Owning a restaurant is an exciting daydream for people who love to cook and entertain, or those who are unhappy in their corporate jobs. But the reality of running a successful restaurant business is not as glamorous as it may seem. Women restaurant owners in particular have a unique set of challenges, requiring them to be nimble, flexible and to wear many hats – from chef to dishwasher, to HR director to bookkeeper.
Franca Piselli, owner of Roman Bistro in East Gwillimbury, speaks candidly of being a female entrepreneur in a high stress environment. “In this business, sometimes it’s so unpredictable, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says.
A mother of three, Piselli describes herself as a “hands-on” business owner. She’s involved in both the front and backend of the restaurant, helping out wherever needed – even if it means sacrificing her one night off that week. “If the dishwasher doesn’t show up one night, guess who’s doing the dishes? Me,” she says. “It’s hard on the family, and on the kids. Even though we know family comes first, it’s difficult because it’s not an office job where I work from 9 to 5 and work can get done tomorrow.”
Piselli’s family has been in the restaurant industry in the Newmarket area for over 20 years. She grew up in the food and beverage industry – her parents were the owners of numerous banquet halls. As a result, Piselli spent most of her teenage years working weekends and holidays, a routine that continues to this day. Her family eventually closed down the banquet business and she opened Roman Bistro in November of 2013. “We’ve built a lot of relationships with people – a lot of people know us for what we used to do,” she says.
Roman Bistro offers a menu full of fresh ingredients, featuring homemade favourites such as lasagna, and spinach and ricotta-stuffed rocolo.
Many of the recipes are passed down from Piselli’s mother, who passed away last November. “We try to keep the authenticity, and keep her recipes in the business,” Piselli says.
And while it means making certain sacrifices in her own family life, Piselli makes it her job to ensure her guests feel like the restaurant is their home away from home too. “We have a lot of fun, we try to make customers feel as comfortable as possible,” she says. “A lot of time customers tell us, ‘I feel like we’re at home here.’”
Jenn McLaughlin, owner of Cachet Restaurant and Bar in Newmarket, has also spent much of her life working in the food and beverage industry, having worked as a bartender in town for 15 years while also holding a corporate job by day. Prior to this, she owned her own business, and she decided to return to her entrepreneurial roots after her kids were raised. “When Cachet came up for sale, it was the combination of everything I enjoyed – community, family, and business, all in an environment I was familiar with,” she says.
For her, running a successful restaurant is about establishing the social scene and presenting Cachet as a gathering place for different groups in the community. “I love every second of it,” she says. “Newmarket is so diverse in population, and yet we still maintain the underlying feeling of a community, and everyone understands that.”
It’s not just about the food, either, although that’s incredibly important. Cachet’s menu maintains an infusion style, where there’s something for everyone. But McLaughlin says the social element of the restaurant is the product she’s selling. She explains the key to success is listening to her customers and adapting to suit their needs.
“I would imagine owning a restaurant in downtown Toronto, with people walking by, is quite different. It’s just a transaction,” she says. “Whereas owning this restaurant is about relationships. Coming from the corporate world, I had to cultivate relationships to grow, but here it’s so much better because this is my hometown as well.”
When it comes to offering advice to other female restaurant owners like herself, McLaughlin has some wise words to share. “Stand tall,” she says, “and be confident in your decisions.”
by Charlotte Ottaway
Roman Bistro, East Gwillimbury
Cachet Restaurant + Bar, Newmarket