Noe Valley Voice February 2008

When Cupid Follows You to Work: How Three Couples Keep It Going

By Heidi Anderson

Come Valentine's Day, there will be more romance brewing behind some Noe Valley storefronts than contained in all the heart-shaped products on the shelves. Here's a glimpse of three Noe Valley couples who live and work together--and haven't gotten tired of either.

They'll Always Have Paris...and 24th Street

Diana Barrand and Max Braud met in Paris 23 years ago, when they worked at the same bank. Barrand had been there for a couple of years; Braud was working in foreign exchange rates while helping out with his family's brasserie on the side.

Soon, though, Braud felt the pull of his family's café-owning history and opened his own small wine bar as a hobby. When it became his sole occupation and he needed some help, Barrand jumped in.

"I was ready for a change," she says.

The wine bar did fine; their romance even better: they wound up married. As for the wine bar, both had enough business sense to see they needed to expand in order to really make a living at it.

"And we had itchy feet," Barrand says.

They set off to America for, well, bigger things. New York was too urban. Chicago wasn't near an ocean. But San Francisco was just right. It had the sea, the wilderness, a cosmopolitan palate--everything they needed for the kind of restaurant they wanted to create.

The couple found a spot on 24th Street and established the charming French bistro Le Zinc (4063 24th Street near Castro). That was six years ago.

Braud says the boundaries in their work relationship were hazy in the beginning.

"At first, I was more involved in organizing the whole restaurant, including the wine list," he recalls. "But she is so organized, she just took her part over, and it's been that way ever since."

Now, Chef Braud handles the kitchen--menu and cook staff--and Barrand deals with what is known as the front of the house--wait staff, table seating, and accounting.

The couple seem to enjoy the weekly rhythm and separate responsibilities they've honed over 15 years of marriage and business.

The other key ingredient: time away from each other. "You have to have a total break by yourself sometimes," says Barrand. "I have my nights off when Max is at work, and he has his when I'm at work." Barrand likes to watch a movie without commentary from her husband, and Braud is a football fan.

"I can't stand American football," says Barrand. So she works on Sunday nights.

Finally, they garnish their romance with a sweet treat. After pulling a combined seven-day week for several weeks, the two get away for four days all alone to some place far from San Francisco. Recently, they stole away to Big Sur.

"If you don't take a decent break, your brain is always on the routine," says Braud. Adds Barrand, "We try not to talk about work at all then. It's a break for us. We get perspective."

Valentine's Day at Le Zinc: Prix-fixe menu with choices including oysters, caviar, lamb, salmon, duck, beef, and a special dessert plate just for the occasion ($65).

'We Really Didn't Like Each Other'

Celia Sack and Paula Harris met a dozen years ago through a mutual friend. One laughed too much, the other too little. No sparks. No problem.

But later they wound up at a literary event where a shared love of books got them talking. Two years later, they were in love.

Sack kept on at her rare-books auction job, and Harris continued her work with the Names Project Foundation, which preserves and promotes the AIDS Memorial Quilt. When a dog-walking business fell into Harris' lap, she took it. She soon found, in booming late-'90s Noe Valley, that the pet parade was too much for one woman to handle.

"I was ready to change what I was doing," Sack says. "So I helped out."

Both had been daydreaming about owning their own business, and soon dog-walking was lucrative enough to enable them to open a pet-supply store, Noe Valley Pet Company (now in its ninth year at 1451 Church Street at Cesar Chavez).

Something else was working for the pair, who live in the Castro.

"Laughter!" the two bark in unison.

"Actually, I think the best advice we ever got," says Harris, "was to maintain our 'separate spheres.'"

Like Braud and Barrand of Le Zinc, one runs the front of the store and the other manages the back. Aside from an incident here and there (don't ask them about a delivery mishap a few weeks ago), they follow that rule.

So day-in day-out, don't they ever get tired of each other? Sack and Harris have an unusual ritual to maintain sanity.

