What's the secret to maintaining a business in such a hectic – and often competitive – area as Ann Arbor? Numerous local business owners would say that it's being married (or engaged) to your business partner. We chatted with three different Ann Arbor couples who are partners in both life and work about how they met, how they built their businesses, and how their personal connection influences their work.
John and Kath Roos
Kath and John Roos, owners of Roos Roast, met through their shared love of the beans they've built their business on. John was working as a car salesman and roasting coffee beans on the side to share with customers and friends. Kath started buying coffee from him and the two married a year later. Roos Roast itself got started when Kath and John would sell John's coffee together at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. Kath recalls buying olives and cheese for a picnic dinner with their earnings after a hectic market day.
"It was really romantic, actually," Kath says.
At the end of 2009, John jumped at the chance to rent space for the first official Roos Roast location at 1155 Rosewood St., Ste. B. For a while, Kath's income from a full-time job at the University of Michigan was more stable, but as Roos Roast grew and stabilized itself she and John talked about her quitting her job to work at Roos.
In 2015 Kath finally transitioned from her old job to working at Roos full-time. John says they couldn't have managed the opening of their second location at 117 E. Liberty St. in Ann Arbor without her help.
"It's gotten so complex," John says. "People don't realize it. If you have that blueprint mentality of plastering out stores, that's a different thing. That's not our mentality at this point."
"It's very personal," Kath adds. "It's hard to expand that personal-ness. And that's why we do this. It's an art outlet, a creative outlet."
Now, Kath describes herself as the "head problem solver" at Roos – "because there are a million problems," she says jovially. She works hard to make sure that Roos keeps its identity and remains a creative and welcoming space. John's role, in some ways, hasn't changed since the beginning. He's still the head coffee taster and he also does much of the maintenance work and financial management for the business.
Kath says there's an incredible intimacy that comes with owning a business and working with your romantic partner.
"The trust level is so fundamental," she says. "There's no 'are you going to screw me over?' It's kind of like the difference between having a roommate versus living with your partner. It's just more comfortable [to be with your partner]."
The two agree that communication is key.
"John's a big personality," Kath says. "And there's a way that I can get through to him that other people can't really do."
John agrees, but points out that the downside for Kath is that he's constantly talking about the business. Kath laughs.
"It used to be that I would come home and we'd start talking about Roos Roast," she says.
"Now she's here all day!" John says.
Curtis Sullivan and Elizabeth DellaRocco
Today, Elizabeth DellaRocco and Curtis Sullivan's comic book store, Vault of Midnight, is one of Ann Arbor's Main Street stalwarts. But when Sullivan opened the store with friend Steve Fodale in 1996, he did so purely on a dare – and while DellaRocco was seven months pregnant with their second child.
"We were hanging out, probably having beers, saying 'We're gonna do this, we're gonna do that,' and this dude we know was just like, 'Why don't you get started then?'" Sullivan says. "And we said, 'Okay, we will!"
DellaRocco, who is now a co-owner of the shop with Sullivan and Nick Yribar, was closely involved in the business from square one. She and Sullivan, who are married, have been together since their late teens, when they met while dancing at the Nectarine Ballroom (now Necto). Both of them worked multiple jobs during Vault's early days (she as a "midnight waitress" for several years), and Sullivan would often bring their young son to work with him.
"It was only forward motion," DellaRocco says.
"I do think about it from time to time," Sullivan adds thoughtfully. "In hindsight it does seem like a lot of shit, but it all went down all right."
Still, there were a few times when they considered pulling the plug. Lease and landlord issues in their second and third locations almost caused Vault to close its doors. When they finally settled in their current location at 219 S. Main St. in 2006, things calmed down, allowing them to open stores in Grand Rapids and Detroit.
Sullivan and DellaRocco now work at Vault more than full-time – they just took their first real vacation since opening more than 20 years ago. DellaRocco focuses on administrative work, working out software issues, and purchasing games, toys, and other non-comic merchandise.
"She's our pile-eradicator too," Sullivan says. "Anything that's not specifically someone's job, Liz handles all that, which is so many things."
Sullivan handles aesthetics for the shop and orders all comics and other books. Sullivan and DellaRocco think it's great to work together, but being together 24/7 isn't their style.
"We split our shifts," Sullivan says. "I don't think, no matter who you are, [being together all the time] is a good idea."
Like the Rooses, DellaRocco and Sullivan also tout the ease of communicating with your spouse as a benefit to their business.
"It makes the distribution of tasks easier," DellaRocco says. "Being able to speak frankly with each other is easier because we know each other very well, so we can just get right to it and move on to the next thing."
Sullivan and DellaRocco are now working on being able to pay their employees more (they already offer part-time employees benefits and profit-sharing). They haven't ruled out the possibility of opening more comic book stores in the future, either. But most of all, they love introducing new people to the world of comics through their store.
"If we can be front and center and exposed and open the door to more people, that's our lofty goal," Sullivan says, then pauses. "In addition to staying in business and paying people more money and all that kind of shit."
Abby Olitzky and Steve Hall
Steve Hall and Abby Olitzky began their romance in a restaurant and have continued it through opening their own eatery: Spencer at 113 E. Liberty St. They were working at restaurants around the corner from each other in San Francisco when Olitzky stopped into the restaurant where Hall was working, and he says he was "instantly smitten." Olitzky's lifelong dream was to open a restaurant of her own, so the two moved to Hall's hometown of Ann Arbor several years ago to begin making that happen. Spencer will celebrate its two-year anniversary this fall.
When they were opening the restaurant, Olitzky and Hall say they didn't realize that it was unusual to open a restaurant without having someone on the team with previous management or financial experience in the restaurant business. It was just something that they wanted to do together. And when they first started, Hall says, "we did everything together."
"There were a lot of decisions that we had to make together and we were still figuring out what our roles were going to be," he says. "But once we opened we were so busy that it just got to a point where [we had to] divide and conquer."
The restaurant is so wrapped up in the couple's partnership and shared life goals that they don't feel the need to express their vision to one another concretely.
"Our [mission] is so internal and shared," Olitzky says.
However, the two agree that challenges also come with owning a business with your romantic partner. Like the Rooses, Olitzky says it's hard to know when to stop talking about work. Hall adds that taking time off is another challenge.
"It's very hard to take a day off when you know the other person is working," he says. "We've become so connected that it bothers me to hear that she's having a hard day at work."
This feeling sometimes even extends to when the two are at work together and one is having a tough day within his or her role at Spencer.
"There's a lot more empathy [when your partner is at work with you] and that can sometimes be a struggle," Olitzky says.
Along with actually getting married – "we got engaged, and then we never actually got married," Hall says – the two have straightforward goals for Spencer's next few years.
"We love the size of our restaurant," Olitzky says. "We love that we get to oversee everything about it."
"We just want to get better – more committed, more involved, [and] work even more closely with farms and producers," Hall says. "That essence of something when it first starts – that's what I want to hold onto for as long as possible."
Elizabeth Pearce is an Ann Arbor resident. In addition to Concentrate, she frequently contributes to Pulp.
All photos by Doug Coombe.