As Ted Stelzenmuller was getting ready to open his new restaurant in Canton last year, he met with a lawyer to go over paperwork. The lawyer offered a story about his own restaurant experience.
"The first thing he said was, 'I grew up in restaurants. My family started a business together, and now they don't speak,' " Stelzenmuller said.
The lawyer's story was a cautionary tale. Stelzenmuller's mother, Michele Jackson, was sitting next to him in the lawyer's office, looking at the prospect of becoming co-owner of Jack's Bistro in Canton and partly responsible for a hefty loan to get her son's restaurant up and running.
Despite the warning, the pair took the plunge into partnership - and Stelzenmuller joined a group of well-known young chefs in Baltimore who recently have taken on their first restaurants with the help of their parents.
Stelzenmuller and Jackson opened Jack's Bistro in January. Chef Jason Ambrose and his mother, Jane Ambrose, are co-owners of Salt, the popular tavern near Patterson Park. And Nicholas Batey bought the established Federal Hill restaurant Bicycle last year with support from his parents, Nathaniel and Shirley Batey.
In each case, the parents have not only put up money (although none would say how much), but they also work at the restaurants, balancing the books or playing host at the door.
Most diners have eaten in a family restaurant at one time or another, and some people may dream of opening a place with a menu full of family recipes.
But a restaurant tests even close-knit families. As businesses, restaurants are pressure cookers, and they are prone to failure - an Ohio State University study found that about 60 percent close within three years. Moreover, the study found that restaurants generally go out of business not for financial reasons, but because of personal problems among the owners - disagreement, divorce or fatigue.
"There is so much sweat equity that goes into a restaurant, and that can exacerbate tensions" between family members, said Quentin Fleming, an adjunct professor of business at the University of Southern California and the author of Keep the Family Baggage Out of the Family Business.
People tend to bring their family roles into their businesses, which leads to trouble, Fleming said. He advises parents and their adult children to view each other strictly as business partners.
That "just business" attitude is probably most pronounced at Salt. When Jane Ambrose talks about why she opened a restaurant with her son, she sounds less like a doting mother and more like a financial-planning consultant, her career for 25 years before becoming a restaurateur.
"Jason and I had mutual business interests," she said. She wanted to get into real estate. Jason, a self-described "control freak" who was tired of working for other managers and chefs in Baltimore, decided he was either going to open his own restaurant or get out of the food business altogether.
In 2004, Jane Ambrose purchased a rowhouse in up-and-coming Butchers Hill and converted the top floor into apartments and the bottom floor into Salt. Mother and son are each 50 percent owners of the restaurant.
The rowhouse investment guards against the risk in the restaurant. Jane Ambrose could sell the rowhouse and still walk away with money, even if Salt flopped.
But it hasn't. Jane Ambrose has gotten a crash course in the restaurant business while working the door at Salt, having to deal with crowds and turn away disappointed diners who couldn't get seated.
Mother and son had a heated disagreement about the restaurant's design early on, but they say their skills and interests have mainly complemented one another.
Jason calls his mother a "financial whiz," a side of the business to which he is not particularly suited.
And she has left the kitchen - which has gotten rave reviews for unusual items, like Asian barbecue duck crepes - to her son. "My mother is a vegetarian who lives off of bowls of ice cream and coffee," he said. "Food is not something she ever wanted to have a role in."
Sure he could do it Nathaniel and Shirley Batey viewed helping their son Nicholas open a restaurant as a way to be supportive, as well as a financial investment. They saved money for years to do it, but they expected to wait until Nicholas was at least 30.
The chef came to them in 2005 when he was only 26, confident that he could run his own kitchen. He had been working in several restaurants, most recently as sous-chef for Michael Jordan's The Steak House N.Y.C. in Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal.
"We knew it was a risk, but the idea of the three of us doing this together was never in question," said Nathaniel Batey, who is an IT specialist for the Social Security Administration.
When they were first looking into the food business, the Bateys had considered opening a brand-new restaurant. But the cost of such a venture could have run as high as $1.5 million - well out of their price range.
