How to Survive Running a Restaurant When Your Life Partner Is Your Business Partner
We spoke to Sarah Obraitis and Hugue Dufour—owners of M. Wells Steakhouse and M. Wells Dinette—whose relationship has revolved around food since day one.
"We met in Florida, where most creeps go to meet."
From day one, the partnership between Sarah Obraitis and Hugue Dufour—owners of M. Wells Steakhouse and M. Wells Dinette—revolved around food.
"At the time, I was working with Heritage Foods USA, a purveyor of rare beef, poultry, and pig," Sarah recounts. "It was a festival in Winter Park, near Orlando, and they kicked it off with a film, food, and wine weekend and they invited lots of cool people like Hugue and Martin Picard to cook. We were like their farmers."
With not much to do in Winter Park other than eat and drink and attend a film festival, Hugue and Sarah quickly hit it off and spent what little down-time they did have together. Inevitably, Hugue would return to Montreal and continue working at Au Pied de Cochon and its sugar shack satellite, Cabane à Sucre PDC, while Sarah would return to her native New York to sell every cut of meat imaginable with Heritage Foods.
But the physical separation would soon became unbearable—for Hugue, at least. "Our first restaurant was basically an excuse to be together," he says. "I was in Montreal, she was down here in New York."
Eventually, under Sarah's spell, Hugue packed his bags and headed south, far from the safe confines of Montreal's tight-knit chef community to start a life with Sarah in Long Island City, Queens. Fast-forward almost a decade, and the two are now married, and they share a young daughter, two restaurants, a Michelin star, and a whole lot of wisdom gained from working untold hours together.
Running a restaurant is stressful enough on its own, and throwing a significant other into that volatile mix may seem completely insane to an outsider. But, as is often the case for star-cross'd lovers, it was never really a matter of choice for Hugue and Sarah.
"I don't even know if there was ever an option [to not own a restaurant together]," Sarah says.
Hugue agrees: "I cannot imagine doing what I'm doing right now with someone who is not in the same industry or who has a nine-to-five job."
That's not to say that they didn't try to cut down on the amount of stress they had become accustomed to after years in the food industry. "At first, we were looking at having a general store, or like a high-quality kitsch shop with pelts and belts and furs," Sarah recalls. "We were going to have some sandwiches and some butchery. Just something more low-stress than what we were used to."
But that's not what happened. Fate nudged Hugue and Sarah in another direction and found them renting and renovating a perpetually empty 50s-style diner directly across the street from their apartment. The called it M. Wells, and Hugue dished out heavy-duty, Quebec-inspired riffs on diner classics while Sarah managed the front-of-house. "It all came together very naturally," she recalls.
That is, until the landlord decided to raise the rent tenfold, leading the diner to shut its doors after just one short but successful year in operation, much to the shock and sadness of locals. But they took the egregious rent hike in stride, "The landlord was a bit of a weirdo," according to Sarah. "He wasn't meant for our future."
Instead, a dilapidated garage was meant for their future. Hugue and his family would help convert the former car repair shop into a sprawling, old-school, 70-seat steakhouse, complete with an open kitchen and trout trough made out of concrete poured by Hugue himself.
For couples who work in the restaurant industry, it's pretty easy to see through the thin consumerist veil that surrounds Valentine's Day. After all, it is their job to set the mood for bright-eyed couples looking for some candle-lit romance.
"We care about Valentine's Day only because it's a little busier than usual in February," says Hugue. "That's kind of why Valentine's Day was created, I think, to give a boost to the restaurant business during what was once a very dead time of the year. We're happy it exists. But personally I don't really care about it."
Sarah echoes this sentiment, albeit in slightly less shrewd terms. "We already have such an intimate profession. You're watching people share very personal experiences over your food and they have very personal reactions. They spend a lot of time in your room and you don't even know them, typically. With Valentine's Day—which is basically Valentine's Week now—it basically exacerbates all of these feelings of hosting a high-pressured event."
"Our restaurant is very much about family-style dining and big feasting and bigger crowds," Sarah says. "It's only our second or third Valentine's Day. But I'm always hoping that we'll get big crowds of ladies or single guys at the bar.
"It's so hard for us to think about our feelings on Valentine's Day when we've literally gone years when we've forgotten far more personal things like anniversaries or birthdays. And we don't even feel bad. Instead, we marvel at how ridiculous it is to forget to celebrate something like that."
"I'm the one who systemically forgets all birthdays and stuff like that," Hugue later clarifies. "Sarah is always a little further ahead of me—sometimes a bit too far ahead. If she did forget an anniversary or something, it wouldn't be the end of the world."
But that doesn't mean that Hugue and Sarah's arrangement is void of any romance. For their date nights, they often head to the Grand Central Oyster Bar, which Sarah describes as "dope in every which-way," and other restaurants closer to home in Long Island City.
As with any couple, however, tensions can and do come to a head. "We still fight, but not in the restaurant," Hugue laughs. "It used to happen more often when we had the diner. Sarah was working the door and front-of-house, and I was doing all of the cooking. It was early in our relationship and so there was more tension back then. I would go wild sometimes, but now we've grown up."
When it comes to offering advice to younger couples who plan on committing themselves to a similar arrangement, Hugue does not mince words. "I would tell them not to, or to think about something else," he says half-jokingly. "I guess my advice would be, 'Just hang in there.' Working together as both bosses and co-owners just makes sense. You can manage your time and a lot of things. I think that being a couple makes it slightly easier than working for someone else."
Sarah is characteristically more measured in her advice. "We both enjoy what we do immensely and we end up talking about it quite a lot," she says. "When you share so many of the same highs and so many of the same lows, you just want to pack your lives with a lot distractions, like heading out and doing something that would probably benefit your project or your profession, but has nothing to do with neither. Just make sure that you do things together that have nothing to do with work so you can not focus on the highs and lows of your livelihood."
Though much has changed since that fateful weekend in Florida, and the highs and lows continue, one thing remains constant—the food. In fact, it's a matter of survival. "We've never really emphasized how much food is part of our lives because it just is," Sarah concludes. "And we all have to keep eating to survive, right?"