Thursday, December 06, 2007

It's a Girl!

The best retail operations overall seem to be those where the line between home and business is blurred. Today we saw that in a beautiful way at one of my favorite restaurants, the Channel Café.

Ana Crowley, the cafes owner, had been manning the counter up until last week despite her ponderous baby bump, taking calls and waiting tables in her chic art gallery/foodie café near my office in Fort Point. When I checked the specials this morning, above a dish called “Eggplant Napoleon Dynamite,” it read: “ANA HAD HER BABY!”

I called in an order of grilled salmon with citrus beurre blanc, and when I went inside to pick it up, descending the stairs into the below-ground café, I encountered handmade signs announcing Giselle’s birth weight (7 pounds, 9 ounces) taped to the stairs. At the counter, another pregnant woman stood chatting to the friendly cashier in a soft British accent about her own baby, due sometime next week, gender still unknown. The cashier smiled and laughed, adjusting an array of small pink bags printed with “It’s a Girl!”, placed across the counter, on top of the biscotti jar, nestled in with the Coke in bottled glasses. As she talked and moved, she slipped an extra cookie into the woman’s to-go box … then wrapped another in cellophane and placed it in the woman’s hand.

“Take it,” she said. “You deserve it!”

(Packing my meal next, she said, “Now, you like butter, right?” She slipped an extra packet into my bag.)

A birth is of course remarkable and worth celebrating on its own, but what inspired me was the way the gallery and menu, both showcases for creative works of art, now became places to display Ana’s latest incredible accomplishment. I don’t know many male-owned businesses or restaurants that would celebrate a birth in this way.

I’m consistently impressed with Ana Crowley, who has built an incredible, inspiring concept unlike anything else in Boston. Her gallery is constantly changing, constantly full of high-quality art, and is always open and free to the public, a feat that even the large galleries on Newbury and Harrison can’t always manage. Her only peer in the food business would seem to be Joanne Chang of Flour, another female entrepreneur whose menu communicates clearly a love for comfortable, healthy, sustainable, interesting food, who opened her second bakery just blocks away earlier this year.

It can be uncomfortable at first to think about what distinguishes a female-owned business from a male-owned one, as there are wonderful male-owned businesses (like my boyfriend’s, of course, although I'm biased on this), and certainly mediocre, hostile, woman-owned businesses (I recall my first job at a caterer’s company…so as not to spoil the mood, I won’t describe it). There is no shortage of competency or authenticity among Boston businesses, whether a man or a woman is at the helm. But there are women’s apartments and men’s apartments and obvious differences between them, and for many business owners, a business is simply a second home (or even a primary home). And the thing that distinguishes these two businesses is that they seem to have, for lack of a better word, an unmistakably feminine quality to them.

It’s in the details: the handwritten signs, the homemade desserts, the well-curated art on the walls, the comfortable, intimate tables, the friendly staff trusted with the authority to dispense a free cookie or two on the house to those customers who deserve it. These are places that can actually confer a sense of worth on a customer, beyond what they are able to purchase; a sense that the customer is a member of the family, someone you will see again and again, someone whose successes you will celebrate, and someone whom you will invite to share your most meaningful moments.

I can't speak for other women, but for me, part of being a woman is sensing that giving and sharing, not taking and transacting, is true power. To be able to own one’s own business is an incredible opportunity for a woman to express this on a grand scale. Ana does this with incredible grace. I am sure that the world she is making for her daughter will be an inspiring one. We are lucky to be a part of it.


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