Ever dream of opening a restaurant with your favorite recipes, a wood-burning pizza oven, art and music? This single woman defied the odds and did exactly that.
I met Marva Marrow when she was visiting Milan in 1988. Her former boyfriend, a well-known Italian fusion jazz musician, called me hoping I’d let her stay at my flat. His new girlfriend wasn’t happy with the idea of Marva staying with him — at a home that had once been theirs. I was delighted at the prospect of having her stay with me. It was a welcome relief from two years of too many Italians, and I needed conversation that didn’t require effort.
We’ve been friends ever since — sometimes close, sometimes far — and Marva has continually impressed me with her courage to pursue her passions. Yes, she’s single, but beyond her relationship status, she encompasses much of the singular philosophy. Independent and fearless, she refuses to lead a conventional life.
I recently sat down with Marva to learn more about her latest venture, the launch of 7th Heaven Café, a casual gourmet restaurant in Upland, California. I knew she’d have valuable insight to share for anyone with a dream they’d like to make a reality.
Kim: You’ve had a lot of different careers – singer/songwriter, magazine photographer, ceramic artist, recording artist and songwriter, journalist, including associate editor at Singular magazine, raising champion show cats — even becoming a certified feline behaviorist. During that time you’ve always enjoyed cooking for friends and family. But how did you make the jump from food being a hobby to launching your own restaurant?
Marva: I was a born foodie and have cooked since I was 6 years old — as soon as I could reach the kitchen counter. When my mother separated from my father and had to go to work, she would leave me the raw ingredients for dinner in the morning and tell me to “make something” for dinner. Later, I babysat for a French woman who taught me classic cooking techniques. Through experimentation, I learned that I had a very sensitive palate and a deep curiosity about food.
In my 20s, I was a singer-songwriter and went to Italy. I ended up staying for 13 years and worked with many top Italian pop artists, including my boyfriend at the time, Patrick Djivas of PFM. Our home, both in Italy and when we came to Los Angeles to record, was a center of social activity — with music and food, always food. For Italians, getting together always involves food and I became proficient in the techniques and tastes of authentic Italian cuisine.
In 2009, I started making Italian biscotti, and preserves and sauces that I sold at farmers’ markets. It was labor intensive — 14-hour days to make the product, then getting up at 5 a.m., lugging 50 cases of preserves to the market, standing there for five hours, then packing up and starting production all over again. Exhausting! On top of that, I also had a catering and direct-delivery gourmet lunch service in Riverside.
But none of this was sufficiently constant or lucrative. I would’ve needed to clone myself several times to make it physically possible. So after several years of that, I decided to combine my love for art and food, and take the giant leap into opening a restaurant.
Kim: What were some of the challenges you faced and overcame in the process of launching 7thHeaven Café? Did you ever feel like it might not happen? If so, how did you overcome the fear that you might not succeed?
Marva: I like to jest that I graduated from the University of Hard Restaurant Openings. I knew that opening and running a restaurant would require working long hours on my feet. I had no issue with that. I’m a hard worker and I’m used to the long hours. However, I had no clue whatsoever about the “other” aspects and issues that could, and would, come my way.
For example, I signed my five-year lease contract on August 19, 2013. I had spoken to several contractors and they assured me I would be able to open my doors before Christmas. Well, I wasn’t able to open until July 25 of 2014! It took every penny of my life’s savings and every line of credit I could muster.
Early on, actually the day after I had signed the lease, the “anchor” store, an Albertsons supermarket in the strip mall where my restaurant is located, announced they were closing. That left only a UPS store, a dry cleaners and a Chipotle to attract passerby.
The next “uh-oh” came from the highly recommended kitchen designer I hired. Obviously, a restaurant kitchen is not just a pretty thing. There are a zillion code requirements as well as technical aspects that must satisfy city, county and state regulations — Health, Building and Safety, Fire Department, etc.
