Published in San Diego Union-Tribune, October 12, 2015
Spouses teaming up to run a business can be recipe for success
“Honey, I shrunk the kids” is not as disturbing in some marriages as “Honey, I burned the chicken, dropped the tiramisu on the floor and the kitchen is currently on fire.”
The combination of working with your spouse and trying to build a successful restaurant can be a recipe for disaster. The restaurant industry is littered with failures and the stress of a startup can damage even the best relationship.
(Note: I have invested in two restaurants. One was a smash, and the jury is still out on the other, which just happens to be a husband-and-wife team.)
I met Amanda Caniglia, co-founder of the Bella Vista Social Club & Caffe, through her role hosting brainstorming meetings for the Mesa Project, an initiative that explores how to better brand and market our region’s innovation economy. Bella Vista is on the second floor of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, across the street from the main UC San Diego campus. It is a modest space that opens onto a giant and gorgeous deck with an ocean view.
“Our goal was to create an environment, a piazza, where people can come and be comfortable. People collaborate better when they have food and alcohol. It’s how friendships and relationships are formed,” said Amanda, the co-founder of Bella Vista with her husband, Nico. “In San Diego, we lack good gathering places.”
Amanda and Nico were both working at a restaurant in Little Italy when they met. Amanda was in her car, had the right of way and abruptly was cut off by a guy who hits the horn, gives her the finger and takes the last parking space – and when she finally gets inside, late for work? Yeah, of course, the guy was Nico. They were made for each other.
They married in 2006 and their first business foray together was Swieners, a mobile food truck company that primarily worked with craft breweries. Their product was a grilled bratwurst served on a fresh baguette with melted Raclette cheese. They also ran a small café on Bankers Hill until they lost their lease.
(Note: They knew the industry. They had worked in a restaurant. You would be surprised at the number of people who start a business in which they have never worked previously.)
Bella Vista opened in January 2013. Initial capital of $25,000 came from their savings, loans from family members, and a business partner, who they were able to pay off within six months. For the first year, they continued to operate Swieners in order to pay their bills. They didn’t draw a salary and any profits were re-invested back into the business. Amanda estimated that they have spent over $100,000 on inventory, equipment, a van for catering, licenses, permits, outdoor patio furniture and expansion of the bar.
(Note: To open a full restaurant of 3,500 to 5,000 square feet, the cost would be north of $850,000 – more like $1.3 million.)
The Caniglias started slowly by offering breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday, then adding brunch on Saturday and Sunday, and recently a happy hour and dinner during the week. On a typical weekday, Amanda said Bella Vista serves 200 to 300 people at lunch. “Our kitchen was built for a café and is only slightly larger than a walk- in closet.”
How does the couple work together and stay married?
“Nico and I divide and conquer. We don’t yell at each other. We give each other a lot of space. We have a lot in common but we’re also very different. We’re both gypsies, we speak several languages. We have similar values but very different personalities,” said Amanda.
With a business that is open seven days a week plus a growing catering operation (and a 6-year-old son), there is no time off, and Amanda loves it that way. “I don’t like to miss a day of work because so many interesting people roll through the café.”
Neil Senturia, a serial entrepreneur who invests in early-stage technology companies, writes weekly about entrepreneurship in San Diego. Please email ideas to Neil at [email protected].
Rule No. 440
Marriage is like a chocolate soufflé. Lots of hot air mixed with sweetness.