Photography by Cara Livermore of Serif & Script Co. & Chickpea Magazine
Tell us a little about yourself and what you do.
I'm Kelly Metras and at 39, I am a daughter, sister, aunt, mother, wife, boss, and friend. I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and Women’s Studies, and a Master’s Degree in Special Education. I am an owner of Salena's (Mexican) and Nox (comfort food and cocktails), co-founder of BOSSY (support and networking group for women business owners), and Chair of the Rochester Youth Culinary Experience (RYCE).
I like to joke that my job is “gets sh*# done.” It almost went on my business cards. My roles consist of everything from being the accounting department and the HR department, executive decision making (which usually means answering questions that I may not know the answer to), conflict management (employees and/or guests), overall company organization, advertising and promotional planning, putting out "fires," and strategic planning (creatively coming up with ways to move the businesses and projects forward). And then there's the wife and mother stuff. I have 3 daughters, Callan (7), Harper (5), and Lennox (1) with my husband and business partner, Aaron.
Lettering by Anna Vos of Owl Post Lettering
What did you want to be when you were a child?
I wanted to be a marine biologist so I could swim with the Orcas and save the oceans, but then I learned about Orcas in captivity and watched Jaws, and my dreams were smashed. After that, I always veered toward paths to try to make things better, like being a teacher or a social worker.
How did you get started in the restaurant business? What were some of the difficulties you faced in starting?
I started as the worst waitress in Friendly's history- you can ask my parents... they actually said "at least we know what she won’t be doing." That was 22 years ago. I have served, bartended, hosted, bussed, food ran- it started as a flexible way to make cash through school, and then expanded to my 20s, and then into my 30s.
As for what I do now, it began when I met Aaron at Salena's about 10 years ago. We had both worked there forever at that point, but never really the same shifts, location, or time periods as we were both working other jobs and in school. Fast forward to 7 years ago, when the owner asked if we would be interested in buying it- we were flabbergasted- what an opportunity! We had talked about starting a place of our own, and this was something that we already loved and knew so well. And we didn't want the restaurant to go to a stranger- it was like home to us. After some serious contemplation, we decided to buy it. Between the two of us, we had worked every job in the place, so we thought we knew what we were getting into.
The biggest difficulty starting out was financing. Sourcing the money for the down payment was an extremely creative jigsaw puzzle. The second most difficult aspect was walking into work the next day, suddenly the boss to my peers and co-workers of almost a decade, including some family members. Third was the surprise of all the things that come with business ownership that you don't think about until they happen- from payroll taxes to unemployment. It was a lot of learning on our feet, (which is how BOSSY came to be- a place that you can ask questions and bounce thing off other women in the same boat, and then the motivation behind starting RYCE).
Buying Salena’s meant that we couldn’t make major changes, and we still wanted an opportunity to make our own place. When the space across the hall opened, and we jumped on the idea of Nox. It had been lurking in the back of my mind for a long time, and it gave me a creative outlet that I needed. Nox started in 2014, and was my baby. It was a thrilling and new experience for me- Aaron, myself and 3 partners, worked together to create something brand new. My goal was to make a space that I would want to hang out in, and I still spend many of my nights out there.
But none of us had never opened a place from scratch before. I learned that startups and kitchen builds were not much cheaper or easier than buying an existing business. The number of permits and licenses and "city-licensed" people that you need to even begin... But we put in as much of the work as we all could to make it our own. I don’t see the point in hiring and paying people to do things that you can do yourself-deconstruction, painting, staining, stenciling, decorating… I even learned how to grind the concrete floor by hand!
In 2015, I decided I wanted to take all that I had learned so far and transfer it to students in culinary programs in the city. Aaron was as excited about the idea as I was, so we jumped in head first, opening a not-for-profit student-run restaurant called RYCE (Rochester Youth Culinary Experience) in February of this year. The students worked with us on the creation of the restaurant from the ground up, and were so proud of what we all made.
Being a not-profit significantly increased the amount of time it took for the build and financing, and the students needed a lot more support and direction than was expected. The finances were quickly drained, and RYCE ended up opening without a safety net. But we were all so vested in these students and what they created. We truly believed it would take off running, so we went for it. RYCE’s restaurant closed in May. My house was on the line, and my other businesses were on the line- everything was in our name and our credit. We couldn’t risk losing it all, and RYCE was purging money without much of a sign of turning around. It was the hardest decision I have ever been faced with. I call this phase of my life my PHD.
In moments of self-doubt, hardships or failure, how do you build yourself back up?
In 2014, Salena's was flooded due to a fire in an apartment on the 3rd floor. The water main for the building exploded directly over the restaurant. Twice. When I got there, it was raining down the inside of the windows. I thought for sure we had lost everything...
