When restaurateur Jennifer Handler decided she wanted to open a restaurant, she excitedly took her father to visit the storefront on New York's Upper East Side she'd just leased. His exact words were: "You're kidding, right?"
"It was awful," Handler recalls. "The space had been a dry cleaner's. I had very little capital, and I really did it on a shoestring. My friends and I painted the place. We paid the contractors with IOUs." The result was Caffe Grazie, which opened its doors in 1993. Despite a lingering recession and a rough first couple of months, Grazie held its own.
Then something even less likely happened. A few years later Jennifer's sister Karen, a corporate attorney, decided to abandon her law career. "I wasn't using my interpersonal skills as much as I'd wanted to," she explains. "Then this opportunity came up."
"This opportunity" was the plum location of another restaurant a few blocks away that had just closed. The Handlers would reopen it as Clove. Karen took the front of the house, Jennifer took the back, and the restaurant has since won many accolades, including "sophisticated" and "impressive" from the Zagat guide.
The story of the Handler sisters' tiny restaurant empire is one not just of risk taking, but also defying the odds. Not only are they now running two restaurants in one of the most expensive and competitive neighborhoods in America, and not only are they partners in the type of business often rife with family feuds, they're also women owners in a business where, they say, there are a lot more male faces than female ones.
"When I opened, being a woman in this business was a disadvantage," Jennifer says. "It's a male-dominated industry in every aspect. I don't think being a women is ever a true positive."
Maybe not. But the Handlers used ingenuity to make up for the lack. For instance, as girls, the sisters often found themselves in the kitchen experimenting along with their mother (she ran the Epicurean Gallery, an early New York cooking school). So when it came to opening her restaurant, rather than turning to a big-gun chef, Jennifer did the cooking herself, seeking to create a homey, accessible menu locals could order from often. Today, locals Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg do.
The Handlers' sisterly bonds forged in their mother's kitchen helped in other ways, too—notably, the ability to share the demands of ownership. "People warned us about feuding," Jennifer says.
"Many families find it difficult to mix the personal and the professional," Karen adds. "But it works for us because we're flexible and we have open lines of communication."
Raising children would seem only to make a restaurateur's job harder. But the Handlers—who both have boys—have turned it into operations wisdom.
Early on, Jennifer found it was not only possible, but rewarding, to do both jobs. "I've opened up near to where I live," she says. "So if I want to leave at 3 p.m. to pick up my child, I can spend 3-5 p.m. with him because there's not a lot going on at the restaurant. I balance motherhood and career because they're close together."
Karen adds that running a household has given her many of the skills needed to run the front of the house in a restaurant. "As a woman you tend to be very organized," she says. "You have a family and you learn how to take care of things. And that's one benefit to being a woman in restaurants—you're ready to do anything."
Another benefit is that because, she asserts, women-owned small businesses are still something of a rarity, any woman looking to follow the Handlers' lead should check out government loans. "Women who want to go into the business have to explore all avenues," she says. "The Small Business Administration is a good source. Women are still considered minorities."