When Linda Schmitt walked into her restaurant, Village Green, she knew immediately that something was wrong. Tom Goodman, her chef, business partner, longtime friend, and all-around No. 2 man, should have been in the kitchen preparing stocks. But the stoves were cold. The previous night had been a grand slam, and he'd promised to come back in early in the morning to start the prep. It wasn't like him to just be absent.
Then came the phone call.
Goodman, 48, had died of a massive heart attack at home just hours before. "I was freaked out," Schmitt recalls. "I didn't know what to do. We'd been friends for 17 years. We'd met even before he'd gone to culinary school. Losing someone who was a part of my life was hard enough—let alone we had this business we were running together."
The business, a popular 55-seat white-tablecloth restaurant in the upscale New Jersey suburb of Ridgewood, suddenly became not just hers alone to run, but her biggest problem. The restaurant's menu and its day-to-day operation had depended heavily on Goodman, who owned a stake in the restaurant as well. "It was all based on him and me," she says. Should Schmitt find a new partner? Get out of the business? Return to her previous career?
As fate would have it, one of her previous careers—nursing—told her what to do. "One thing I remembered [from those days] was that in times of grief, you shouldn't run back into something without thinking," she says.
So Schmitt, being in the fortunate financial position to do so, decided to close the restaurant temporarily, paying several months' rent in advance. She and her husband made a trip to Napa, CA, where Schmitt says she did a lot of thinking. She decided that watching the business she built get sold would be worse than trying to go it alone. And she also had a stroke of luck: A former customer put her in touch with a chef who, it turns out, was looking for a new opportunity. Schmitt took on Arthur Toufayan, who'd cooked at New York's Union Square Cafe and Aureole, and who proposed new directions for the menu. After a hiatus of six months, Village Green is now back in business, and recently got a golden review from the region's influential newspaper.
Yet Schmitt says that in light of Goodman's death she runs her restaurant differently than she used to. For one thing, things are far more formalized and regimented: "It's more of a strict business operation," she says. "Arthur and I work well together, but we're not friends." (Nor are they partners; Toufayan is paid a straight salary, and Schmitt now has 100% ownership.)
At the same time, she says that she no longer lets the many frustrations of the restaurant business get to her anymore—because it's not worth it. "I don't leave this place upset anymore," she says. "I try to be more balanced. And I make sure I take care of myself."
Schmitt is also quick to point out that what happened to her business, uncommon though it is, could happen to any business where two partners are needed to run things—and she says it's wise to be prepared. "The interesting part of all of this, from a business point of view, is you should give some thought to how you'd react if something catastrophic happens." She adds: "It sounds trite, but have fun every day. And remember to say goodbye to everyone."