The next day, people showed up out of the woodwork. People I had never met before that had heard on the news. Employees. Family of employees. Our families. Our friends. It was the most beautiful and scariest day of my life. I am still moved by it. Many of them worked with us for the entire 20 days that it took to completely gut the restaurant and build it back up from scratch. Our overhead costs were too high to stay closed the 3-6 months that insurance estimated, and our employees couldn't afford it. So, every day, I got up, kissed my kids while they slept, and went to a construction site until coming home to put them to bed.
I had no idea what I was doing- from the adjusters, the 3rd party adjusters, the building’s insurance claims, our insurance claims, the shopping for new everything, the tearing down, the the power tools... but I got through it. And the stories I could tell! I learned so much in those 20 days, including that my favorite quote may be true: If you think you can, you can. If you think you can't, you’re right.
I have a superpower that can compartmentalize negative thoughts to the back of my head and use as much energy as needed to make them to go away. I don't have time for them. I must continue to think I can, or it all falls apart: my work, my family, my life. But the problem with that strategy is when I am actually failing, I pretty much need it shouted in my face, over and over and over again. I would've poured everything I could’ve into RYCE if I hadn't been shaken into reality. I poured every spare minute into that project while running two other businesses with a newborn at home, which meant that I sacrificed my kids and my health for it, and I couldn’t think that I had done that for nothing. Now I can look at it a little clearer and see the work I accomplished, and the lessons that I learned, and I am starting to think about future projects again.
What is your best advice to someone just starting out? What advice do you wish someone had said to you?
It is ALL about your team. It doesn't have to be your spouse (and I don't know many couples that want to be business partners with their spouses!). But the people you bring in need to work well with you, they need to believe in you, they need to help you with the parts that you aren't strong in. If there is someone that is not moving you forward, you should not have them in your life -employment or by your side. And once you have these people, use them! Delegate whatever they can do to help you get other things done. Delegation is the hardest part of being in charge. You have to be willing to let things get done differently, as long as it is getting done correctly. Just allowing yourself space and time can allow you to see things more efficiently, instead of always chasing your tail (which I still find myself doing pretty often).
As for past Kelly, I wish I had believed in myself as much as I do now, so that I could've listened to advice. I now know to never turn it down, no matter how insane or simple it may seem at the time.
How do you find balance? What inspires you?
To find balance, I use my superpower to try to focus on the positives. Sometimes, my work sucks the life out of me. I have a full-time job that I squish into various parts off my day. So, when work is short-handed, we are the ones filling in, which means another full-time job. But most of the time, I can leave and go to my kids' events at school, I can adjust my schedule when I want to go away for a few days, I can stay home when the kids are sick, I can pay my bills, and I really love what I do and the people I get to work with- those are all really positive and amazing things about my life. I try to remind myself of these things throughout the day, stopping to enjoy the good parts. And I have learned that sometimes balance is found over the course of a month, not a day or a week.
I am inspired by my husband and his willingness to jump into things with me, how loving and supportive he is, and his belief in us. I am inspired by my daughters’ and the world as it is through their eyes and all that they can still become.
As a woman in 2017, seeing the achievements of the women in my life: my mother, grandmother, aunts, mother in laws, sister in laws, friends, the women in BOSSY- how supportive, strong, independent, dedicated, and creative they all are- that is the most inspiring. They have each achieved so much in their lives that it seems normal that I should, too. And some of them don’t even realize it. I am lucky enough to live this life, with all these people, every day. That is both my inspiration and balance.
What is your favorite part of what you do?
The people. Our job is to serve, to give people an enjoyable and relaxing experience with fantastic food, drinks, and service. We aren't saving the oceans (though we try our best with composting and recycling!) but we do get to make people's time better, even if it is just an hour or two. The entire base of my job is to create an experience that makes people happy. How cool is that?!
What do you find most challenging?
Working from home. It is necessary, and it makes my job flexible, but not having a boss is hard enough, but working from home is the worst. There are too many distractions and my kids ruin or steal my office supplies. And once they are in bed, I am TIRED.
Name some local creatives that you really admire.
Kelly Bush, co-Founder of BOSSY and owner of Marshall Street Bar and Grill. We have been on a weird parallel path together for the past decade! She is so grounded and insightful, has such a fun restaurant, and created and expanded the catering aspect into an operation that I am jealous of! She is active in the community, helping businesses get their feet grounded, and has made BOSSY everything that it is today.
Erika Sorbello, owner of Gallery Salon. She has been a friend and trusted hair stylist for, well, it seems like forever. She has been my rock, one of the few people that I share my crazy ideas with, and she always supports me, even if she tells me that I am insane. She has had successes and failures, and if you take one look at her you'd only see that she emits success. When I want to cry and scream and feel sorry for myself, I think of her strength and tenacity, and I get back up and keep moving forward.
Rebecca Fein, owner of Rochester Web Girl, and founder of Empower Our Sisters. I have witnessed her jump in head first to create her design, website, and marketing business, and she has done beautiful work for my projects. And while she was starting a business, she was having babies, and she still threw herself into an endeavor to help raise money and support for women in need. Watch out for this one, Rochester!