by Roberta Vowell
photography by Keith Lanpher
These couples wake up together. Then they work together. After work, they go home and there they are, together. Repeat. Repeat again, and again. Kinda gives new meaning to “ ’til death do us part.” These three Hampton Roads couples own small businesses – shops and eateries that demand time, attention and love. In their lives, love means never having to say, “How was your day, dear?”
Before grocery stores became supermarkets and added Starbucks, banking, “wine caves” and an entire aisle of microwave popcorn, there were corner stores. We imagine them with a tinkling bell on the door, coffee pot brewing, maybe a Disney-cute dog wagging hello. And Shady Grove Marketplace is just exactly that, a tiny grocery and gathering spot in Norfolk’s Freemason area. Luke and Emily Stephens are the proprietors; at ages 26 and 27, they have the fresh-faced looks normally found only in a Ralph Lauren ad. Even their pup, an 18-month-old terrier named Joely, is picture perfect.
You two would be voted least likely to be grocers. Was that the original plan?
Luke: I came here from Texas, for grad school at ODU. I was teaching macroeconomics as a grad assistant.
Emily: I had my degree in accounting, came here to be with him, and was working. Then Luke decided he wanted us to work together.
Luke: I think it was always in me to start a business. I didn’t think I’d be a grocer. But it’s really more than that. It’s about building a relationship with the people who come in the door.
Emily: We were both working at our jobs and planning our wedding, and life was going great, and he came to me with this idea, and I thought, “Why? Why? Why?” But Luke’s pretty convincing.
What traits do each of you bring that make this work?
Luke: Emily is the best person to have with me. She talks to people and makes them believe this is their store. I have a background in management, I handle finances and our (two) employees.
Emily: He’s just as much a people person. He doesn’t give himself enough credit. He’s good with timelines. He had a day in mind that we would open, and he stuck with it. I was busy painting the baseboards on opening day. I just couldn’t stop.
What traits about your partner make you want to pull your hair out?
(Long, long silence)
Anything? Off-key whistling? Gum popping?
Luke: We do wine tastings. She might want to go for a more expensive bottle, where I’m looking at the budget.
Do you ever plan time alone?
Emily: Some mornings, I’ve gotten up early and gone to the gym.
Luke: When we get out of here, we’re usually together.
Emily: We like to go out to the farms and pick produce. Those that pick together, stick together.
Geez, you guys really haven’t been married long, have you?
Emily: Eh, no. We got married and opened the store within a few months. April was one year for the store. There are pros and cons to being together all the time. Sometimes I think all we talk about is the store.
Luke: When business is going bad, home life is bad. When business is good, home life is good.
What keeps you going?
Luke: Knowing that every day we make a difference. We wanted this to become a hub for the neighborhood. One person who comes in says, “You’re the confessional. This is where I spill the beans.”
The kitchen at the Leaping Lizard Café would make a dandy walk-in closet. Yep, it’s just that size. Luckily, the chefs don’t mind occasionally bumping bums. Bill and Amy Prince opened the cottage café six years ago on Virginia Beach’s Shore Drive, just at the edge of Chic’s Beach (it’s not affiliated with The Leaping Lizard antique shop next door). The café is small, but it is mighty – Leaping Lizard was the featured eatery on an episode of “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” the popular Food Channel series hosted by Guy Fieri, he of spiky blond hair and endless appetite for fresh regional fare. Amy, 47, and Bill, 48, are beyond busy; she’s a travel agent, they own The Lizard Café in Norfolk’s Prince Books, and they are raising four children in their Thoroughgood home.
How did you become restaurateurs?
Bill: I started out selling Christmas trees at Taste Unlimited, right across Shore Drive. From there, I opened a produce market at the store, had that, what, seven, eight, maybe 10 years. I started noticing that no one else was using local stuff on their menus. Then we found this place.
Amy: It was a falling-down shack. Our friends were like, “You’re going to serve food in that?”
Do you drive home together and discuss the day?
Amy: We’re usually going in opposite directions.
