The napkins were folded and the tables set. The homemade bread was sliced and waiting in bread baskets and the waitstaff had been briefed — yes the cod is fresh, no we do not serve wine, and although all our desserts are wonderful, I would recommend the frozen key lime souffle with tropical fruit salsa and raspberry coulis, just delicious.
Not two weeks ago, as Katrina Yekel greeted customers at the door of Cafe Moxie, the restaurant she now owns with her boyfriend, executive chef Austin Racine, she simply glowed.
It was opening night, the evening the couple had dreamed of since they first fell in love in the Cafe Moxie kitchen five years ago, back when he was a cook and she was a pantry chef. It was a night they had worked toward around the clock since they signed their lease May 1 and became the owners of the Main street, Vineyard Haven restaurant which brought them together.
Ms. Yekel, 30, showed a couple to their table and beamed as she poured two glasses of complimentary champagne, chilled and purchased for the big night. The restaurant dining room was crowded and, as Ms. Yekel floated from table to table, Mr. Racine stood behind a hot stove turning out flatbread pizzas (on homemade dough), pretzel-crusted pork chops and hand-crafted desserts.
Throughout the evening, each ran down to the storeroom to restock various items. As the night drew to a close, the chef and the hostess found themselves downstairs together for the first time that evening. It was then that Ms. Yekel remembered it was their five-year anniversary as a couple.
“We were so hectic, we just forgot,” Mr. Racine laughed on Tuesday this week.
It was his first day away from the kitchen since the restaurant opened last Thursday. After sleeping in and swinging by Moxie to take out the trash and place orders, Mr. Racine, 26, met Ms. Yekel for lunch. It was the first meal in days that he did not have to cook, she did not have to serve and they could both enjoy. Well, until she had to return to the dentist’s office where she will keep working as an office manager until July and he had to return to the restaurant to do the books and pay bills.
“It went better than expected. We would give each other hugs downstairs,” said Ms. Yekel of the opening weekend. She turned to her boyfriend and cheekily said, “We did good, honey.”
Although their restaurant opened Thursday, their story begins in the summer of 2003. Ms. Yekel was on Island to babysit her cousins for three weeks and had talked her way into a second job in the kitchen of Cafe Moxie, a cozy and casual, but upscale restaurant across from the Capawok Theatre. “I had had one job in a restaurant as a hostess. It was my only restaurant experience. Besides eating at them. Often,” she said.
Before the restaurant opened that season, then-owners Paul Currier and Cindy Curran hosted an opening party. “I didn’t know anybody and I remember seeing you,” Ms. Yekel said, turning to Mr. Racine who, the night they met, was about to begin his second summer as Moxie’s executive chef. The two went out dancing at the former Atlantic Connection the next night and have been together ever since.
Ms. Yekel brings the charisma to the relationship. At Cafe Moxie (the couple kept the name of the restaurant when they took ownership), she runs the front of the house and makes the reservations. She laughs and chats with the customers; her warmth is contagious. Mr. Racine is quieter, shier. A self-taught cook whose first restaurant job was as a night dishwasher in a Bavarian restaurant, he likes to sit back and watch Ms. Yekel work the room.
Mr. Racine quickly moved his way up the ranks at the restaurant, leaving behind the dish room for jobs as a prep cook, a pantry chef and then on the hot line. The summer before he was to get his driver’s license, the sous chef of the Bavarian restaurant broke his leg and Mr. Racine filled in. “I was working 40 to 50 hour weeks before I was old enough to drive,” he said. “I found my niche.”
He first came to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 2001. By day he cooked at the Art Cliff Diner and by night he worked at Cafe Moxie.
At the end of their first season as a couple, Mr. Racine and Ms. Yekel, together for barely three months, moved into a winter rental. When Cafe Moxie closed after Labor Day, they leased the restaurant from Mr. Currier and Ms. Curran for the off-season.
“We make a good team. Although it does get a bit wearing on you, we’d probably rather be together,” she said.
“If we’re going to work long hours, we might as well do it together,” he added.
The couple sat in the restaurant dining room a few days before the opening, she in paint-splattered jeans, he in his chef’s coat. The tables and chairs were stacked, the artwork for the walls not yet hung. Just two days earlier the town board of health issued the couple their permit. Officially, they were good to go. But still, a broken dishwasher had to be replaced, the floors mopped and the doors painted. “We’re coming down to the wire with this thing,” Mr. Racine said.
