When my husband and I began trying to have a baby, I searched endlessly for stories of women finding the ability to balance owning a restaurant, or being at the helm of its kitchen, while caring for a new baby. These stories are few and far between, and I was determined to write one of them. Then, as the story goes, on March 15th, 2020, at 3 months pregnant, the government mandated the shutdown of all dining operations because of the pandemic.
I am a planner - I like to be prepared and organized. Among other things, owning a restaurant taught me how to adapt when things did not go according to my plan. From dreaming up the concept of Vanillamore, through our last day open, I learned how to adjust and reposition in order to achieve success. The lessons I learned have been invaluable in my early days of motherhood.
Have a plan and know how to adapt when things inevitably go in an unexpected direction
My plan was to strengthen my staff and build a support system around the management team so that I would be able to take some time off after having the baby. Laying off almost all of my employees in March was not part of the plan. The following 6 months were filled with constant re-evaluation about the future of Vanillamore.
During this time, I was already learning how to adapt as a new mom. At my 32-week appointment, I was informed that my OB was moving out of state, and a new doctor would be taking her place. At this point, so late in my pregnancy, I had no alternative options. I told myself that the actual delivery part of my journey was only a moment in time. I took each day as it came, focused on mine and my baby’s health, knew we were in good hands, and let go of my fears. I continued to focus on each moment when I was sent to the hospital at 36 weeks for concerns about developing preeclampsia. Again, at 39 weeks, my delivery ended up as an unplanned c-section.
While many stops along the journey were not part of my original plan, they are now part of my story.
Mise en place
The golden rule of the kitchen is mise en place - everything in its place. As a cook, if your prep is not done correctly or fully, service will be a nightmare. This philosophy can be applied to many things in life.
At home with a newborn, this concept has been very helpful. Every morning, I clean the bottles and pump parts from overnight, and I fill a few bottles to store in the fridge for the first part of the day (doing this helps me avoid spilling milk while trying to pour one-handed - it is okay to cry if you spill breastmilk!). I also set myself up for the day, making oatmeal and coffee, which I enjoy with one hand while snuggling with the baby on the couch.
Don’t put off until later what you can do now
My to-do list always felt endless at Vanillamore. My daily tasks included menu writing, event planning, developing marketing strategies, managing inventory and ordering, updating financial reports, training staff, and working a variety of kitchen shifts. I lived by the philosophy of don’t put off until later what you can do now. I always did my best to work efficiently and prioritize what was most important. Often, what I would plan to get done was interrupted by a busier than expected lunch, a vendor that may drop-in, or an employee that may drop out. If I accomplished what I could when I had time, I felt better about having to stop.
Now, when Milo naps during the day, he typically falls asleep on me. There are definitely times that I hold him the whole time (because who can resist newborn snuggles?), but when I put him down in his crib, I try to get done as many things as I can. Sometimes, this means laundry, washing dishes, making dinner, filling cookbook orders, writing a blog or an OpEd… but sometimes it means taking a nap, showering, or laying on the couch scrolling through social media. Productivity is relative! I am also spending time visualizing what my career will look like beginning next spring when COVID is hopefully behind us and Milo spends some of his time in daycare.
The Vanillamore brand was successful because of our focus on consistency in both food and service. Our guests knew that they could count on this each time they dined at the restaurant. A bad experience at a restaurant can damage its reputation. Things will always stray, but consistency gives you a bit of grace when something does go wrong.
Consistency keeps me sane in motherhood as well. A steady routine gives me a sense of control that I need as a type-A personality. Having a schedule for the baby right now is virtually impossible; he operates on his own timetable as he figures the world out, so I focus on keeping things as consistent as I can. Daily, I do the morning routine that I have already described, and throughout the day, as Milo wakes up from his naps, we do things in the same sequence - diaper change, bottle, and a little playtime before the next nap. We also give Milo a bath every other night after dinner. We keep him swaddled at night only, and once the sun goes down, we keep the house a bit darker so that he can learn the difference between day and night sleep. A little victory that we have been reveling in – we’ve had over a week of consistent 5-6 hours of sleep at night!
Patience is a virtue (that I don’t always possess…)
Owning a restaurant requires a lot of patience - everything from interacting with my team and the customers to working with vendors and my family. Every day at the restaurant, there were problems to solve, and working to find each solution often required me to find my inner serenity. I was most often put to the test when we were busiest. It is easy to be overwhelmed by seemingly endless orders and the constant sound of the ticket printer. During these times, I would have to stay focused, calm, and patient with my team in order to ensure that all of our guests were met with exceptional service and an outstanding meal.
As soon as Milo was born, I knew he could sense my inner emotions. If I were panicked, he wouldn’t calm down. If I was stressed about breastfeeding, he wouldn’t latch. Babies just KNOW. He can still sense my stress - sometimes this means that he stays calm and snuggly, as if he knows I need time to do something, and other times, it means that I have to calm down so that he can feel calm.
Babies require patience, and many things are trial and error – which bottle will he like best, is he eating enough, has he had enough dirty diapers, does he like being swaddled – the list is endless, and being patient helps me roll with the punches.
Surround yourself with people who lift you up
They say it takes a village to raise a child. The same is true with owning a business. It is incredibly hard to do either of these things without a strong support system. Without family, friends, and my team, Vanillamore would not have been successful. And now, our family and friends have been integral in guiding my husband and I through our new normal with our precious baby boy!
When one door closes, another opens
Sadly, we have had to make the decision to close the door of Vanillamore (the restaurant). This decision is a result of the pandemic and the uncertainty of the months to come, as well as the challenge of navigating new motherhood while continuing to grow the business. The brand of Vanillamore, however, will live on through my recently released cookbook, Sweet. Savory. Social. and our e-commerce items. Soon, I will open the next door. In the spring, I plan to launch a private event version of Vanillamore, providing chef-curated tasting menus and dinner parties.
All of these invaluable lessons have given me confidence over the past several weeks. But most importantly, in opening and operating a restaurant, as well as in motherhood… what you don’t know, you’ll figure out as you go.