By Kristen Domingue
Photo: Heather Nash Photography for The Brick Magazine
We loved talking with Susan Todoroff of Juicy Kitchen in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her frankness and candor about what it takes to open a business from home with young children is a testament to the unavoidable truth that we can’t do it alone. Read on to learn how Todoroff found support, the difference it made, and the challenges it helped her overcome along the way.
Juicy Kitchen started as a spark of an idea in the early 1980s. Susan Todoroff wrote in her journal of a cozy place where people could gather for a delicious, healthy breakfast in a community atmosphere while reading the newspaper and running into friends.
Thirty years later that spark is a bonfire, and not exactly as Todoroff pictured. “I’ve learned you have to be open to other paths that dream may lead you to. My quiet, cozy place where people could sit on couches reading the newspaper, listening to custom-made music playlists is lovely, but it didn’t quite turn out that way. It’s a lot more chaotic.”
In every business owner’s life, there’s a moment when you realize that the price of keeping your dream alive is evolving it to keep it breathing. “I realized that I could not make a profit unless I put in as many tables as possible and had a higher table turnover. People lounging around with coffee for two hours was nice, but I was in a position where I needed to make money. My husband’s business at the time was uncertain, so I had to think of this as a profitable business, not a supplemental hobby-business,” Todoroff explains.
While Juicy Kitchen is still cozy, with delicious healthy food, it now boasts crowds of people waiting for a table on weekends. It’s not the serene place Todoroff pictured.
The path to every dream is a crooked line
Todoroff knew early on that a traditional job was not her passion. She loved being a restaurant server while attending Wayne State University. After her first daughter was born, she decided to pursue culinary school since she always loved to cook and was already catering on the side. “I hated office work, so thought I could hone my culinary skills and open a catering business. Even if the business didn’t work out, I would have great cooking skills, which would benefit my family.”
In a twist of fate, Todoroff started teaching Spin classes when her youngest daughter was a toddler. “I was so grateful the gym nearby had free childcare, as she was a non-stop handful who never took naps back then. With the free childcare, I was able to finally get an hour to myself.”
After diving into Spin classes, Todoroff had a hunch she’d make a good Spin instructor and got certified. Shortly thereafter, she was certified as a personal trainer. Eventually, she found herself talking about food with her clients. They all wanted to eat better, but found the challenge of cooking too time-consuming for their busy schedules.
“I knew the right food was a need for people who wanted to get fit — it’s such a huge part of losing weight and being healthy. I also knew I had the ability to prepare tasty, healthy food.” But the idea to turn this into an add-on service for her clients was cemented when she spoke with them during training sessions. Almost all of them jumped on the chance to have her simplify this part of their lives as soon as she offered.
“That was really hard,” she says. “It was logistically very stressful and I was so tired all the time.” When a small Chinese restaurant next to the commissary kitchen she rented closed, Todoroff’s husband, George, encouraged the move.
The joys (and challenges) of partnering with your partner
At the time, Todoroff dreamed of a little café. She imagined nothing could be harder than what she was already doing, preparing and delivering weekly food to 50 families in Ann Arbor. “We jumped on it right away,” she explains. “We took a month to renovate, doing all the work ourselves. My dad even cut down trees on his property and made planks for the wainscoting. George made the countertops, the tables, everything. It was truly a labor of love.”
“My husband has always supported every out-of-the-box thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ve had many jobs, including selling toys at in-home parties, bartending, teaching yoga and spin classes. Now I’m in rehearsals for a play and he helps me with my lines every day. He pushed me a little into opening the café, and then he jumped right in to renovate it. He fills in when the dishwasher calls in sick, fixes the hood when it breaks, and just generally helps out whenever I ask. Yes, it has caused some stress between us. And I wouldn’t necessarily recommend working with your spouse — it’s a little too much time together, playing different roles. But nearly six years after opening the café, and almost 30 years of marriage, we are still making it work.”
Five and a half years after opening the café, Juicy Kitchen thrives, but not without its own challenges. “My biggest headache is finding employees who share my vision. Right now we have a great staff, the best I’ve ever had,” says Todoroff. “But still, when it’s your small business and an employee calls in sick or needs a vacation, it’s the owner who always has to fill in the gaps. I was working about 100 hours a week for the first couple of years. That was a really hard time.”
How she survived starting a restaurant business
“There was a point when my youngest was going through some challenges in high school and I was doing my best to help her while still working crazy hours. I’m sure it had an impact on the family, but honestly, looking back, it’s a bit of a blur. I remember missing an entire spring. I love the spring flowers, blossoming trees and gardening. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I don’t even have time to look around and enjoy spring.’”
