The Next Generation: Lisa Schroeder & Stephanie Cohen

By Kathleen Squires  |  October 4, 2013

Lisa Schroeder cooks just like your mother does. That is, if your mother studied at the CIA in Hyde Park, NY. And if your mother worked in celebrated kitchens in France, such as Roger Verge’s Moulin de Mougins, and in famed New York City restaurants like Le Cirque. And if your mother happened to publish a cookbook, fittingly titled, Mother’s Best. So there’s a reason why Schroeder’s matzoh balls and pot roast might have a little more finesse than the usual. The matron behind Mother’s Bistro and Bar in Portland combines her world-class training with a love of home-cooked comfort food.

Schroeder left New York City in 1998 for Portland, where she opened Mother’s Bistro in 2000. It was a dream-come-true for Schroeder, and for a while, every day was Mother’s Day at the restaurant, as her daughter, Stephanie Cohen, worked by her side for seven years. Stephanie was also a part of Mama Mia, which Schroeder opened in 2004 and sold in 2011.

However, while the mother-daughter pair are very close, they discovered the hard way that parents and children don’t always make the best team in business. And while Stephanie, 33, no longer works for mom Lisa, 55, she remains in the restaurant game, still using the invaluable restaurant-life lessons that her mother taught her. Over a mother/daughter chat, the duo shared their thoughts about how family business can get personal - and whether mother does always know best.

Lisa Schroeder: Before I started cooking, I was working in New York for Weight Watchers International, taking care of my daughter and my husband at the time, and working 13 hours a day at my job. And one day, after my 13th hour at my job trying to figure out what I was going do for dinner for the family, I started thinking about how I could get Thai food, Mexican food, Chinese food—there were so many options in New York at the time. But where could I get “mother food,” the kind of food that I would make if I had the time? And so, I realized back in 1992 that the world needed a place that served “mother food.” That was the epiphany that got me started, and I set my sights on doing that. I applied to the Culinary Institute of America and got accepted. When I opened Mother's, it really was eight years in the making. Everything I did from 1992 onward got me ready to open the restaurant of my dreams.

Stephanie Cohen: Mother’s really was her long-time dream. I remember when she was at the CIA talking about it. She finally was able to get the means and get the people that supported her and trusted her and she was finally able to do it in 2000.

LS: My own mother had a restaurant in Philadelphia before I was born. Her first husband had a restaurant called Tartack's and she worked in it as a server. Then they divorced and my mom opened up her own little restaurant called The Little Spot. The restaurant only had four seats at a counter and two booths, and she really did well at it. Once I was born, she had sold it. But she was still an amazing cook and I grew up around really delicious food. She would do huge French dinners for 20 people, for example. So, my mother was a successful businesswoman and I guess I inherited the food gene. But she died when I was 21 and she never got to see me getting into the business. I have her picture hanging up in the kitchen at Mother’s.

When I was about to open up the restaurant, Stephanie had left college and was living in New York City. She said, “Well, if you're going to open restaurant, I think I'm going to move to Portland and help you.” It's in her genes, too, obviously.

SC: I wanted to get in the business. I actually moved out to Portland with my mother knowing that she was going to be opening up a restaurant. And when I first got to Portland, I worked at Nike and they knew it was part-time as I was waiting for my mom's restaurant to open. Then, I opened up Mother's with her, and then, also opened Mama Mia's with her. So, I wanted to be a part of it all.

LS: She started as a server, and then she was a bartender and a host. I sent her to bartending school, so she learned all that. Then she was a manager. Stephanie went to school for accounting so she really knows her numbers, too, so she also did the books. She worked with me a total of seven years. She’s extremely competent and can do any job. And I loved that at times I didn’t even have to finish a sentence. I would start a thought and she was already off and doing it. And it was great to see my child every day.

SC: It was really interesting working for my mother. A lot of people thought that I might get special treatment. That wasn't the case. I would call her Lisa, and everybody would ask, “Why do you call your mother Lisa?” And I said, “It’s work. I couldn't walk around the restaurant going Mom, Mom, Mom.” So, it was great because in one sense she trusted me and I was always there for her if she ever needed anything. But it did put a big strain on our relationship working together for so long.

LS: Why it ended was there became moments where Stephanie needed to be disciplined as an employee. And then, once she had to be disciplined, things started getting fuzzy. One piece of advice somebody in a family business shared with me was that you have to say, “OK. Now, I'm putting my boss hat on, and not my mother hat. Now I'm your boss.” Those moments were not defined for us. So, she would always see me as a mother. And even though at work she'd call me Lisa or whatever, really in her heart of hearts, it was still her mother either scolding her or critiquing her or writing her up. I also don't think it was good for her to see me as a boss and how I behaved as a boss. I think that shifted her perception as me as her mother. So seeing me in the business, being maybe tough or harsh, and then having to balance that with who she knew as a loving mother and a caring individual, could be hard for her. So once that started to get fuzzy, and there was some action that needed to taken, we both came to the decision that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to work together. Because I don't want to have to write up my daughter and I don't want to discipline my daughter. I can always find another employee to wait tables or be a manager.

SC: It was hard because we mixed her being my boss, her being a grandma to my children, and then, also being my mother. Every time we got together, we talked about the restaurant and we talked business. Or if something had happened at work...it carried over, and we were never able to have a true mother/daughter relationship. I didn’t feel like I had a mom. And I wanted my mom.

LS: Working with a family member can be the greatest thing in the world. I felt very blessed that I got to work with my daughter as long as I did. I really did. I loved it. I loved seeing her and being able to work with her. I think it's a gift. But if anyone of those cards should move, if you don't keep the homeostasis, then that house of cards starts to go.

SC: She taught me everything about the restaurant business, which carries over to the other places I have worked. I worked at Salty's, a classic Portland restaurant that has been around forever. I worked at Ruth’s Chris. Cheesecake Factory, for a minute. Now I'm at Touché Restaurant and Bar as a floor manager and office manager. She taught me how to deal with people and companies, how to do reference checks, how to communicate with guests, and how important guest satisfaction is. And I got to see in real life how much she communicates with tables and customers and I realize how important that is. It's hard now to work with non-family members because my opinions to others aren't as "important." If I came to my mom with an idea or with a suggestion, it was taken much more seriously.

LS: Well, wherever Stephanie goes, she's really good at a lot. What she might need to learn is humility. I think the biggest advice I can give is that while you may know more than others, you're going to need to put on your employee hat, even if you can do that general manager's job. If you're opting to be a server, then be the server. You can't critique somebody for doing a bad job as a general manager because you don't have that job. That's their job. And so, you have to step back and realize your place and accept it. And so, yeah, not everybody's going to be the best general manager. And yes, you could probably do it better. But be humble and do the job you're hired for to the best of your ability.

SC: My mom just always believed in me. She always thought that I had value. She still gives me great encouragement. I ask her questions now and she will say things like, “Well, stand back. Let it be. Let it be.” The best part was watching her creation come to fruition because of her hard work. I was watching her dream come true, and that was a beautiful thing to watch.

LS: I have four grandchildren. A 9-year-old boy, a 10-year-old girl, and then twin 15-month old boys. I do wish that they would get into the business. I keep saying to my granddaughter, “Are you going to be my next chef?” I keep saying to my grandson, “I heard you made an omelet. I was all excited.” Who is going to be my next one? So I keep looking to one of them. I'm ever so hopeful they'll want to go into the business. Because with a restaurant named Mother's, I absolutely want it to stay in the family.