By Helen Mitternight
Business gurus shake their heads and warn against working with family – the nurturing of parent-child relationships can smother a business; the intensity of sibling rivalry can explode a corporation.
But Jillian Schenzel – who owns Semilla (both the food truck and the restaurant) with her brother, Macready Downer –is used to balancing work and family. She met her husband on her first day in Charleston and soon gave birth to twins.
It all works, she says, because she accepts controlled chaos as the state of her life right now.
Jillian was not thrilled with her job in digital technology and marketing in San Francisco in 2013, when her older brother asked her to help open a restaurant in Charleston. He’d fallen in love with the city. The siblings found a place on St. Philip Street, but the building’s owner ran out of money after negotiating with the Board of Architectural Review for more than two years. In January 2017, Jillian and Macready detoured into a food truck named Semilla, which means “seed,” with the hope that it would grow into big things.
“It was awful,” Jillian recalls. “Losing that first project was really painful. I was shocked that my brother was willing to do a food truck concept. His background is fine dining, and that first restaurant was going to be a fine-dining concept.”
But handling controlled chaos must be a family trait. The Semilla food truck offered Mexican street food and was successful within three months, although Jillian says it wasn’t because they knew what they were doing right away.
“We had no guidebook, no education on it,” Jillian recalls “We didn’t know what kind of licenses we needed, where we could park, who to contact. It was a huge learning curve. In the first three months, it was all about building connections, getting contracts in place, remembering to lock your coolers while you drive somewhere so everything doesn’t fall out – which did happen once.”
After about six months, the duo started looking again for a brick-and-mortar site. In November 2017, they signed the lease for what would become the restaurant Semilla, which opened recently and features more upscale Mexican food.
Despite the stress of opening two businesses, the siblings work well together. Jillian handles the business end of things and Macready cooks.
“My brother is three years older,” Jillian says. “It works for us. We’ve always been really close. We have very different personalities and very different roles. He is a chef, a brilliant chef. I’m not. That works because we trust each other to do our thing and do it the right way.”
That balance helps in other areas of her personal life, Jillian says.
Macready got to know Charleston because of his good friend, Nicholas Dowling, now one of the owners of Daps Breakfast and Imbibe. On Jillian’s first day in Charleston, she met Nicholas’ friend and later Daps partner, Jeremiah Schenzel.
“It was fast and furious,” she says. “We fell in love; I got pregnant really early with twins; we had the twins; we got married three months after the twins were born; I started the business and three years later had another child.”
They have 4-year-old twin girls and a 16-month-old daughter.
For anyone else, those transitions would be head-spinning.
But Jillian says, “Having kids doesn’t disqualify you from achieving professional goals. It puts you in a better position. I’m running a very complex business at home. People wouldn’t expect you to run a business alone, so don’t expect the business of home to be run alone. I have a lot of help. I have their father; we have each other; we have grandparents and friends and neighbors.”
She adds, “We run our own businesses, so it’s crazy and a lot of hours, but it’s also different hours. We have breakfast every morning. One of us is at dinner every single night. Women have a lot of guilt and they have this expectation that they have to be everything to everyone. They don’t. They (the children) have a father, they have a grandparent. They have a lot of love coming to them from a lot of different places. I don’t adhere to the idea that kids uproot our life. Children have to adapt to you and not the other way around. This is the way we live our lives and our kids are very independent as a result. They are doing just fine.”
She admits that some weeks are just chaos without the control, and she wishes she could see her girls more.
“I have to give myself a break because I’m showing them what hard work looks like, and that’s important. It’s OK to want to be more than a mom.”
Good thing she has the chaos mostly under control. Jillian launched a mobile business at the High Water Festival in April and is launching another business with her husband. And she has one more project underway: In October, she’s expecting another set of twins.
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