Once the landlord’s contractors had completed expanding my space from 1,300 square feet to 1,800 square feet (it had been a Quiznos that failed 18 months earlier) I thought we would get our city building permit and start construction. But it didn’t happen that way. Weekly, I’d email or call the kitchen designer, who always had an excuse. Finally, after four months, he called with good news: we would have our permit the following Wednesday. I was elated and advised the general contractor. On the following Tuesday, I called the designer to confirm that we would have our construction permit the next day. He answered, “Well … I have a couple of small things to do first…”
Furious, my red-headed temper rose to the surface. I lost it. I immediately headed to the city offices to see what was going on, thinking, as I had been led to believe, that it was the city that was creating the delays. To my astonishment, the city officials didn’t even know who the designer was — he hadn’t even turned in the plans! He’d been lying to me the whole time.
So, even though I was completely inexperienced in such matters, I had to take things into my own hands and begged the city for their help. Three weeks later, I had the plans and permit in hand, and was able to begin construction. But at that point, it was already the Christmas season with much work still to be done.
I had a five-month grace period before I had to pay rent − two months of that had already passed. But I calculated I would still be able to open with a reasonable cushion of funds. Then, another big obstacle arrived near the end of the grace period, this time from the landlord who turned out to be unyielding and unsympathetic. The obstacle: the landlord’s fire alarm monitoring company.
As per the fire department, and very strict California regulations, the hood over the stove had to be connected to the building’s fire monitoring system. I couldn’t choose my own alarm company — it had to be the one contracted by the landlord. Everything was ready for the opening, except for this one item, an issue that would take technicians a half-day of work — if they ever arrived — which they did not.
I waited… and waited… enduring more bad behavior from uncooperative contractors in a male-dominated environment. My grace period ran out and I had to start paying $5,000 a month in rent — with no way to open my restaurant until the monitoring system was installed.
I wrote rivers of emails, screamed and ranted, made suggestions, threats and sometimes wept tears of frustration, but nothing moved. I continued to pay rent for three months while my restaurant was left in a state of limbo. Finally, they got their act together and completed the job. Two days later, I had my final permits in hand and opened 7th Heaven Café.
Although I had originally wanted to have a couple of weeks to smooth out the rough edges, I didn’t have that luxury. I was completely out of money! With an iron-clad lease that leaned heavily in the landlord’s favor (my real estate broker turned was inexperienced in negotiating important aspects of the contract), I had no options. I had to open and I had to make it successful.
Less than a month after opening, the owner of the dry cleaners, 100 feet away from my restaurant, started to complain that smoke from our custom built, wood-burning Italian pizza oven was seeping into his store. He had an evaporative cooler to remove chemical fumes from his store, which by definition, sucked in all the surrounding air outside, including the smoke from our pizza oven. He threatened to sue. My sister, who saved the day, stepped in to give me $15,000 for a “smoke scrubber” machine.
I’m still encountering other challenges. It seems that despite being busy serving happy customers, there seems to be more money going out than coming in: payroll, taxes, the high rent, giant electric bills, unforeseen “extra” expenses, food, wood for the pizza oven (we only use oak), but it seems we do have a good chance of survival — and success — now.
Kim: Those were some daunting challenges for sure! Were there any “lucky breaks” that came your way and encouraged you to keep going?
Marva: The best part of this whole experience is that from the first day we opened, our customers responded incredibly enthusiastically to our food; to the concept of fresh, original and authentic recipes with a twist, and to the decor, which I designed myself, with some input from an artist friend.
I knew there was no wood-fired pizza available in Upland or the surrounding cities, but I didn’t realize that people were so hungry, literally, for simple, creative, seasonal food like we provide. From the beginning, customers wrote glowing reviews on Yelp and Facebook and continue to do so. I am constantly astonished that the reception we’ve received is so unabashedly positive.