She goes on to explain that one fall, she managed to put a pumpkin on the porch, and it was still there at Christmas.
“The logistics and details of the café filled every bit of my headspace. It was a crazy time and I don’t wish it on anyone.”
Todoroff’s husband helped a lot. He did the bookkeeping and the repairs, and provided emotional support. “I couldn’t have done it without him. I am much more emotionally involved with the café, and he is able to stand back and look at it objectively.”
There were many times when Todoroff wanted to just close down. “I’ve had cooks walk out in the middle of a shift, I’ve had dishwashers just not show up for work, I’ve dealt with employees fighting with each other, drug and alcohol use, you name it.”
“But without a doubt, the thing that kept me going then (and still does now) is the customers. Almost every single day a customer would actually thank me for what I created. Or I would be really down and then out of the blue I’d receive a wonderful email about how Juicy Kitchen is the only place a particular family can eat because of a child’s allergy. Or all of sudden there would be a glowing five-star Yelp review. Now, almost six years later, a few times a week a customer will tell me how much they love Juicy Kitchen. It means so much to me to hear it.”
Todoroff describes a time when she knew she needed more help and wanted to hire a kitchen manager to partner with — someone who could invest and own half of the café and share the burden of managing it with her.
“I received a two-page letter from a guy who seemed absolutely perfect. I was on cloud nine. I felt like I was in love (though a different sort of love, of course). I thought, ‘This is it. We’re going to take this place to the next level together.’ It lasted two weeks. One day, on the busiest day of the year (graduation weekend), he just disappeared in the middle of a rush. When I realized that he was gone, my heart sunk, but I jumped on the line and we finished the day. When I finally got ahold of him to ask what happened, I received a long text message.”
She recalls its contents with candor. “How dare I tell him how to make an omelette? How dare I give him a recipe for a gazpacho,” and so forth. Needless to say, Todoroff didn’t see this coming at all. “That really shook my faith in my ability to read people, which had always been good. But, once again, those lovely customers kept telling me how grateful they were that we were there.” Todoroff concedes that it’s the customers’ appreciation that makes all the difference for her.
Last year, Todoroff was feeling so burnt out she decided to sell the café. “I had someone interested, so I decided to sell on a land-contract deal where the new owner would make monthly payments.” That lasted about nine months; things didn’t work out, and Todoroff was forced to make a decision. “I either had to close the café or take back ownership,” she says. When she couldn’t imagine walking away, the choice became clear.
Since taking back the café, Todoroff has learned to relax a bit. “I figured if it survived without me for nine months, it can survive if I take a couple of days off.”
On loving a dream enough to share it with others
The tough decision to leave your business or stay in it is gut-wrenching for any business owner. It was no different for Todoroff. “Juicy Kitchen was like my new baby. I didn’t want to leave it in the hands of employees (even though I had good employees), so I felt I had to be there every day to make sure customer service and food were up to my standards. And when I was there, I would see all kinds of things that needed improving. A customer wasn’t greeted soon enough, they had to wait too long for their carry-out order, the front door needed to be Windexed or a customer left without a ‘goodbye’ from staff.”
“I realized that I was going for perfection when ‘good enough’ was succeeding. If my standards were going to be perfection, they were never going to be met. But, if perfection sets the standard, then the ‘good enough’ isn’t too far off. Most customers are not going to notice that there is a smudge on the door, and they are not going to feel slighted if the staff is too busy to say ‘goodbye.’ But through ensuring my staff understands that I have these standards, they’re more likely to try and meet them.”
When Todoroff looks back on what she created, she is happy yet wistful. “I used to wake up in the morning and think, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” Now I feel better about what I’ve created. It’s especially nice to go in at night when no one is there and reflect. It’s like looking at a sleeping baby. You may have an incredibly challenging day with the baby, but when you look at it sleeping, you fall in love again.”
Advice to her younger self
“If I had to say anything to a younger version of me just starting out, I’d tell her this: don’t do too much too soon. Ease into growing, and don’t try and do it all yourself. If possible, find a partner who is as emotionally invested as you are.”
Todoroff’s journey is familiar for those of us on the entrepreneurial path, and provides wisdom for those of us considering one. Her story details the necessity of good support and a willingness to set high standards and change directions as needed. What’s most impressive is Todoroff’s commitment to serve at the heart of every big choice: to serve more clients with healthy food, she had to open a restaurant; when she wanted to close up shop, knowing her customers needed her kept her going. We applaud that spirit of service, and know that where passion and service intersect with talent, a purposeful life like Todoroff’s is the outcome.