They looked at an empty space in Owings Mills, where two restaurants had closed. Their bank wouldn't provide a loan for that location.
Then they looked in the city at the Bicycle, a Federal Hill restaurant then owned by Deborah Mazzoleni and Barry Rumsey. Nathaniel Batey didn't think much of the space at first, because it was smaller than the spot they had seen in Owings Mills. But Nicholas was smitten.
"He said, 'Pop, this is it. This is the one,' " Batey said.
Nathaniel and Shirley Batey work in the restaurant, where the family business now includes four people - Saundra Jackson, the chef's fiancee, is general manager of the Bicycle. The Bateys regard her as a full partner.
"I'm the owner," Nathaniel Batey said, "but she's the boss."
The four partners hold meetings every two weeks, where they discuss business strategy and hold votes on major decisions. Nathaniel Batey says that he and his wife often defer to their son's and Saundra Jackson's point of view.
"We just keep a close eye on them," he said.
Two's company Jack's Bistro, named for Jack Tripper's restaurant in the '70s show Three's Company, was like a gift from mother to son.
When Stelzenmuller started looking into opening a restaurant, he told his mother about his plans to find investors, and he asked her if she was interested in the venture. She pondered it for a week, then agreed. "I was floored," Stelzenmuller said.
Michele Jackson said she was interested in the restaurant as an investment, but more importantly, she wanted to give her son the opportunity to be his own boss. "It's so important doing something yourself, not having to report to somebody," she said. "I wanted him to be able to experience that."
She was also well aware of the risk. "I worried, because the failure rate is so high for restaurants."
Together they picked the location and designed the interior. Jackson does the books for the restaurant.
Like Jane Ambrose, she stayed out of the kitchen. As his own boss, Stelzenmuller has used his freedom to offer diners wacky dishes, like macaroni and cheese with chocolate.
The first few weeks after opening, before the bistro had turned a profit, were tense for both Jackson and Stelzenmuller. "She was very nervous," Stelzenmuller said. "I felt really bad for her."
Jackson, who works in pharmaceutical sales, has faced difficult financial times in the past. She found herself completely broke in the mid-1990s, after she divorced Stelzenmuller's father. She struggled her way out of debt and now lives comfortably in Towson.
The awful thought of losing his mother's money drives Stelzenmuller to work nearly 100 hours every week at Jack's Bistro. He calls his mother every day, and tells her how business went the previous night.
"There is an immense amount of pressure," he said. "I'm not going to screw this up for her. I'm not going to fail."
Nicholas Batey // BicycleParents Shirley and Nathaniel Batey saved money for years to help their son Nicholas buy a restaurant. "The idea of us doing this together was never in question," says Nathaniel Batey.
Address: 1444 Light St., Federal Hill, 410-234-1900
The chef/owner: Nicholas Batey, 27
The parent partners: Nathaniel and Shirley Batey
Food: Bistro fare with a pan-Asian influence
On the menu: Sashimi tuna and avocado tartare ($12); Mongolian barbecue beef short ribs ($26)
Jason Ambrose // SaltJane Ambrose, whom her son Jason calls a "financial whiz," bought a rowhouse in 2004 and converted the bottom floor into Salt.
Address: 2127 E. Pratt St., Butchers Hill, 410-276-5480
The chef/owner: Jason Ambrose, 35
The parent partner: Jane Ambrose
Food: "New-American tavern"
On the menu: Curried lobster crab cakes ($12); pecan-crusted venison tenderloin ($25)
Ted Stelzenmuller // Jack's BistroChef Ted Stelzenmuller says of his mother and co-owner, Michele Jackson: "I'm not going to screw this up for her."
Address: 3123 Elliott St., Canton, 410-878-6542
The chef/owner: Ted Stelzenmuller, 33
The parent partner: Michele Jackson
On the menu: Guinness-braised meat and cinnamon-scented potatoes ($10); Maine lobster cake with potatoes andmushrooms, served in a bento box ($19.75)
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