For a few years, the couple spent summers on the Vineyard and winters in Vermont. Last fall, they moved to the Vineyard full time. “We were sick of moving back and forth seasonally. We had acquired furniture,” said Ms. Yekel, feigning indignation.
Last winter, Mr. Currier approached Mr. Racine. He and Ms. Curran had divorced and were looking to sell the business they had operated together since July 2001. In April, negotiations began, and on May 1, after pooling their personal resources and securing loans from family and friends, Mr. Racine and Ms. Yekel signed a five-year lease.
In the six weeks before the restaurant opened, the couple renovated the kitchen, spruced up the dining room and planned the menu. “I called Austin the other day and he was sitting in the walk-in freezer,” Ms. Yekel said. “I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ He was like, ‘Trying to get inspired. What goes with foie gras?’”
The answer? An appetizer special of pan-seared fois gras over hazelnut French toast with pancetta and port wine syrup.
“I feel really good about Austin,” said Mr. Currier. “A lot of people think they can, but he really can. Owning a restaurant is little bit like falling in love, but you have to get real. You have to be fastidious and you have to watch the food costs. Austin is young, but he’s disciplined enough to hold all the pieces together.”
Mr. Racine and Ms. Yekel are well aware of the risks involved. “I have general concerns, like what if nobody shows up? What if I can’t pay the bills? The bills do stack up,” Mr. Racine said.
Nationally, 90 per cent of restaurants fail within their first five years. Mr. Currier and Ms. Curran lasted seven. They bought the restaurant from Island chef Tina Miller, who ran it from 1998 to 2001. Before it became Cafe Moxie, it was the Dry Town Cafe for three years and before that, the Linden Tree Cafe.
“It is very, very hard to make money,” said V. Jaime Hamlin, a caterer and veteran of the Island restaurant scene. Ms. Hamlin got her start in the industry in 1975 as a chef at Martha’s Cheeses in Edgartown. Later, she opened The Oyster Bar, the popular Oak Bluffs eatery, with her then-husband, chef Raymond Schilcher. In the early 1990s, Ms. Hamlin left the restaurant business and began her own catering company. “On the Vineyard, you have 100 days. That’s less than a third of one year to make an entire living,” she said.
It is an industry which has been particularly hard hit in recent months as the national economy has slowed dramatically. “When we look at the signs of economic slowdown it is the tourism industries, consumer spending in restaurants and retail, that are usually the first to get hit,” said Christine Flynn, economic development and affordable housing planner at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
Mr. Racine and Ms. Yekel are doing what they can to cut costs. In the past year, the price of flour jumped from $13 a bag to $25, so Mr. Racine makes that flour worth it by baking his own breads and mixing his own pasta and flatbread dough. With housing so expensive on Island, the couple have opened their small apartment to their sous chef and pantry chef. Unlike some Island restaurant owners, they have decided to stay open for both lunch and dinner. “We figured we’re renting the space, we might as well use it,” Mr. Racine said.
And they are not on the payroll. “When we have to pay the bills,” said the chef, “paying ourselves comes last.”
They are bills which would have been easier to pay had Tisbury voters approved the sale of beer and wine in their annual town meeting, said the couple. “It would have made things better,” Mr. Racine said. “If it had passed, that would have meant a 35 per cent increase in sales. That is one-third of our sales. We never would have closed.”
But, with the Memorial Day crowds coming in this weekend and July and August just around the corner, the couple are confident. “It’s a great location in a charming little town,” Mr. Racine said. For now, the restaurant is open Thursday through Monday. July 1, they will open seven days a week. The restaurant will stay open at least through December, but if business is busy, the couple will extend their season. “We will measure our success by how we make money in the shoulder season and in the winter. It’s the people coming out to dinner in November that count,” Mr. Racine said.
When Cafe Moxie opened, customers flowed in. Regulars sent champagne, flowers and a bottle of aged scotch, Mr. Racine’s favorite. The weekend was steady and, after two days off, the couple was ready to open again yesterday. “It was nerve-wracking, but we just went with the flow,” she said. “We both know everything about the building so well. We know what to store downstairs and we know what to close when it gets cold. It’s like home almost.”
The Gazette will follow the progress of the new operators of Cafe Moxie in a series of occasional stories.