Dorothee Mitrani-Bell came to the United States from France in her twenties because she felt a new life awaited her in California. She studied architecture at UC Berkeley, and on her days off she managed a restaurant in San Francisco. After a suggestion from a friendly neighbor got her thinking, she jumped at the unexpected opportunity to open her own restaurant and combine her love of design, food, and her home country. She has owned and operated the ever-popular destination, La Note Restaurant in Berkeley for 18 years. Here is her story:
Just like any college student, I had been working at a restaurant while I was studying for my undergraduate degree in Architecture at UC Berkeley. But I differed from my classmates in that I never saw myself actually becoming an architect or working in an office environment. My goal was really just to graduate. I also never anticipated opening a restaurant. So in a sense, the restaurant came to me.
Because I was from France it took some time to get equivalencies that would qualify me for an American diploma. So the day I walked the stage, I was not only 29 years old, but I was pregnant!
Fast forward to a few months after my son was born — one morning he had came down with a bad cold, and I called the restaurant to ask if I could come in a little later since he wasn’t feeling well. The four-word response I received on the other end of the line was essentially what launched me into the entrepreneurial life I’m living today. My boss responded, “That’s not my problem.” I told myself I had to quit. I loved work, but my family life was also very important to me, and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice either one. I decided to take some time to figure out the next best step.
Meanwhile, I had a neighbor who intended to open a jazz school and wanted to know if I would be interested in managing the school’s café. I declined the offer because I no longer wanted to manage, but I told her I would help her scout a location. After several visits, we walked into a dilapidated building that dated back to 1875 and I had an immediate connection to the space. This is why I say I feel that the restaurant chose me. The architect in me felt pulled to bring about its revival. I called my neighbor and said “I’ve decided I don’t want to be the manager, I want to be owner of the café.” So I just went for it! From that moment, I did whatever I could to get it running. That was June 1995 and we opened October 1st 1997.
How did you fund your business in the beginning?
I didn’t have funds because I had just come out of school, but I had always been building my credit — I knew that was important. At the time I had 2 credit cards totaling $50,000, and I was lucky because the restaurant didn’t require the usual building permits and fees. Originally there was one person who offered $8,000 with the intention of being a partner, but within 2 months he exited the situation, and wanted to take a chunk of the business with him. Unfortunately, for the first 2 years, I had to buy him out ($50,000) because of our agreement. It would have been a much more profitable beginning had I not run into that sticky situation. But ultimately, I opened La Note with just the 2 credit cards. I am really grateful that right away I was able to pay my bills. I know I’ve been very fortunate.
Did you get any extra funding?
Yes, it wasn’t long before I got my first commercial loan. I don’t believe you can (or should) be a business owner without backup. For me, there has to be at least a $50-100k line of credit at all times because we have 45-50 employees on average, and you have to prepare for the unexpected. Today the restaurant is 18 years old and we still have months that beat previous records! It’s amazing that we’re still growing.
Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
I would define an entrepreneur, aside from someone who can take a risk and go forward with a vision, as someone who is incredibly adaptable and able to commit himself or herself to fixing problems all day long. Creativity is built into my job description.
I didn’t go to business school, but I probably picked up a few things from my parents who were both business owners. I also learned basic day-to-day management when I was working at the restaurant during college. Essentially I compare my beginnings to someone setting up their own home structure. Asking me now how I started is like asking someone five years after they’ve set up their first home, “how did you know where to put the furniture?” I learned by doing. I was constantly adapting to the needs that arose.
At the beginning I was in survival mode, which was a rush, but when that wore off I started to feel the stress of it. I was raising my kids and I didn’t have partners or managers. It was hard until I realized that I could view things from another angle: that I was the one in charge of fixing the problems, and that that was my job. Eventually I got my stride. Once I surrendered to what my role was, things became easier to manage.
There are certain key things that direct my decision-making. I focus on keeping the morale up and keeping the concept going, and above all, I have to stay true to my story — my original intentions for the business. My vision at its roots was about people, conviviality and good humor. So my product and what I wanted to sell was the means to achieve that through place and experience. As grumpy and as mean as people can get, I want them to be happy. That was my ultimate goal and whatever it took to make that happen is what I had to do.
Through it all, I have stayed consistent and led with my heart.
What’s the most rewarding part of running the business?
The magical component of every person that walks in the door is what’s most rewarding. Sometimes it’s easy after 18 years to take it for granted, but I’ve since opened other businesses that have not been as giving, so I know now not to take it for granted.
What’s the most difficult part?
People will tell you that maintaining schedule and staffing, especially in the restaurant business, is probably one of the most difficult aspects of the business. If someone doesn’t show up, you’re short. I do get the mishaps, but I’ve made La Note about the team. Everyone knows they play a part. People want to work with me and I want to work with them. We invest in and count on each other.
What’s the most surprising part?
Definitely the most surprising aspect of my role is how frequently I feel like I’m a psychologist, making sure every member of the team is on board.
What I’ve Learned
What do you wish you had known before starting the business?
Nothing!!! I am happy to have discovered it the way I did. I would have been utterly bored out of my mind knowing all the technical parts that I know now if I had had to learn this in school. Some people do really well in those surroundings — I’m just not that type. Having a vision is the ability to make a story happen. I would not have wanted anyone to tell me any forecasting at the time.
What advice do you have for others starting out?
Since opening La Note restaurant, I have started over a couple other businesses; but I could never recapture the magical moments of this first business when I wasn’t fully aware of everything ahead of me. As you become more experienced, the element of fear creeps in because you understand what happens if you can’t pay your bills. If you’re scared, you’re less free to be creative and go forward. So my advice is not to worry — it can be paralyzing.
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About the Author
*Lindsay Scott owned and operated a small business in Berkeley, California for several years. She went on to manage an expedition to Everest Base Camp for GlacierWorks, where she highlighted the recession of the Himalayan Glaciers through a photography exhibit: “Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya”. She received a Masters degree in Sustainable Heritage from University College London. Then, while working at UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre in Paris she co-authored the article “Heritage at the Heart of Resilience” for Crisis Response Journal. She is now a freelance writer with interests in art, architecture, landscape and travel.*