Mercedes Schaum’s Story

July already! Can you believe half of 2011 is already over? (I can’t!)

It’s that time again and let me assure you, you are in for a treat! But before I reveal who is on deck, a little background…

My husband received a subscription to Flavor Magazine for his birthday. He pointed out how he wanted to get this magazine, because it focused on the restaurants and farms that are local to the DC/VA/MD area. I was instantly curious because my husband isn’t a big reader and so I knew this had to have made an impression. So I was anxious to have him come home and check out his first issue (It’s a pet peeve of mine when someone starts flipping thru my magazine before I get a chance to. Something about the fresh printing that makes me happy) so I could follow behind him and dive in. I quickly understood what caught his eye. GREAT stories (with some wonderful photography) of local places to eat and visit. I think I spent 3 hours lounging out side, soaking up every single article. Case in point…. Chef Jason Alley of Richmond, Virginias Comfort Restaurant. (See article here). Reading the article, I was instantly taken with the passion of the men whose vision for Main Street Richmond wasn’t just a fantasy. It’s the kind of revitalization that I felt can strengthen and empower us all, especially during a time of seeming scarity. The article sucked me in and I knew…. I had to talk to his wife.

As Jason kindly passed me his wifes information, I just knew I was about to meet someone whose passion matches her significant others. I was absolutely correct. Enter Mercedes Schaum. A Set Designer and Scenic Artist by trade she has been working in the theatre world for 15 years. She recently added high school teacher to her resume, sharing her knowledge of tech theatre and life with teenagers. She has managed to raise two small children with her husband (and Chef) Jason, while working as a freelance artist and designing and opening two restaurants with him. Together, they are working on their third collaboration, with “pasture” which is slated to open in Richmond, Va in the fall of 2011. Lets hear it for Mercedes!

Q. What were your first impressions when you first realized that by being with your restaurant man/woman, that you have become a part of the restaurant world?

A. Even though my husband and I had been together for a while before we were married and well before we had children, I didn’t feel as though I was part of the restaurant world until we opened our first restaurant. I did the design and the painting, worked with contractors and friends to get the place up and running, all the while working and pregnant.  At first I was excited to be part of something different than my own professional world, something more people would have access too but having had no other experience in the restaurant business other than being the girlfriend of and now the wife of a chef, I felt a bit out of place. At first I had no connection to the servers and the cooks because I had never worked in a restaurant.  I couldn’t share great stories or relate to theirs. My life was the theatre and all its drama. Parties and get togethers were awkward because I was an outsider. I also wasn’t a big drinker so that put me at a disadvantage.  I wasn’t until a year or so into owning the restaurant that I felt comfortable admitting that I was part of the restaurant workers community.  Now it’s such a big part of my life.

Q. When did you know that you had what it took, within the parameters of his/her career, to find success in your relationship?

A. I realized pretty quickly because although our careers are very different in so many ways, the hours, the odd schedules, the intensity and the drama of day to day life was the same. We met while I was finishing my undergraduate degree and was planning on going to graduate school for Set design in the theatre and my husband was Exec. Chef of a small restaurant/bar in Harrisonburg, Va.  We had our own lives and commitments and found odd times to be together. Our relationship developed in that world so that we didn’t know anything different.  I adapted my sleep schedule, my off times to coordinate with his. I was able to remain independent but our lives overlapped easily. It became harder when we had kids but by that time our lives were so well coordinated that we just adapted.  The hours and the lifestyle that surrounds the restaurant business has become more challenging as our kids have entered school and have a more traditional schedule and we are working hard to maintain our relationship.  We struggle but we try to see the benefits to our lifestyle and our chosen careers and keep moving forward. I think the only way to keep a relationship happy and healthy is to be flexible and as the partner of a restaurant worker to have your own thing…career, interest, friends, etc that are not part of the restaurant world.

Q. What is the BEST part of being married to someone in the restaurant industry?

A. There are as many positives as there are negatives. Of course for me, being married to a chef means I eat very well, at home and out and about. I have tried so many things that wouldn’t have crossed my path if we weren’t together. In fact, my entire family benefits from his talents at family events, simple vacations and especially major events like weddings and reunions. It’s nice to have something concrete to offer to the family and to other communities we are part of. I have traveled to so many cities, met great people, eaten so well and experienced so many things that are 100% tied to my husband’s career.

The other major advantage is the schedule he keeps. At first it tied in directly to my schedule so that we could stay up late and sleep in together, take our weekends during the week and take advantage of going places that were calm and quiet during the week because the rest of the world was at work. Now that he is a restaurant owner, we are able to take time off when we want to and for as long as we need to because we have a great staff in place. I say that as I sit here on the second week of vacation with my family, having just found out there are sudden staff changes, and now, when we return, my husband will have to pick up additional shifts until we can find someone else. Life changes instantly!

Q.How do you handle the holidays knowing you are both going to be so busy at work?

A. Early in our relationship we just took the holidays as they came and made our own traditions. I came to expect short or non-existent time off so we would have to celebrate simply or at another time.  Most holidays were spent at the restaurants he was working in at the time because if I didn’t go to him I may not see him, say on New Year’s Eve or Thanksgiving. Fortunately over the years he has been able to work in places that aren’t open on the holidays and at our restaurant he has worked down time into the schedule. Still most holidays are cut short.  I think it is critical to make your own traditions and try and work around the conflicts with the job. If you try and fight it you will lose. The restaurant comes first (If your partner expects to keep their job) and if you expect to keep your partner then you must be flexible and helpful. It gets frustrating but what can you do. We find other holidays to celebrate. Especially now that the kids are older. Birthdays and anniversaries are important and set aside a special days that have to be marked and taken off. Christmas, Thanksgiving, July 4th, Mother’s day, etc just have to be taken when they can. This year we celebrated Mother’s day a week later because my husband had to work a food event outside our restaurant all day.  We did the same for Father’s day because of another food related conflict.

Q. How has achieving acclaim and success, within the restaurant industry, changed your relationship?

A. In some ways it has made things easier because my husband can take more time off, gets more opportunities to attend fun events and has more opportunities presented to him to continue to be successful. The downside is that more people need his attention and are demanding of his time. There is an added  pressure to attend every event presented to him, stop to chat with everyone who comes into his restaurant and help solve everyone’s problems. Folks also assume that because of his success he has made a lot of money. Folks in the restaurant industry know how fine a line we walk between producing a great product and making a profit. Money is always tight and the restaurant and it’s employees always come first. Sometimes that’s hard to handle.  When an employee has called in sick and our plans have to be changed because my husband has to cover, I get frustrated. But all in all I think that being flexible and handling the difficult times with a positive attitude has kept us together. We have been married for 13 years, together for almost 16, opened two restaurants, closed one, had two kids, two dogs, moved too many times to mention and yet we still want to continue together in this industry. We are opening a new restaurant which will put a new strain on the family and our relationship but hopefully it will set us up for future opportunities and success.