For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health … at home and at work?
Charlotte restaurants were among some of the hardest hit businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. As they begin to re-open, we wanted to take a look at how couples who are not only life partners, but also partners in business, got their start. They discussed whose idea it was to start a business, what lessons they have learned and how they weather the storms of restaurant ownership together.
While each journey is unique, the common thread is clear — respect, humility, compromise and a giant dose of love.
Jamie Brown and Jeff Tonidandel
Crepe Cellar Kitchen & Pub, 3116 N. Davidson St.
Growlers Pourhouse, 3120 N. Davidson St.
Haberdish, 3106 N. Davidson St.
Reigning Doughnuts, 3120 N Davidson St., Suite 100
Supperland (opening in 2020), 1212 The Plaza
Jamie Brown and Jeff Tonidandel knew one another while students at Davidson College, but it would take repeated outings with mutual friends where they were “stuck” together for them to finally become a couple. “As time went on, it was literally like the universe was saying … OK, let’s try this again…and again, and again. Eventually we got the clue and began a relationship.”
Fast forward 20 years, and Brown and Tonidandel are some of Charlotte’s most well-known restaurateurs, with five restaurants in the Queen City, plus a coronavirus popup effort called Bring the Queen that’s being run out of the Crepe Cellar space.
Their restaurant dream began while the pair was traveling through a quaint town in the south of Spain called Tarifa. After their 2006 wedding, Brown and Tonidandel had somewhat brazenly quit their corporate jobs to travel the world. “We started filling a notebook with ideas for this little restaurant we had. We’d serve crepes. It would have a slower pace, be a tiny spot and people would want to linger there. It would be really dark, too — candlelit,” Brown shared. “It all seemed so lovely, but I never expected it to actually happen.”
The end of the couple’s travel adventures coincided with the recession, making the job hunt a difficult one. Brown recalled the couple meeting for pizza one night after her retail job and Tonidandel’s job as a tennis coach: “I remember he was wearing his blue plaid newspaper boy hat and a sweater he always wore. He reached across the table and took hold of my hand. Then he said, ‘I’ve decided I know what I’m going to do with my life.’ It was quite a pause as I grappled with whatever was about to come out of his mouth. ‘I want to open a restaurant,’ he said.” Brown let go of his hand and took a sip of beer.
Tonidandel’s passion for this idea would eventually pull Brown in. She went out and got a steady corporate job with insurance to support the couple, noting, “I guess that’s just what you do when you’re on the same team.”
Over the course of opening five restaurants, the couple has had to learn how to divide and conquer. Brown tends to hold down the fort both at home and at the restaurants, while Tonidandel is on the hunt for new ideas.
Tonidandel said it works because, “We have our own responsibilities, and while we communicate a lot, we kind of let the other one handle his or her tasks without criticism.” Brown added, “What helps a lot is noticing when the other person makes an effort to help, even in small ways. He might get out of the car quickly to pump the gas or empty the dishes when he gets downstairs. Then I make sure to help him get the stain out of his shirt or grab him a glass of water while I’m getting one for myself. Noticing those small gestures can help positively escalate the relationship, and then you never feel like you’re being taken advantage of, or like you’re doing all the work.”
Leaning into what the other person does well, having faith in one another and showing humility are the keys to showing that both parties feel valued and loved, according to the couple. “When you’re in a business like ours that you can be really passionate about — because we are doing this together, we can both be totally engrossed in it. We don’t have to put it away, we love working on our business, together,” Tonidandel said.
Miracle Clark-Yoder and James Yoder
Miracle Clark-Yoder and James Yoder married in 2003, two years after meeting on a camping trip. From the start, they were hands on when it came to creating an experience, making their own food, decor, floral arrangements and drinks for their Chapel Hill farm wedding. Shortly thereafter, the couple moved to Italy, where they spent three years with their growing family. Facing expiring work visas and a challenging post-recession job market, they returned to Charlotte with the idea of opening a coffee shop and restaurant.
The Yoders found a 400-square-foot space that would allow them to lease month-to-month in a business incubator space called Area 15. It was close to home and the commitment flexible, making it ideal for bringing Not Just Coffee to life. “Not knowing what we were fully getting into we just said ‘yes’ and went for it,” Clark-Yoder said. The couple and their three children lived simply and were able to use the money from other jobs to fund this passion project.
In 2011, Not Just Coffee was invited to be a part of the 7th Street Public Market, which propelled the business to a new level. “We had no idea it would turn into six locations and full-time employment for both of us, as well as about 50 other employees over the last nine years,” Clark-Yoder said.
According to the Yoders, the best and worst parts of working with your spouse are one in the same — how much you get to see each other. “Just depends on the day,”Clark-Yoder said.
Despite the uncertainty of the restaurant business amid COVID-19, the Yoders are grateful to the Charlotte community. “I for one feel lucky and humbled by having had the experience of being a small business owner in a city like Charlotte with such an amazing community,” Clark-Yoder shared.