A few years after I graduated from college, my dad and I decided to go into business together. I had hated my work as a paralegal and wasn’t sure what to do next. My dad had worked in the same job for nearly 30 years and had always wanted to start a business. In 2010 we opened Yola, a coffeehouse and fresh (not frozen!) locally sourced yogurt shop, in Washington, D.C.
There are many reasons not to go into business with a family member, as plenty of well-meaning people told us. But my relationship with my dad had never been emotionally fraught, so all the talk about how family conflict could derail a business didn’t seem to apply to us. We were loving toward each other, and slightly aloof. When I was growing up, my dad did a lot of the housework, regularly drove me to school, and specifically chose a career that enabled him to be around a lot. He was always very present in my life, but I never poured my heart out to him. Feelings are not his strong suit. My dad gives awkward hugs, and signs his emails “luv” instead of “love.” When, on the rare occasion, he did something that hurt my feelings, I would tell my mom rather than confront him directly. Since I’m a lot like my dad—I too feel awkward with displays of emotion—this arrangement worked for us.
Yola was doomed from the start. We had rented too large of a space for too much money and had blown the little money we had on the build-out. Once open, we were plagued by something that I have now gathered is fairly common with independent restaurants: The shop was bustling, we served hundreds of customers every day, creating a backbreaking workload, but we were bleeding cash the whole time.
Running the shop often brought out the worst in us. The decency that we had previously supposed was in our natures turned out to be just circumstantial. We were crabby all the time, especially to each other, because we were the only people we could take out our frustrations on without risk of lawsuit. If an employee quit suddenly, did his job too slowly, added yet another thing to my to-do list, or made trivial complaints, I summoned my reserves of patience and tried to deal with the issue calmly. If my dad wanted or needed something, I went straight into sulky teenager mode. Leave me alone! Metaphorical door, slammed.
Every day our scones arrived from our baker in an uncut sheet, and someone had to cut them behind the counter. One day I took on the task with no awareness of geometry or any sort of plan, and about halfway through the work, I realized my mistake. The scones were all different shapes and sizes. In my mind I could hear a customer whining in a nasally voice, “My scone is smaller than the other scones!” As I cut the remaining scones, my rage rising, I felt a presence behind me. It was my dad.
“You’re cutting those scones wrong,” he said casually.
I stopped cutting, the knife gripped tightly in my hand. “Get away,” I said through gritted teeth, “or I’m going to stab you.”