(I wrote this for our business’ blog over at http://ubufoods.com, but I thought I’d share it in this space as well, why not?)
Once upon a time, we owned a café in Green Bay, Wisconsin called Kavarna Coffeehouse and I think Linda’s story was a little more widely known. But food manufacturing is less public-facing and many of you live far outside our little community. So I thought I’d take #InternationalWomensDay as a reason to tell the story. It’s one of my favorites and I know she doesn’t like talking about herself.
When she was in her 20s, Linda opened her own coffeehouse and she did it without any financial support from her family. At that point, she had years of experience working in restaurants and catering. She also felt strongly that Green Bay needed a proper, urban coffeehouse and that it should serve vegetarian food*. She did the research, haunted restaurant auctions, looked for space to lease, and put together a sound business plan. This was nearly a decade before the Great Recession of 2008, it was possible for a young entrepreneur with a good idea to get a commercial loan. Which is not to say that it was easy. She heard the word ‘no’ often that year. The sage business advisors at Score told her that no one could make money opening a vegetarian coffeehouse. Her own father told her that she should get an office job instead. And no fewer than a dozen bankers read to the the last page of her business plan and found a polite way to say “No.” Finally, the 13th banker said “Yes.” And Linda got to work.
At that time, Green Bay’s Broadway District was in bad shape. What had once been the commercial center of Fort Howard, Wisconsin** was at its lowest point. Those of us who grew up in the area were warned by well intentioned adults to be wary of Broadway. And indeed, there were some disreputable types around mostly doing more harm to themselves than to others. Because of a post-Prohibition era law, alcohol could not be sold in Green Bay any further West than Broadway. So predictably the street came to be lined with bars and spiraled downhill. Some of the bars were fairly colorful, like Rev’s Brass Rail—whose owner claimed to have been a Mississippi River boat captain. He’d tell you the story of how he’d won the original recipe for Coney Island red hots in a poker match and then try to sell you one. Others were depressing, places where supposedly pensioners signed their social security checks over to the bartender and spent the month hanging from the barstool. But, mostly the businesses on the street were vacant and in disrepair. In the mid-90s several local business owners saw the potential for rebuilding the district and returning it to its former place in the community. They began On Broadway, Inc. To Linda, this felt like the best spot for an urban coffeehouse. She located a suitable former tavern and worked with a local developer to renovate it to her plan. Kavarna Coffeehouse opened in 1999 and it was an immediate success.
I was visiting my folks over Christmas the first time I set foot inside Kavarna about six weeks after it opened. At the time, I was living in Brooklyn and it was almost impossible for me to believe that something that hip could exist in my hometown. Growing up in the area, we hung out at the parking lot at Dairy Queen, Perkins, truck stops, or at one of the four high top tables the local coffee place deigned to allow teenagers to use. So I was impressed and it didn’t take me long to be fascinated by the woman who had made it happen. “Cool clock,” I said, pointing at what looked like a vintage clock hanging on the wall above the espresso machine. “Where did you get it?” “Target,” was Linda’s curt response. What I’d learn later is that Christmas is Kavarna’s busiest time; doubtless she had dozens of things on her mind. From that moment, it took me three years to ask her out, but that’s a different story. The important thing is that night I figured out that there are people who enrich their communities with their energy and creativity and then there are people who move to Brooklyn looking for something. Not that there’s anything wrong with that 😉.
Long story, we fell in love and I moved back to Green Bay. I continued to do freelance work for a period, but we made Kavarna a family business when we had our first child in 2006. Suddenly I found myself on the inside and the view from there was different. While the surface was calm, on the inside there was endless juggling, maneuvering, adjusting, struggling, coping, etc. It wouldn’t be long before I began comparing us to the bizarre, scraggly looking fish that you find at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the ones that are adapted to withstand incredible amounts of pressure. And I loved it. In 2010, we expanded the original shop into a new, much larger space. Subsequently, we had all kinds of adventures and misadventures in the restaurant business. Local residents will hopefully remember Parisi’s Delicatessen, Hot Broth & Coffee, Liberty Café, the LEAP Room, the Locktender’s House, and all the care we put into them. By the end of the decade, we were a little burned out and ready to move on. We sold in 2019. Kavarna is still there and, by all accounts, doing well.
Here’s the larger point, being a man with a woman as a business partner means that you can see how the world treats you differently. Various forms of discrimination and gender role stereotyping became glaringly obvious to us. A banker would use a pet name for Linda—“Linders”—while calling me Mr. Galt. We switched banks. People would direct financial questions to me rather than to her, even though she’s the numbers person. Our (now former) accountant put things in my name without asking us what we’d prefer. Despite all of the #GirlBoss hashtaggery and social media fuss, the world of small business is still patriarchal. And that’s why things like #InternationalWomensDay are important. They serve as reminders that we still have not reached anything like equity in this society. They give us a reason to tell stories like this one about a woman in her late 20s in 1999 with a dream. If you think things aren’t equitable now…
And, assuming you’ve read this far (if you have, thanks!), I wanted to point out that we are a company doing something new and it’s mostly been women who seem to get it right away. It was a woman who opened the door to getting Hiker’s Hummus in the National Parks, a woman process engineer at the nation’s largest hummus manufacturer who told us THEY have something to learn from us, a woman in Iowa who is hooking us up with national distribution, and countless other women who have immediately seen the role that uBu can play in their businesses or lives. Some men also, sure, but mostly women. I don’t know why that is, but the pattern is undeniable.
* In the late 1990s, vegetarian = hippie = unserious, something that Linda was eager to disprove.
** Fort Howard was to Green Bay what Brooklyn was to New York City. Each of these was separated by its larger neighbor by a river and was annexed in the same year, 1895.