sometimes I even let out a little laugh. It sounds trite to say in retrospect, but it felt like home — like it already was our restaurant.

It was completely empty and it was impossible to tell what had occupied it before. If it had been anything other than a restaurant, we could be tied up with the city for months. All it had was a tiny sign on its window that said it was for rent, and a phone number; we called it and got no response. We called it again. Nothing. We made a habit of calling once every week or so, until we finally heard back on May 29th. Two days before our deadline. It’s little things like that that make you feel like maybe your faith is just a tiny bit justified.

On July 1st, we signed a lease and became the proud owners of Mean Sandwich, a mom-and-pop sandwich shop in Ballard, Seattle, less than one mile from our house.

We may have stumbled upon a unicorn, but there’s no riding off into the sunset. There continue to be roadblocks: a hold up with the permit, dealing with the liquor license situation, difficulty finding a contractor, issues with the bank. It’s always two steps forward, one step back. This is the beauty of being a business owner, though — you take the good with the bad. You ride the wave, enjoy it while you’re on top, and hope you don’t drown. You have faith.

We’re ready to get back to work.          

Alex Pemoulie | Collage by ChefsFeed