Recently I had an opportunity to interview Marilyn Schlossbach for the Restaurant Owners Uncorked video series. The co-owner of Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park, NJ, and a handful of additional concepts on the Jersey Shore, she has been in the business for 30 years. She shared stories about everything from the cook quitting her brother’s restaurant on a July 4th weekend and her brother having to teach her to cook over the phone, to opening her first restaurant, to learning from several failed restaurants, to how she personally and professionally weathered Hurricane Sandy (which demolished her restaurants at the same time she and her husband had just brought beautiful twin girls into the world), to being a female owner in an industry dominated by men, to the challenges of being a business owner when you are a creative person by nature, to why it's so important to follow your passion, to her desire to create a positive atmosphere in her restaurants so that not only her customers, but also her daughters, will be in a happy place every time they visit.
Marilyn is a determined, self-taught chef and business woman who didn't get a college degree and didn't got to culinary school, but she understands the value of rigor, tinkering, learning from mistakes, humility, and always, always pushing forward, no matter what life throws at her. These philosophies have helped her build a $5 million business on the Jersey Shore, and I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for what she has accomplished. Here, she shares a few of the lessons she’s learned.
Mistakes are good
In my career, many failures have come my way. I was self-taught—a self-taught chef, a self-taught business owner. The first restaurant I owned was called Rosalee’s Kitchen, and that was a success for me. After that, they all got more challenging.
Any time you open a business there are lots of challenges. When I opened Rosalee’s my parents had both passed, so I had no parents as mentors to help me. My brothers had all moved out of the area as well, and I was kind of on my own. And I’m still a very driven, passionate person so I tend not to think about consequences all of the time, which is good and bad. I made a lot of leaps of faith to do things that I thought were great ideas or wonderful concepts or ways I thought I could feed people the food I love. And I’ve never had issues with the food end of my world, but on the business end when you’re creative your challenges don’t always get worked out in your mind very quickly.
So I’ve had to learn to be the scheduler, the accountant, the bookkeeper, the trainer, the design person, as well as the chef. I never went to hospitality school, I never went to culinary school, I never finished college, I never went to business school, so all of these things are learned day to day. Back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s we didn’t have the internet, so I couldn’t Google “How do I make a schedule” and so forth. I had to figure it all out. Sometimes it worked, and a lot of times it didn’t. I went through bad locations, or rent that was too high, or poorly negotiated leases.
That’s a huge problem in our industry…falling in love with a space and just getting passionate about what you can make out of it and not looking at the dollars and cents of what your overhead is going to be and how you’re going to manage that. That’s probably the biggest reason why I’ve had a lot of obstacles, but I think mistakes are good. They make your stronger.
Follow your passion
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Every business is different. Everybody’s passion is different. My passion comes from my travels, my environment, my surfing, my community activism. Those are my things, so I try to run a sustainable business. I try to be very conscious about my community and what it needs. But that’s me. Trying to be me when that’s not what you are like is going to be your biggest hurdle, because you’re always going to be trying to make yourself something that you’re not passionate about.
We work way too hard in this business to be trying to do things that we don’t have a passion for. So maybe my passion isn’t Italian cuisine and going to Italy and making homemade pasta, and maybe I see that or go to a restaurant and love that. But if that’s not my passion, it’s going to be too laborious for me to try and create that in my world. And I think restaurateurs sometimes get on this flow of opening different restaurants and doing different projects because we want to be creative.
Now, if you can find somebody to align with you who has the passion for what you want to do, then that’s fine. But if you’re trying to make that passion come out of yourself and it’s just not there, if it’s just not your thing…I just feel like that’s a waste of precious time that you could be putting into something that you’re totally into.
Why the restaurant business needs more women
I always thought when I got into this business that it would be filled with women because women nurture people, and that’s what food should be about. Over my career I’ve found that there are hardly any women in this business, so I feel like an outsider (laughs). But I think that’s good for my business world because I think I bring something that isn’t inherently in this business.
I don’t know why this industry started with men and has continued to grow in that direction. Women are inherently the cooks in the household, and manage a lot of things that men don’t tend to manage. Kids and dinner and cleaning and school and all of these things. That’s basically what you have to do in the restaurant business: you have to manage a lot of things that don’t always align with each other.
If more women got into the restaurant business, it would be good for the industry. It would help the industry become more encompassing of every one, and more compassionate. Definitely I would love to see all women break out of their shells and be the best they can be, because they bring added things to the table that men don’t always bring.
Wil Brawley is a partner at Schedulefly, a company that provides restaurants with Web-based staff-scheduling and communication software. He is the author of Restaurant Owners Uncorked: Twenty Owners Share Their Recipes for Success.