In February 2015, Smart & Final will open a store where the old Albertsons was, and that should bring us good foot traffic. Westways Magazine is featuring 7th Heaven Cafe in their Bon Appetite section in their March-April issue. We were also featured in the very popular KFI “Fork Report” radio talk show and several listeners called in to say we were their favorite restaurant! Quite heartwarming.
Kim: You did this as a single woman, but not alone, correct? Tell us about how your friends and family helped you reach your goal.
Marva: Actually, I did this alone, with some emergency help from my sweet sister, who really stepped in to save me when I was completely up against the wall. It all ended up costing three times what I thought it would and a year to open, instead of the original “conservative” estimate of four months.
But I am blessed with an amazing team of employees, starting with Stacey Amagrande, who is a friend from the High Desert, where I live. I met her at a farmers’ market. She earned a top position in the Master Chef TV show two years ago. She shares my love of fresh food, Mediterranean cuisine with Asian touches. She is a talented young chef in her own right and an absolutely essential part of my team. The other people I have working for me are all motivated by our philosophy and methods, and they go far above and beyond in providing our customers with great food and communicating what we do.
Since we don’t have traditional wait staff and have an open-style kitchen, everyone who works with us wears many hats: food prep, pizza prep, customer relations, POS service, coffee drink prep, beer/wine service, and more. These are all people I constantly rely on and who always have my back. I’m eternally grateful that they “see” what we are trying to achieve and are so enthusiastic and reliable in their support. I think this is very unusual. I doubt that many restaurants have employees that are so involved in the success of the venture. I’m very lucky.
Kim: What makes 7th Heaven Café unique, what do you offer that makes it a stand-out in Upland, and do you think you would ever consider expanding to Los Angeles?
Marva: I have been told that our “look” is unique — a combination of distressed industrial and artist loft. The design is mine, done on a shoestring budget and my super close-up microcosm photos of different aspects of abandoned buildings in the desert.
The food is all made from scratch: house-roasted meats, chicken and Italian homemade sausages, seasonal produce, my own dressings and sauces, soups, homemade desserts, or my chef’s small plates.
We have a lot of gluten-free and vegetarian (or vegan) options and an unusual, award-winning chili. You’ll find authentic recipes with a twist and original recipes. And of course our wood-fired pizzas. You can create your own or choose one of our delicious combinations, such as homemade chicken sausage and caramelized onions, or our “BLT” pizza with pesto, natural bacon, mozzarella and fresh tomato, arugula and balsamic vinaigrette that’s added after cooking.
We offer craft beers, handpicked wines and coffee drinks. And we have a lovely tree-shaded patio and easy parking.
I am definitely considering opening a second location — not sure where yet. I would love to have financial partners this time, though.
Kim: Any advice for our Singular readers who may be entertaining a dream of launching their own business?
Make sure you do your homework. Check to see if there are similar businesses in the area to avoid overlapping — unless you truly have something unique (be truthful with yourself about that, or ask others for their input!).
Check out the physical access and visibility for customers. Don’t get too emotional — be objective. Get someone really experienced to negotiate the lease contract. Don’t start anything without an EXTRA financial cushion. Consider the pros and cons of a potential partner — both their personality, their capacity for stress, what they really bring to the table in terms of work and talents, and whether this relationship will be long- or short- term.
For sure, don’t think that anything will be a quick way to make a buck. It all takes time, patience, passion and lots and lots of hard work. Make lists of your talents, professional and other experience. Make reasonable goals.
In my restaurant business, there are things that are key, but I think they apply to most businesses with slight changes in wording:
1. Offer excellent quality and value. Don’t compromise on quality.
2. Provide smiling, genuinely interested customer care and service. Customer service is key. Word of mouth is the best advertising. You can’t buy it!
3. Provide dependability and offer a brand or products that are recognizable and that you can maintain.
4. Be hands-on with the business. Being there will inspire your employees and guarantee quality.
5. Realize that you will need to work long hours, but that you’ll also reap emotional (and hopefully financial) satisfaction for something you have created and that is really yours.