What I Do: Carl and Nancy McConnell of Stone Soup Cottage

Is it possible to run a restaurant and have a balanced family life? “Absolutely,” said Carl and Nancy McConnell in unison. Here, the husband-and-wife proprietors of 5-year-old Stone Soup Cottage – and parents of two sons, ages 13 and 10 – share their recipe for success.

Stone Soup Cottage is only open three nights a week. Dinner is by reservation only. There is one seating of 40 guests. The menu is a six-course prix fixe with no a la carte options. Why has this business model worked?
Nancy: We’ve stayed true to the fact that we are not for everyone. We are not in it to feed the masses. We just need to have 40, and that’s OK with us.
Carl: We communicate clearly and honestly with prospective clients about exactly what we are and who we are. We don’t mind telling people we might not be for them.
N: On paper, it should have failed. What happened? Word of mouth. That’s what has made the success of our business – and an extremely loyal clientele.

Carl worked for 10 years as a chef on a cruise ship, and Nancy was an international travel director. How does your background in the hospitality and travel industry help you?
N: Whereas he was on the ships, I was on the high-end luxury travel side. I would escort guests on trips like the around-the-world Concorde. The service had to be impeccable. When Carl and I met on the icebreaker ship where we fell in love, we talked about if we were going to do something down the road, it would be an extension of what we did with our travels and hospitality on a very small, personal level.

What is the hardest part of operating a destination restaurant?
N: The expectations of the guest. We are so unique in what we’re doing. For guests who’ve never been here before, (who) may have heard or read something, it’s trying to meet their expectations.

Your New Year’s Eve extravaganzas have always surpassed expectations. What are your plans this year?
N: We’re doing an early seating. Eight courses. At 9:30 p.m., we’re done. Our kids are going to come up for the first time, and we’re going to toast our family. I think that’s going to be the tradition from now on.

In what ways has your family benefited from the restaurant’s hours?
N: We are able to make our schedule for the restaurant to not miss out on any major milestones for our children. We’ve always closed for Halloween. Any of their birthdays, we close. Band, concerts – anything important to them.

Do they help at the restaurant?
N: Our youngest, Colin, loves the creativity with Carl. … Christian is –
C: Terrified of it. … Printing menus, being out here with Nancy, polishing glasses. He’s cool with that.

Will you extend your hours when your sons get older?
N: Yes. We have guests ask us all the time, “When are you going to bring brunch back?” We’ve said from day one, when our kids don’t want to be with us anymore or don’t need us or they have their own jobs, the business will take its twists and turns. But as long as they need us … that is our main job.

What restaurant decisions do you make together?
N: Almost everything. But we are normal. We fight. We disagree. We have to compromise, and we’re two completely different people.
C: I’m the dreamer. Nancy is the realist. She makes it happen.

Even though you manage the front of the house, do you ever feel like a restaurant widow?
N: I am like a restaurant widow.
C: When I’m working back there, I tune everything out. I’m in the zone and unaware of anybody that’s around me. That can be hard, I imagine.

Do you ever sneak into the kitchen and give him a quick peck?
N: Absolutely. Many people have caught us giving (each other) a little smooch.
C: I love her! She’s everything to me.
N: If we’re having a crazy night, just a loving hand on the shoulder, or us looking at each other saying, “We can get through this” – that connection gets us both through.
C: But then there are nights when she wants to kill me …