Bill: There’s the Prince café. Amy spends a lot of time there.
Amy: And someone’s always driving the kids from one activity to another. Really, we’re both very independent.
Does that make you butt heads?
Bill: Yes, but we do that outside the restaurant.
Amy: Never here.
Bill: The things that drive us crazy about each other are what make it work.
Amy: I see things more aesthetically.
Bill: I get mired in the details.
Amy: I’ll look out and say, “Look how cute the window boxes are today” and he looks out the same window and says, “Oh, the spotlight’s burned out, and the grass needs cutting.”
Bill: Sometimes I wish I had the luxury of looking at the big picture.
What holds it all together?
Bill: (nodding to his wife) You’re always willing to do what needs to be done.
Amy: But you’re the same way.
Bill: It’s nice to rely on someone completely. If I call her and say, “I need this done,” she’ll do it.
What keeps you going?
Amy: This is everything, all our livelihood. The kids wash dishes, our daughter waitresses. There’s my griddle from home, there’s my food processor.
Bill: We don’t have the luxury of failing.
Do you ever get away from it all?
Amy: We just went on a vacation, the first one in eight years. We were in St. John, and we’re eating in the middle of paradise, and we’re talking about what we’re going to do with the back deck, and by the way, aren’t these coconut pancakes wonderful and how can we make them at the café.
Bill: They’re on the menu now.
The Birch Bar is in the vicinity of Norfolk’s Ghent, but it’s quite a detour from the Colley Avenue drinking spots. To get there, veer onto the road less traveled, scoot off the beaten path and forge into a maze of small businesses, maybe-garages or maybe-warehouses. A flash of grass-green paint on concrete announces The Birch Bar. It’s a garage/warehouse, lightly repurposed into a minimalist, industrial-vibe square room dominated by a bar the size of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Behind the bar are 21 beer taps bearing names like Kubelbier and Old Engine Oil Special Reserve, plus a four-page list of bottled beers. Also behind the bar are Ben and Malia Bublick, who will pour you a beer. Ben, 24, and Malia, 23, opened The Birch Bar to do just that.
So, did your high school guidance counselor tell you “Open a beer bar” or what?
Malia: I was in Savannah College of Art and Design, and he was working in bars in Savannah.
Ben: I grew up in Virginia Beach, went to U.Va. I wasn’t there long enough to have a major. I traveled, and I developed a passion for beer, craft beer. I came back here to open this bar.
Did you go into it knowing you’d be together 24/7?
Ben: I knew we worked well together.
Malia: We built this place out together, did all the construction together. We opened in January (2011) and got married in April, right here in Birch Bar.
What roles do you choose?
Malia: I do any design work, graphic arts, and I do a lot of the administrative stuff, paperwork and marketing.
Ben: I’m more like the grunt work. I make the beer happen.
Malia: We do have one other employee, my mom, Mary Paasch. She’s a waitressing veteran.
Your weekend hours are 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Are you together all that time?
Ben: We work together, eat together, sleep together.
Malia: You have to be best friends, and it’s still different from best friends. You’re friends.
You’re colleagues. You’re husband and wife. You’re a team.
Does all that get to be too much?
Ben: Sometimes we nag at each other.
Malia: I’m kind of the money spender. He’s the money saver. We’re both stubborn.
Ben: But that’s good. She has a certain pertinacity. If it needs to get done, she’ll get it done. I have faith in her.
Malia: This is a very unique establishment. We serve beer, and cheese boards, and a few sandwiches. This is what we have, this is what we offer.
Ben: We’re uncompromising. The day we opened, we had people telling us what we should do, what we should add, when we should open a second bar. But I want it to be like I envisioned. This is exactly what I want to do. I am content.
Malia: A lot of people think we’re crazy.
Ben: Yeah, crazy and some kind of snobs.
What do you do for fun, away from Birch Bar?
Ben: We drink beer.
Malia: We watch movies and drink beer.
Ben: We’re getting ready for a trip to Vermont. We’ve got a craft brewery tour lined up.