My Son, The Chef

Three local culinary up-and-comers have close partners in their first restaurants - their parents

April 25, 2007|By Scott Carlson | Scott Carlson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

As Ted Stelzenmuller was getting ready to open his new restaurant in Canton last year, he met with a lawyer to go over paperwork. The lawyer offered a story about his own restaurant experience.

"The first thing he said was, `I grew up in restaurants. My family started a business together, and now they don't speak,' " Stelzenmuller said.

The lawyer's story was a cautionary tale. Stelzenmuller's mother, Michele Jackson, was sitting next to him in the lawyer's office, looking at the prospect of becoming co-owner of Jack's Bistro in Canton and partly responsible for a hefty loan to get her son's restaurant up and running.

Despite the warning, the pair took the plunge into partnership - and Stelzenmuller joined a group of well-known young chefs in Baltimore who recently have taken on their first restaurants with the help of their parents.

Stelzenmuller and Jackson opened Jack's Bistro in January. Chef Jason Ambrose and his mother, Jane Ambrose, are co-owners of Salt, the popular tavern near Patterson Park. And Nicholas Batey bought the established Federal Hill restaurant Bicycle last year with support from his parents, Nathaniel and Shirley Batey.

In each case, the parents have not only put up money (although none would say how much), but they also work at the restaurants, balancing the books or playing host at the door.

Most diners have eaten in a family restaurant at one time or another, and some people may dream of opening a place with a menu full of family recipes.

But a restaurant tests even close-knit families. As businesses, restaurants are pressure cookers, and they are prone to failure - an Ohio State University study found that about 60 percent close within three years. Moreover, the study found that restaurants generally go out of business not for financial reasons, but because of personal problems among the owners - disagreement, divorce or fatigue.

"There is so much sweat equity that goes into a restaurant, and that can exacerbate tensions" between family members, said Quentin Fleming, an adjunct professor of business at the University of Southern California and the author of Keep the Family Baggage Out of the Family Business.

People tend to bring their family roles into their businesses, which leads to trouble, Fleming said. He advises parents and their adult children to view each other strictly as business partners.

That "just business" attitude is probably most pronounced at Salt. When Jane Ambrose talks about why she opened a restaurant with her son, she sounds less like a doting mother and more like a financial-planning consultant, her career for 25 years before becoming a restaurateur.

"Jason and I had mutual business interests," she said. She wanted to get into real estate. Jason, a self-described "control freak" who was tired of working for other managers and chefs in Baltimore, decided he was either going to open his own restaurant or get out of the food business altogether.

In 2004, Jane Ambrose purchased a rowhouse in up-and-coming Butchers Hill and converted the top floor into apartments and the bottom floor into Salt. Mother and son are each 50 percent owners of the restaurant.

The rowhouse investment guards against the risk in the restaurant. Jane Ambrose could sell the rowhouse and still walk away with money, even if Salt flopped.

But it hasn't. Jane Ambrose has gotten a crash course in the restaurant business while working the door at Salt, having to deal with crowds and turn away disappointed diners who couldn't get seated.

Mother and son had a heated disagreement about the restaurant's design early on, but they say their skills and interests have mainly complemented one another.

Jason calls his mother a "financial whiz," a side of the business to which he is not particularly suited.

And she has left the kitchen - which has gotten rave reviews for unusual items, like Asian barbecue duck crepes - to her son. "My mother is a vegetarian who lives off of bowls of ice cream and coffee," he said. "Food is not something she ever wanted to have a role in."

Sure he could do it

Nathaniel and Shirley Batey viewed helping their son Nicholas open a restaurant as a way to be supportive, as well as a financial investment. They saved money for years to do it, but they expected to wait until Nicholas was at least 30.

The chef came to them in 2005 when he was only 26, confident that he could run his own kitchen. He had been working in several restaurants, most recently as sous-chef for Michael Jordan's The Steak House N.Y.C. in Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal.

"We knew it was a risk, but the idea of the three of us doing this together was never in question," said Nathaniel Batey, who is an IT specialist for the Social Security Administration.

When they were first looking into the food business, the Bateys had considered opening a brand-new restaurant. But the cost of such a venture could have run as high as $1.5 million - well out of their price range.

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