Dinner for two

MARITAL BLISS: Molly Irani, left, encouraged  her husband, Meherwan, to find his “true bliss” and open his own restaurant. The couple opened Chai Pani in 2009. Photo by Alicia Funderburk
MARITAL BLISS: Molly Irani, left, encouraged her husband, Meherwan, to find his “true bliss” and open his own restaurant. The couple opened Chai Pani in 2009. Photo by Alicia Funderburk

Food and love have long been linked in the popular imagination, but actually running a restaurant with your beloved partner seriously raises the bar. With the spirit of Valentine’s Day in the air, however, here’s a look at how the owners of five highly successful yet very different local eateries have managed to combine their personal and working lives in a notoriously stressful industry.

Like many restaurateurs, these couples were well-immersed in the culinary arts before taking the plunge into ownership. “It just felt natural to go into business together since we’d both been doing it for so long,” says Ashley Garrison of The Hop while bouncing the couple’s 10-month-old son, Finnegan, on her knee. Ashley and Greg Garrison both worked for the ice cream café while attending UNC Asheville, then wound up buying the now 35-year-old business in 2008. It’s done so well that they’ve opened a second location in West Asheville.

Meherwan and Molly Irani of Chai Pani, the popular eatery inspired by Indian street food, have a similar story. They met in college while working in Molly’s parents’ restaurant, and after pursuing other professional careers, Molly encouraged Meherwan to find his “true bliss.” Chai Pani opened in 2009, and the bar and lounge MG Road followed in late 2012. Meherwan believes the restaurant business has actually made the couple “closer and more in love with each other than ever before,” noting that he gets to discover another side of his life partner that he might not otherwise experience.

Togetherness

Eddie Hannibal and Natalie Byrnes of Glass Onion in Weaverville were both successful head chefs at Long Island restaurants before deciding to merge their love and Italian food into one shared endeavor. “As long as she always realizes I’m right, we’re fine,” Eddie jokes, peeking affectionately at his wife. The couple moved to the area early last year and opened their “global Italian dream restaurant” just six weeks later, offering an unusual, sophisticated take on traditional flavors.

Both Biscuit Head and the French Broad Chocolate Lounge evoke images of lines of people patiently waiting for treats that many would say “are so worth it.” Each restaurant’s owners admit to having been a bit leery at first, though they’re now “bigger than we could ever have imagined,” says Carolyn Roy of Biscuit Head. She says she actually laughed when, while they were renovating the space, husband Jason said they ought to plan for dealing with long lines.

The Chocolate Lounge has also had to grapple with the logistical challenges posed by popularity. “We’re currently working on a big plan to solve the capacity riddle,” co-owner Jael Rattigan reports. “We initially rented just the first floor of the building that the Chocolate Lounge is in and actually thought it was too big,” she says.

The similarities among these five couples? Good communication, respect, a positive attitude — and a little bit of luck. “We really thought we had the communication stuff down, but going into business together helped us fine-tune our relationship more than we ever thought possible,” says Molly Irani, who saw her own parents struggle to maintain a healthy life balance while owning a restaurant. Glass Onion’s Eddie Hannibal says there have definitely been disagreements along the way, but as in any relationship, dealing with them maturely is the key. “With each of us having been in the industry for so long, we do have different ways of doing things, but that doesn’t mean someone is wrong. We both have valid points, and between the two of us, we often come up with the perfect solution,” he says.

Many of these proprietors talk about the boundaries they’ve set to keep the business from consuming their family life. The Iranis originally set a “no talking about the restaurant after 8 p.m.” rule, though Molly admits that they’ve had to be flexible at times. Both the Roys and the Rattigans say they strategically set their businesses’ hours to make sure they could enjoy scheduled family time. “We have dinner together every night, hang out and do homework with our son,” says Carolyn Roy, which wasn’t possible when her husband was executive chef at the Lexington Avenue Brewery.

And though the owners of both Glass Onion and The Hop say they don’t typically schedule family time in advance, they emphasize that quality time doesn’t necessarily need to be after hours. In fact, Ashley brings the couple’s infant son to The Hop every day, a luxury that many working mothers don’t have.

The hard part

But getting to this point has not been a breeze. It doesn’t seem that long ago, notes Molly Irani, that “we were working long hours, both busing tables and washing dishes as much as everyone else.” But Meherwan, she says, kept his promise that they would eventually be able to focus more on their family life. And as restaurant industry veterans, Glass Onion’s owners say they rely on each other to remain positive during down times. “When it’s really slow, we can have a tendency to get cranky, but we get through it, because when things are good, they’re really good,” says Hannibal.

Each restaurant’s success has also required a few leaps of faith. Hannibal and Byrnes moved from their longtime New Jersey home to Alexander, a town that’s almost a polar opposite, while Meherwan ditched his real estate career to follow his dream. But perhaps the most dramatic foray into the unknown was when Dan and Jael Rattigan bought an abandoned cacao farm in Costa Rica in 2004 and subsequently began rehabilitating it, with the dream of being able to use their very own chocolate in their creations.

While the love between these partners has a lot to do with their business success, having a solid support network also seems to play a significant role. All five couples expressed extreme gratitude toward their staff, friends and family members, who helped with things like loans, manual labor and general encouragement. The Garrisons maintain that if it weren’t for their managers’ taking on bigger roles in the company, they wouldn’t have been able to have their son. Jason and Carolyn Roy agree that they “couldn’t have done it without the Westers,” a married couple who now manage Biscuit Head and who previously spent countless hours renovating and decorating the restaurant. “Everyone who works here has become an extension of our family,” says Molly Irani.

Made with love

In the end, of course, the single most defining factor in these restaurants’ success is the food. “It’s made with love,” says Meherwan. And while some of these couples say that holidays don’t provide much play time, since they’re typically so busy, they do look forward to sharing their love-inspired creations with customers. The Hop is offering customized “sweetheart ice cream cakes” for two, and the Chocolate Lounge will spice things up with an “aphrodisiac collection” of truffles. The Glass Onion, noted for rich seafood dishes, promises exciting specials on the big day. Biscuit Head’s large portions and extensive selection of butters, jams and hot sauces are perfect for a flavor-sharing date, and Chai Pani’s authentic Indian comfort food never disappoints.

To be sure, these five restaurants aren’t the only local eateries owned by couples, but their stories offer guidance that’s applicable to just about any relationship. As Jason Roy sums it up, “We put a lot of love in this place, a lot of love in what we do, and we have a lot of love for each other.”

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