Married, With Restaurant

Most couples promise to stay married "for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health," but no wedding vow directly addresses the problems unique to twosomes who take on restaurants. Of course, the "richer or poorer" part applies, but so does "and when the dishwasher calls in sick and one of you has to scrub pots and pans while wearing your best host attire." There are advantages to working with a spouse, though, including the fact that no one cares as much about making your restaurant a success as someone with a vested interest in it. And while some mates would probably kill each other if they had to spend 24 hours a day together, others thrive on the challenge of making it work.

"You get to where you have a system," says JoEl Griffin, who with her husband, Mo, owns So-Fully Kosha' Res-runt, a charming little spot tucked into an industrial park in Aurora. It's pretty much just the two of them--JoEl takes orders and serves while Mo cooks--but that's fine with the Griffins, who in their 22 years of marriage have had only one real fight. "It was a catering party we did in February for Coors," JoEl recalls. "They told us 700 people, but Mo started making food for 1,400. I mean, we're talking a lot of food, about a hundred different entrees. I told him he was a fool, and I was mad, 'cause I thought he was crazy. But he said, 'Mother, you just let me take care of it, I know what I'm doing.' And, do you know, about 1,700 people showed up!"

The Griffins started catering five years ago. Mo had always cooked for friends, and they liked his food so much that they told other people about it. Soon he was catering real parties, regularly enough to quit his jobs working in other people's restaurants. But Mo never let go of his dream to have his own place one day. "I'm telling you, it got to be so bad that it didn't matter what conversation you started on, somehow he always got it around to how he wanted to own his own restaurant," JoEl says.

She helped him find it. A year ago this past September, JoEl was looking for a spot they could use for a catering office and as a space to show her paintings, and she came across a location in Havana Square. "I thought, 'You could do a lot more here than catering,'" JoEl says. "So we moved right in."

In fact, it looks as though they moved almost their entire house into the place. JoEl's paintings--which she somehow manages to work on between restaurant duties, writing two books and keeping track of three adult kids, a twelve-year-old, a five-year-old and the set of twins and their brother that she and Mo are in the process of adopting (the Griffins have fostered 98 children since 1990)--fill the walls, along with art created by her friends. Each table is layered with quilted tablecloths, hand-stitched placemats, whimsical collectibles and antiques, and the rest of the dining room is packed with chests, birdcages, pottery and other intriguing knickknacks. The food Mo sends out from the kitchen follows the same homey theme. It's "so-ful," as the Griffins phonetically pronounce the word, mimicking the way some African-Americans--which they are--speak. "Mo's from Louisville, Kentucky," JoEl says. "And that's just the way he talks."

And so the menu features such items as "hot lanks" ($5.90), fearsomely hot split sausages on toasted bread with lettuce, tomato and onion fixin's. The sandwich comes with two of that day's handful of possible sides; we picked barbecue-sauce-thickened baked beans and French fries. With the fried catfish ($5.90), a big plank deliciously armored in a cornbread coating, we tried mixed steamed vegetables and candied sweet potatoes so cooked down they were almost creamed; freshly baked cornbread also came with the fish. And then there was the pork ($6.50), a hefty chop smothered in a heavily seasoned gravy, which we wolfed down along with a mess of cabbage greens and mashed potatoes. Our toddler ate up the mini-cheeseburger ($2.50), which Mo puts on a dinner roll, and helped us work through a pile of fries blanketed in chile ($3.50) that carried a real bite. We all dug into the "cobbla" ($2), apple and cherry versions that had been warmed and oozed butter beneath a melting scoop of ice cream.

As we waddled out, we overheard JoEl ask Mo if he'd picked up something she needed. "Not yet, sweetheart, but I haven't forgotten about you," Mo said.

And we won't forget about them.
"You have to really like each other," says Shanti Shrestha, who owns Mt. Everest, a Nepalese restaurant in downtown Denver, with her husband, Sam. "I think it's a perfect situation, because we have communication like no one else. He knows what I am thinking, and I know what he is thinking." More important, though, they each know that if one of them has to be away from the restaurant, the other will work even harder to keep things running smoothly. "Who else can you trust as much?" asks Shanti. "And who else will support you the same way?"

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