"Well, um, we drive to work separately almost every day," says Harris. It was her idea.

"Paula can listen to the radio station she wants, even sneak a cigarette," says Sack, who admits driving two cars to and from the same location each day isn't the greenest plan. "But it's the space we need."

Even these two will say a five-minute drive to work alone doesn't solve all the problems that running a small business can dish out. For that, Sack and Harris rely on their customers.

"We try very hard not to snipe at each other during the day," Harris says. "But sometimes if we're overwhelmed, we will argue about something." That's usually when, as if on cue, a customer will walk in with a pressing issue with regard to, say, his dog's intestinal idiosyncrasies.

"One of us will get pulled into the conversation, the other will get distracted by the phone," says Sack. "Minutes later, we'll look at each other and say, 'What were we fighting about?'"

Both say the best part of running the store is sharing good and bad times with customers and each other, everything from pet adoptions (and losses) to events like 9/11. Says Harris, "I can't imagine us not running this store together."

Valentine's Day at Noe Valley Pet Company: Fall in love on Saturday, Feb. 9, when Grateful Dogs Rescue brings adoptable dogs to the store, noon to 3 p.m.

Love or Money? They'll Take Love

Gene Ginsberg and Joanie Basso-Ginsberg met at a Philadelphia hospital where she was a nurse and he frequently stopped in as part of his art-therapy work with drug rehabilitation patients. That was 1975. Nowadays, they run the venerable PastaGina (741 Diamond Street near 24th Street). How did they get from there to here?

"Joanie's family comes from the north and the south of Italy," Ginsberg says, meaning she was steeped in both types of cooking since birth.

"We got kind of tired of the East Coast thing," Ginsberg says, "and friends told me it was great to come out here." So in 1977, they moved to San Francisco, where Basso-Ginsberg took a nursing job at a hospital, and he continued working in drug rehab. When the chance to co-own a bar on 24th Street opened up, Ginsberg took it on and discovered his management skills. The two married in 1978.

Basso-Ginsberg had been diagnosed with Crohn's disease, a genetic intestinal disorder, when she was 19. In San Francisco, she had an episode of ill health that forced her to quit her nursing job. Still, the couple hosted great parties, where she served food from her family recipes.

When she felt better, she took a part-time job at Auntie Pasta. Ginsberg followed and managed several of the Auntie Pasta stores. The chain grew fast but ended up going bankrupt in the mid-'90s. The old Auntie Pasta spot was ripe for something new. "We knew we could do our own foods--and we wanted to open up a local shop five blocks from our house," says Ginsberg. His wife adds, "We still have the same cooks since we opened!" That was 1995.

Joanie supervised all the food preparation, and Gene, known to friends as "Gino," managed the look and feel of the store. And so was born PastaGina, a gourmet deli featuring homemade pasta and sauces, confections, olives, wine, and other upscale dishes.

Easy as pizza pie? Not at all. The two had to work long hours and manage a string of small-business woes during bust economic times. Recently, Basso-Ginsberg had her longest struggle with Crohn's. "At one point I was away from the shop almost a year," she says. "The shop then, it was all Gene. He had to wear all the hats."

Ginsberg adds that his wife would sometimes direct PastaGina's kitchen from her hospital bed, phone to her ear and clipboard in her hand.

They still feel lucky to have made it through some tough times running their small neighborhood business.

"That saying, you know, 'For love or money'? For us it's for the love," says Basso-Ginsberg.

The couple recently signed a new lease on Diamond Street, and will soon open a booth at the Noe Valley Farmers' Market.

This summer they'll be celebrating 30 years of marriage.

Valentine's Day at PastaGina: Special take-home dinner for two ($20), which includes: pasta or ravioli, sauce, house-blended cheese, and a mix of cookies, cupcakes, and truffles. Also recommended is a Seghesio zinfandel ($23.95) and the "pastry of love," a fresh homemade cannoli stuffed with sweet cheese and chocolate chips ($4.95 each).