What It's Like to Run a Bar With Your Spouse

Two sets of hands working over a bar well.

Photo above by J.R. Ward.

Owning a bar is one part mixing drinks and two parts customer service — with dashes of bookkeeping, housekeeping, staff management, inventory and marketing thrown in for good measure. So what happens when you add a relationship to the mix?

Two couples — Anna Levy Mains and Drew Mains of Oklahoma City’s In the Raw Sushi Bar, Knucks Wheelhouse, and Rockford Cocktail Den, and Krista and Jerry Slater of Atlanta’s H. Harper Station — who are managing thriving restaurants and relationships, offer their take on mixing personal with professional.

“There are advantages to being married to your business partner,” says Anna, who has owned and operated Raw Sushi Bar with her husband Drew for almost four years.

“This industry demands all of your time and attention. The hours are odd. It would be really hard to find quality time with Drew if he worked a normal 9 to 5 job. I like that he can understand where I’m coming from and what my day is like,” she continues.

A portrait of a couple sitting in front of a bar. Anna Levy Mains and Drew Mains have found that one of the best things about running bars as a couple is understanding one another's schedule when the industry demands long, odd and demanding hours away from home. Photo by Garett Fisbeck.

The couple met as bartenders and decided to buy In the Raw Sushi Bar when the previous owner was looking to sell back in 2012. They have since opened two additional restaurants together.

“It does help that I love fine dining and focus mostly on Raw Sushi and our newest project, Rockford Cocktail Den, while Knucks — which is really dive bar-esque and serves pizza by the slice — is more of his baby. That way, we’re not stepping on each other’s toes all of the time.”

Krista started working at H. Harper and dating Jerry after he had already opened the bar, making it a bit more challenging to think of it as a joint endeavor.

“I was definitely hesitant to step on his toes or do things without asking his permission. Now, I’m much better about making decisions without checking with him. He has said all along, ‘this is YOUR business, too, not just mine.’ I’m finally doing a better job of taking ownership of things,” she says.

Both couples agree that division of labor is the key to keeping things running smoothly.

“Drew and I have very opposite personalities, so our strengths balance each other out,” says Anna. “He’s a numbers and behind-the-scenes guy, and I am much more gregarious. I love front of house and hospitality, talking to people and engaging with our customers every day.”

A couple hugging one another and looking at the camera. Krista and Jerry Slater advocate for separating responsibilities based on strengths to maintain harmony at the workplace and in your relationship. Photo by Pableaux Johnson.

The Slaters have found success in similar distributions of responsibility.

“Our division of labor works perfectly for us,” says Krista. “As a couple, our differences are strengths for the business.”

“We’re both Leos, but she’s the detail person, and I’m the big picture guy,” interjects Jerry.

“I’m better at the books, event planning, social media, whatever grassroots public relations needs to be done. Jerry’s our plumber, our oven and cooler fixer, and back of house manager,” explains Krista.

“Krista’s my unpaid personal assistant,” jokes Jerry. “She makes sure I stay on track for the important things, like getting a recipe to a magazine or planning for a big event,” he continues.

But spending the day working on separate tasks gives the couple something to look forward to when rejoining forces.

“We love going our separate ways when we come into work in the morning and then coming together around 4 p.m. to work in tandem behind the bar,” says Krista.

Of course, working with your spouse is not without challenges.

“I think regardless of industry, any partners in business together find it difficult to have a conversation about work problems and keep emotions out of it. You just have to learn to not take it personally,” explains Anna. “I think it’s really important before you go into business with a partner to sit down and be realistic and honest about any of your strengths, weaknesses, how you’ll handle differences of opinions, how to keep the personal feelings out of it and look at things as you would with any business partner.”

Getting away from the business once in a while is also key.

“Our industry is what people do to relax, but it reminds us of work, so in our down time, we avoid anything to do with restaurants and bars” explains Anna. “Sometimes, we get off work and go to the midnight showing of a movie. We don’t even care what’s playing; we just need to take our mind off work.”

“I imagine our mornings are what most people’s evenings are. We love doing pour-over coffee, sitting for an hour, reading about Beyoncé or the latest news, and chatting about ideas for work,” says Krista. “When we’re not working, we love to cook at home. Even on our ‘half days’ when we get home at 8 p.m., we put a record on, pour some wine, and make something lovely together. It helps us decompress.”

What words of wisdom did they share for couples going into business together?

“Our industry sounds glamorous. I love it, I feed off high anxiety and stress, but there’s not a day off once you own your own business. Make sure you have some time each week to connect with each other, as well as time alone to re-charge. We probably should have more rules about separation of work and home,” continues Jerry, “but we enjoy and love what we do, and in the end, that’s all that matters.”