Over the past few years, it’s safe to say that the topic of Jenny’s Fantasy Coffee Shop has come up in conversation with my friends and neighbors at least once a day every day. Even as I type this, I can feel a giant collective eye-roll from my small town on the Hudson River where I’ve lived for a decade. Oh no, is Jenny talking about her coffee shop again?
Yes, in fact I am. (Deal with it!!) I know my professional drive might seem to point in the direction of food and book-writing, but sometimes I’ll walk by an old building in town with a “For Rent” side in the window and the vision overtakes me: A Hudson-River-themed Coffee Shop Collective. My friend Todd, the lawyer, would handle all the legal issues; Brian, the architect, would design the space; my friend Liz, the art consultant, would find all the historic Hudson maps for the walls; My media friends would curate readings and book events there every Thursday night; Andy would fetishize over the coffee and the name; my daughters could work the registers after school and weekends; and I would oversee everything, all while writing my next few books from the corner table beneath the exposed brick wall. It would be like one big yuppified Richard Scarry story.
I blame Molly Wizenberg for all this dreaming. Molly, if you don’t already know, writes the blog Orangette — one of the original food blogs, and also one of the best — and wrote the book A Homemade Life about the death of her father, a bon vivant who passed along, among other things, his great enthusiasm for food. Molly’s new book, Delancey, out this month and already a New York Times bestseller, tells the story of how she and her husband, Brandon, a musician studying for his Ph.D. and enthusiast of the highest order, decided to open a pizza place in what was then their not-yet-up-and-coming neighborhood in Seattle. This plan was hatched by Brandon, and it came on the heels of several other hatched-and-abandoned plans, including but not limited to: building a boat, designing violins, opening a Bi-Rite-style ice cream store in Seattle. Recognizing a pattern and not really believing the pizza vision would ever come to pass, Molly went along with the plan, and before long they opened Delancey. It was successful enough that a few years later they opened a place next door, Essex, to handle the queue and the spillover.
If I am to believe instagram (and my tidy summary) Molly’s life in the restaurant business seems like something out of a storybook. Oh look, there she is putting finishing touches on her next book at the marble two-top; there she is writing tonight’s homey-but-inspired menu on the chalkboard; there she is stopping by Delancey with her 2-year-old, June, to say hi to Brandon and her restaurant family. I imagine every night for her is like a giant dinner party. Trade the pizza for coffee, and Jenny for Molly, and it’s easy to see myself slipping into this kind of life.
I should know by now never to believe anything I see on instagram.
Breaking news! It’s really hard to open a restaurant (not to mention run it). Especially when you have no experience, you’re newly married, and you were never really sure how you got roped into it in the first place. “I wanted to be game,” Molly writes. “I wanted to surprise myself and Brandon. I’d read these dreamy magazine profiles of husband-wife teams in Brooklyn and San Francisco, and Paris, working together to build their artfully conceived boutique business, pickling vegetables or making cupcakes or running a tiny neighborhood restaurant that sat on the top of world domination…but I was a miserable wreck.” Hey, that sounds familiar.
I won’t give away the ending, but I will say this: Molly and Brandon earned their success the old fashioned way: they struggled for it. And what makes the story so readable — even if you are not the type to romanticize running your own small coffee shop furnished with mix-match flea market finds (cute, right?) — is that it doesn’t just chronicle the nuts and bolts of starting a restaurant. It’s as much about navigating a new marriage, figuring out what kind of life you want to make together and what roles you play in that life together. “I don’t want you to own a restaurant,” she blurted out one night, after it dawned on risk-averse Molly that this was really happening. Her interest in food, she writes, had always been “about sharing it — about the kitchen table, about home cooking, not restaurants. I like the intimacy, the quiet, the scale of home cooking.”
But passion is passion, and she was smart enough to recognize that it can be downright dangerous to stop someone in pursuit of a dream. For those of you out there looking for some inspiration to start making things happen (instead of talking about making things happen like yours truly) you will find a hero in Brandon, whether we’re talking pizza, coffee, or anything else.
Photo credits: New York Times (restaurant facade); Seattle Weekly (Molly & Brandon); Serious Eats (Pizza); and Molly Wizenberg (all others).