In Columbia’s food and restaurant scene, some of the city’s longtime favorites and up-and-comers are female owned and operated.
Running a business is hard; ask anyone trying to keep customers happy and employees paid. But women running businesses face additional challenges, and whether it’s not being taken seriously by their boys’ club counterparts or being written off because of their age, these four women aren’t just surviving as female entrepreneurs in Columbia — they’re thriving.
“We bake bretzels several times a day, just like they do in Germany. People are willing to wait five or 10 minutes for a fresh-baked bretzel if you tell them it’s going to be five or 10 minutes.” — Lydia Melton, Günter Hans
“This waffle iron cost more than my car,” Lydia Melton says. She’s explaining the process of cooking Liège waffles, which her restaurant, Günter Hans, specializes in, but she could just as easily be outlining her priorities in life. Quality matters. “We bake bretzels several times a day, just like they do in Germany. People are willing to wait five or 10 minutes for a fresh-baked bretzel if you tell them it’s going to be five or 10 minutes.”
Lydia knows a thing or two about serving up quality, both in products and customer service. An O’Fallon native, she ran the Thyme Out Café in Cottleville, Missouri, for a time before studying international business and then marketing and business management at the University of Missouri. She lived in Belgium for a time and developed an appreciation for the high-quality foods available in that part of the world
Now, Lydia says she relies on a finely tuned sense of customer service to build Günter Hans into a profitable business in just its second year. “I train my staff to think like me,” she says.” I feel like we sell unusual products, and we need staff to be fully ready to answer questions.”
Take the Liège waffles. They’re sweet on their own — no syrup needed — and they’re supposed to be undercooked. Liège waffles are gooey, cakey, sweet and utterly addictive. “If we don’t give people the little spiel, they’re confused,” Lydia says.
The youthful 26-year-old says when it comes to her job, gender is less of a challenge than her age. She’s been underestimated more than once. “People don’t take me seriously,” she says. “At their own peril,” I think to myself.
Lydia scours the world for the best ingredients, but she also shops close to home. Günter Hans now carries brats from venerable Hermann sausage-maker Swiss Meats. Caramelized pear and Gorgonzola bratwurst from Hermann Wurst Haus remains a top seller. Her husband built the tables, and the overall vibe is comfy with a bit of European flair.
As for the future, Lydia says Günter Hans is looking to add wines on tap and expand its offerings of European sports on a drop-down screen. She’s paired with Logboat Brewery for a tap takeover and has an extensive schedule of live music, game nights and specials. Only time will tell if her tucked-away little gem will reach as many Columbia diners as it deserves, but Lydia and Günter Hans are off to a good start.
Connect with Lydia Gunter Hans: Facebook: facebook.com/gunterhanscafe • Twitter: @gunterhanscafe • Instagram: @gunterhanscafe
Rebecca Miller and Jeanne Plumley
Peggie Jean’s Pies
“We’re messy,” Rebecca Miller says, sharing a story of an exploding bag of sugar.
“No, you’re messy,” replies her mother and business partner, Jeanne Plumley, with a quick and loving tease that’ll be familiar to customers who remember Peggy Jean’s Pies from its original 1994-2004 run. The mother-daughter team is behind a relaunch of the business, which closed with the declining health and eventual passing of original partner Peggy Day. A Kickstarter campaign netted more than $10,000 to pay for renovations and supplies to get a new facility on Buttonwood Drive in Columbia up and running. They’ve been turning out their beloved pies since just before Easter this year.
The new facility is tailor-made for baking, but that doesn’t mean the road back was an easy one. “I had no idea how physically demanding it is,” Rebecca says. “She told me, but until you do it, you don’t know.”
They say the division of labor works for them. Rebecca is the social person, actively pouring heart and soul into a lively blog. Jeanne, the creative introvert, says, “We complement each other well.”
Like any family, being comprised of complementary parts doesn’t mean that sparks don’t fly occasionally. Jeanne is at the shop by 4:15 a.m., and Rebecca arrives at 8:30 a.m., before Jean leaves in the afternoon. And between those early mornings, the long nights and the orders continually flowing in, they have had to be compassionate with each other.
“We had a customer that wanted to recreate their grandmother’s recipe. I was nervous, but we nailed it.” — Jeanne Plumley, Peggy Jean’s Pies
The board at Peggie Jean’s Pies boasts 12 standard pies each day, with others rotating in and out on a schedule. One of the secrets to Peggie Jean’s success has always been the crust: an excellent flakey crust made from little more than flour, shortening and water. No eggs, no butter. This dedication has resulted in a raft of regulars over the years. “We had a customer that wanted to recreate their grandmother’s recipe,” Jeanne says. “I was nervous, but we nailed it.”
What does the future hold for the rebirth of Peggie Jean’s Pies? They’ll build upon their wildly successful monthly pie parties, which draw 30 lucky people each third Thursday to the shop for a blind pie-tasting quiz. They’re also planning to release a selection of savory pies for the fall and might make themselves available for children’s birthday parties. Overall, Rebecca and Jeanne have shown that creativity, hard work and a little patience with your business partner remain hallmarks of a successful business.
The Wine Cellar and Bistro
The Wine Cellar and Bistro’s co-owner and sommelier Sarah Cyr bounced around Missouri growing up, spending many years in Farmington. But while attending college and waiting tables at an Applebee’s in Columbia, she met a young grill cook named Craig. So began a fruitful partnership, in both business and home life.
Theirs is a partnership built on balance. While Craig, who co-owns Wine Cellar with Sarah, focuses on the food, Sarah has built the well-curated wine list for the restaurant. Almost entirely self-taught, Sarah says respect was hard-won in the male-dominated wine world.
“I found it hard to be taken seriously as a woman in the wine industry, but I reached a point where I knew more than the salesmen. It was a problem for some of them.” — Sarah Cyr, The Wine Cellar and Bistro
“I found it hard to be taken seriously as a woman in the wine industry, but I reached a point where I knew more than the salesmen,” she says. “It was a problem for some of them.” The solution was simple: Do business with those who didn’t have the problem. Today, her wine list routinely receives Wine Spectator Award of Excellence and complements some of the most creative food in town.
Ten years after taking over the restaurant, balance is the name of the game in the couple’s management of their home life as well. They have two young children and have worked out a schedule where one is at home while the other is at the restaurant. Home is now a 15-acre homestead and farm on the west side of Columbia.
Sipping a glass of Côtes du Rhone in the shade of a giant locust tree, Sarah describes their vision for the farm: “It’s a triple philosophy: people, planet, profit. We think we can do all three. And if we raise things ourselves, we know it’s as organic and local as possible.” There’s a half-acre produce garden that now supplies a substantial portion of the restaurant’s vegetables, and a moveable chicken coop provides eggs.
Sarah recommends entrepreneurs shake things up from time to time. The Wine Cellar and Bistro has run a series of garden classes and events on the Cyrs’ farm each of the past two years, allowing the opportunity to connect with customers outside of the restaurant.
“Getting accounting help is big,” she adds. “You need a pro to keep tabs on the books. There are a lot of bills and a lot of taxes. Also, stay humble and know there’s always room for improvement. How can we be more efficient? How can our training be improved?” Those words of wisdom surely apply to any business.
Connect with Sarah, and make a reservation online at cherrystreetcellar.com. Sign up for their newsletter for don’t-miss events.