James Beard nominee Cathal Armstrong was fresh off the boat from Ireland when he got his first glimpse of Meshelle, who was managing Cities in Washington D.C.

Five years later, the couple married and began planning their next union: a jointly owned restaurant.

In 2004, the two opened Restaurant Eve, the first of six restaurants they would operate.

"We named it after our first child, Eve,” Meshelle Armstrong says. “It was our way of making sure we would give it the attention it would require and it reminded us of family first."

The Armstrongs aren’t alone. In fact, there are many successful restaurants run by a couple.

Take Iron Chef Kent Rathbun and his wife Tracy. The pair opened Asian hotspot Shinsei in Dallas in 2006 before opening a cooking school next door called Duo.

The secret to their success? A scale of one to 10.

“You have to really evaluate what’s important to you, and realize that everything can’t be a 10,” says Tracy Rathbun. “Not everything is what Kent wants, like the music playlist,” she says. “But, if he comes in and says ‘This dish isn’t right,’ I’m listening. That’s a 10.”

For some couples, however, compromise isn’t always the answer. “If we disagree about something business-related, we either do things 100 percent my way or 100 percent his way,” says Armstrong.

“Compromising either conviction will just breed mediocrity, so your relationship needs to be strong enough to overcome the fact that you’ve acquiesced.”

Kent Rathbun agrees:“There’s a lot to be said for yielding to the other person if it has to do with where they have strengths.”

Another tip? Leave work at the office.

“When we get home, the phrase ‘I don’t want to talk about work right now’ comes up frequently, especially if we’re disagreeing on something,” says Steve McDonagh, one of two owners (Dan Smith is his business and life partner) behind the Chicago eatery Hearty Boys—part catering service, part restaurant.

The two, who met 25 years ago as actors in New York and celebrated their civil union last year, have owned Hearty Boys together for the last 15 years.

When they need to leave work behind the couple likes to work on home improvement projects together or vacation to their weekend house.

“When you’re physically away from the business, too far that you can’t do anything about it, it’s either panic inducing or freeing,” McDonagh explains. “For us it’s freeing.”

Make sure you hire a staff you can trust to manage the restaurant when you’re away, he cautions, adding that he has had the best luck with hiring from staff referrals. The pair also runs background checks on their employees. 

Eating at your restaurant together is another great way to blend work and life.

“There’s something to say about dining in your restaurants as a patron; it gives you a different perspective,” Tracy Rathbun says.

“It’s our job to look at something we’ve done and talk about what we could do better,” Kent Rathbun adds.

At the end of the day, you have to know your partner. “We respect each other’s opinions, and I’ve never felt like there was something I couldn’t say,” Tracy Rathbun explains. “We’re separate, but we’re a team, and we rely on a each other for a lot of feedback and support.”

The Armstrongs can relate: “For all our differences, we work together in the kind of quiet tandem that [only] couples who respect and love each other can pull off.”

By Kate Parham

Chef Profiles, Industry News