In the last ten years, Brooklyn has witnessed a huge influx in the number of Mom and Pop stores; a new interest in all things handcrafted, local, and sustainable; and an obsession with DIY culture. Particularly since the recession, stories of high-powered Wall Street bankers and publishing executives who’ve fled their fields to pursue their own gourmet ambitions – whether that means opening a gluten-free bakery or founding a craft beer tasting room – have proliferated. The march towards small business ownership is cast as a new, liberating frontier: at last, you can pursue your long-delayed career ambitions with all the pleasure and security of being your own boss.
But what comes after the grand opening? A recent article in the New York Times flipped the script on the dream-come-true narrative of small business ownership and instead sought to emphasize all the ways in which the lifestyle can be brutal and unsatisfying. In its profile of six different independent businesses in the city, the article cited stories of spousal discord, neglected children, and vacation-less stretches of exhausting labor. The picture was unabashedly bleak.
But was it an accurate portrayal? At Urban Oyster, we take pleasure in working with the city’s small businesses on a daily basis, and in exposing visitors and locals alike to the independent shops that help to make New York so rich and unique. The Times article struck us as missing the mark on all of the great parts of starting and owning your own business, particularly with a loved one. In order to see if the article’s thesis on small business ownership jived with the reality of the experience, we checked in with Dawn Casale from One Girl Cookies and Patrick Watson of Stinky Bklyn, Smith & Vine, The Jake Walk, and Brooklyn Wine Exchange, both of whom were featured in the Times’ story. They are also featured on Urban Oyster’s Neighborhood Eats Tour and on our private events so we had a hunch that they would have more to say on the joys and struggles of owning your own business.
“I would never say it’s always anxiety and stress-ridden. Those moments happen, but they’re unrelated to the fact that I own my own business. I wouldn’t change anything: what I do, or who I do it with,” said Dawn Casale, founder of gourmet cookie shop One Girl Cookies, which now has outposts in Cobble Hill and Dumbo.
Casale got her start in 2000, when she first launched One Girl as a wholesale business out of her West Village apartment. The idea for One Girl was born when she saw an unfilled niche in elegant and professionally presented cookies that would be suitable for upscale events or holiday gifts. After a little over a year, the business transitioned to a nearby catering kitchen, and Dawn met Dave Crofton, her future husband, when she hired him as a baker. In 2005, One Girl expanded to its Cobble Hill brick-and-mortar location and the two tied the knot.
In the New York Times article, Casale is quoted as describing herself and her husband as slaves to their business, while also referencing how they try to keep their children out of the shop and away from its abundance of sweets. Though she doesn’t challenge her quotes, she clarifies that the difficulties of her business aren’t the only story: “I would say that nothing that was stated [in the article] was something I didn’t say, but I enjoy what I do very much. I enjoy doing it with my husband, and I enjoy running a business together.” She also emphasized that, as a daughter in a family of entrepreneurs, she sees One Girl as more of an inspiration than forbidden turf for her children, and likes the business enough to hope that her kids will one day follow in their parents’ footsteps.
Having previously worked as a floor manager at Barney’s, Casale enjoyed time in retail but yearned to break into a more gastronomically inclined field: “I liked what I did before. I never left my job because I hated it, but because I wanted to open a food-related business. I came from a big Sicilian family, and I was always surrounded by food and how it brings people together. Even pre-retail, I knew I wanted to go into food eventually.”
As she and Crofton met in the context of business, Casale also points out that it has been a fundamental aspect of their relationship since its start, rather than an impediment to their lives together. She shared a recipe for success when it comes to balancing business and relationships: “Everyone’s going to tell you, as a couple, not to bring work home, but ignore that because it’s impossible. It is what it is. Try to keep the conversation as limited as possible, and not argumentative.”
Patrick Watson, co-founder of Stinky Bklyn, Smith & Vine, The Jake Walk, and Brooklyn Wine Exchange, agrees with Casale on many counts: “It’s great when anyone wants to write about the work you do, it’s great of course, [but] I wasn’t really happy with the resolve of the article. I think it should have showcased how amazing and great it can be to work with your loved ones, but also how difficult it can be. I don’t think it really got those two points across.”
Watson and his wife and business partner Michele Pravda founded Smith & Vine, their first Brooklyn enterprise together, in 2004, after both of them had spent a solid 15 years in the restaurant industry working alternately as chefs, sommeliers, and beverage directors. Says Watson about the initial launch: “[it] paved the road for everything else for us. We instantly had success in working together [. . .] We met in a job setting, after years of working together we decided to get married, and then shortly after that opened our own business.” After the immediate success of Smith & Vine, the two went on to found cheese specialty store Stinky Bklyn in 2006, wine and cheese bar The Jake Walk in 2008, and Brooklyn Wine Exchange in 2009.
In the continuous expansion of their enterprises (Stinky Bklyn is now supplying cheese plates to the newly opened Barclay’s Center), Watson stresses that it is a sense of community, and of working with a team, that underlies their success. Pravda and Watson additionally seek to involve their children organically in their lives, without falling back on a family-versus-business dichotomy: “Every day is a little bit different, and it’s constantly a juggling act, but that’s any small business. There are events some nights of the week – we work hard. And we play hard, and the kids sort of go along with it, and they see how exciting life can be around food and wine, or at least around cheese.”
Watson also has advice for couples who are nervous to work together because of the perceived havoc it would wreak on their relationships: “I think it’s important to do it together and realize that you both are going to have great ideas. And sometimes you need to pick your battles and say, ‘Let’s do it your way!’ whenever you can, you know, it’s important. But if you can find that great synergy, which chances are you already have, then you’ll be down for nothing less than success [. . .] At the end of the day you’re on the same team, you both want the success of your small business, and that’s very attainable.”
Is opening a small business really then a guarantee of relationship struggles, family difficulties, and backbreaking labor? The founders of One Girl Cookies and the Smith & Vine businesses certainly wouldn’t agree. Though the launching of any new company comes with stretches of hard work and periods of struggle, the benefits it promises, including family partnerships, community involvement, and a life filled with delicious comestibles, make the Mom and Pop lifestyle worth pursuing.