Most people can leave the office behind when they walk out the door at the end of the day. Not the case when you work with your spouse.
Luckily, married Red Bank restaurateurs Valerie and Michael Aufiero, owners of Front St. Trattoria, and Lauren Phillips and Claudette Herring, owners of Via 45, have figured out the recipe for keeping life sweet on both sides of the commute. These couples not only have their home-work balance nailed, they credit their relationships with building better businesses.
“Our home life is wonderful and so is our work life,” says Claudette. “It is a gift to have something we can do together that we both love and are passionate about.” The women, both self-taught cooks, first worked together while Claudette was the chef and Lauren baked the pastries at
a bed-and-breakfast in Spring Lake. When the inn closed, the two friends decided to try collaborating on their own restaurant. Via 45 opened on
Broad St. in May 2009—in the midst of the recession—with a relaxed, warm, and inviting atmosphere, and a seasonal, locally focused menu
prepared to order.
As the restaurant flourished, so did the women’s relationship. Claudette and Lauren were joined in a symbolic spiritual union on 12/12/2012, and
then a civil union twelve days later on Christmas Eve. They were officially married the following year, when same-sex marriage was legalized in New Jersey.
Claudette and Lauren share cooking duties, and Lauren also prepares the desserts in the restaurant. Their handwritten, Mediterranean inspired
menu offers about 15 dishes that change nightly. The pair will cheerfully and willingly adapt any dish on the menu, or come up with a new one, to accommodate the estimated 30 percent of their customers who have food allergies, or are vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free. “We call it ‘cooking in the moment,’” Lauren says.
“Our food is about nourishment and love, and we want everyone to be able to come to our table and enjoy a meal together,” Lauren continues. “We hope families and friends will gather and make great memories in this place.” Many have done just that, including celebrating milestone events such as bridal showers, rehearsal dinners, and even small, intimate weddings (the space holds up to 60 people).
Working side by side in a small, narrow kitchen every night is bound to stir the pot on occasion. “Some days are great; others not so much,” laughs Claudette. “We have two different ways of cooking. But, we love and respect each other and take pride in each other’s accomplishments.” Lauren adds, “When we go home (to Atlantic Highlands), we go over two bridges. The water is very calming and helps us leave our cares behind.”
The couple behind Front St. Trattoria can relate. “We’ve worked together nearly as long as we’ve been married,” says Val Aufiero. (The two will celebrate their 36th anniversary this year; the restaurant, its 32nd.) “Actually, that part is easy; I married my best friend.”
They opened Front St. Trattoria in 1985, after discovering the concept of trattoria restaurants while vacationing in Italy. The place was originally Michael’s baby, and Val continued her career in New York City’s garment industry. Michael brought seven years’ of summer-job pizza-making experience to his new kitchen, but gave his versions a decidedly upscale twist.
“At the time, it was very unusual to put toppings like artichokes, zucchini and pesto on a pizza,” recalls Val. “Cappuccino? Balsamic vinegar? People hadn’t really heard of these things, and didn’t know what to expect. It took awhile for our menu to catch on.” But, in short order it did, and Val
left her job to join her husband. Michael manned the kitchen solo for the first five years, but is now back-up for a team of great cooks who take the lead on those duties. A master wood craftsman, he has also made much of the cabinetry in the charming, rustic restaurant with exposed brick walls. Val oversees “front of the house” administrative tasks.
Today, Front St. Trattoria is still known for inventive pizzas with crispy, sesame-seed crust. (Yes, plain is available, for less adventuresome eaters.) The deep-dish stuffed pizzas and house salad—bowtie pasta, artichokes, roasted pepper, tomatoes and greens with pesto dressing—have been perennial
favorites, as have entrees like eggplant parmigiana and salmon, according to Val. But, new options like the Mediterranean appetizer platter with beets, roasted peppers, grilled artichokes, olives, and ricotta cheese with balsamic drizzle have gained a devoted fan base.
They now also offer a large selection of vegetarian dishes, and gluten-free options,including cauliflower crust pizzas. “Our menu is based on traditional dishes, but with a little slant,” says Val. “Our food is very flavorful, colorful, and made fresh daily.”
Val says the restaurant, which has a private party area, is a popular spot for wedding rehearsal dinners, engagement parties, showers, and first dates, and more than a few guests have “popped the question” at their tables. “Now we’re seeing their children grow up and come in on dates,”
Val adds. “It’s been wonderful to get to know generations of customers over the years.”
The cozy and romantic restaurant has even inspired a marriage between employees. Paula and Roehl Pangilinan of Tinton Falls met there waiting tables (he later became a cook) in the mid ‘90s. Their work friendship blossomed into a romance, says Paula, “And, now we’ve been married more than
20 years. We just held our daughter’s Sweet 16 party at the restaurant. I think she was the first, official Trattoria baby!”