The long struggle behind Baba's
Dan and Caroline Kraus are happy and exhausted. It's a Friday afternoon in mid-December, and the couple just finished another long day at Baba's, their dream restaurant long in the making. In November, the Krauses opened the doors to the Old North Columbus breakfast and lunch joint after nearly two and a half years of sacrifice, compromise, heartbreak and struggle. “I feel like a lot of people just thought it wasn't going to happen,” Dan says.
And for good reason. No restaurant startup is easy, of course, but the Krauses seem to have set a new standard for culinary calamity in Columbus. They overcame a slew of obstacles—from a pulled bank loan to an unreliable contractor to a sewage backup—that tested their resolve and commitment. Dan says he considered giving up multiple times as the disasters piled up. “It seemed like all the stars aligned to make it as hard as absolutely possible,” Dan says. “But I'm glad it happened because of the amount I learned.”
Dan and his wife sit at the large communal table in front of the restaurant at Summit and East Hudson streets, sipping coffee and reminiscing about their long and arduous journey. They think back to a comment that their attorney, Greg Arenstein, told them in 2014, not long after they decided to begin their quest to open their first brick-and-mortar business. “The hardest thing you are going to do is go from zero to one,” he told them.
“It was 100 percent accurate,” Dan says.
Arenstein likens restaurants and other small businesses to a train getting started. “Once it's going, you always have a little bit of momentum and you can deal with some of those other challenges, and you can sort of see the horizon and see what's coming,” says the Dublin small-business attorney in a recent interview. “But getting it going is the hardest part.” What's more, a new restaurant faces a capital burden—lots of expensive equipment to purchase—that many other small-scale ventures don't have. “It's harder,” Arenstein says. “It takes more money. Dan had the skill and the dream, but he didn't have the cash.”
Indeed, Dan's first culinary business, That Food Truck, earned him a strong reputation among Columbus foodies. In 2013, Crave, the former sister publication of Columbus Monthly, named the chef and butcher one of its Tastemakers, an honor given to the cream of the crop of the city's dining scene. Hoping to capitalize on their food truck's success, Dan and Caroline, who is also a hospitality industry veteran, began to dream bigger. In 2014, they announced plans to open a specialty grocery that would include a bakery, a full-scale restaurant, a butcher's shop, gourmet coffee and a greenhouse and garden. “We really shot for the stars,” Caroline says. “It was going to be a huge undertaking.”
Then, after they'd spent four months getting their prospective building on North Fourth Street in Italian Village rezoned, the Krauses lost their financing. Though heartbroken, they regrouped and found their current 1,400-square-foot space across from the new Used Kids record store and set out to open a smaller version of their dream business. With Arenstein's help, they secured investors to help fund the project, now called Baba's, which they hoped to open in early 2015. “We got a lot of investors right off the bat because people were familiar with Dan's food and That Food Truck,” Caroline says.
The money, however, didn't last. They say their contractor ate through the funds without finishing the construction job within six to eight months as promised. The Krauses say he deserted them after Dan began asking tough questions about his shoddy work. To save money, Dan was forced to finish much of the construction himself—redoing the floors, building counters, hanging the ceiling. Sometimes, Dan would work late and then crash for the night at the construction site, only to start up again in the morning.
While that was occurring, the Krauses also lost their main source of income. Their food truck, a regular at Seventh Son Brewing in Italian Village, died early one morning last winter. The couple scrambled and found an affordable replacement—a trailer, located in the Nelsonville area. Short on funds, Dan turned it into another DIY project, building a smoker for their new mobile kitchen (dubbed Baba's Porch) after watching a handful of welding videos on YouTube. “It works really good, actually,” Dan says. “I'm pretty proud of that one.”
With so many obstacles, the Krauses were forced to cut back on their brick-and-mortar plans again. They eliminated the wholesale bakery component of their venture after a 2015 Kickstarter campaign failed to hit its fundraising goal. Their less ambitious project reduced the remaining cost of opening to less than $10,000. Investors they met through the Kickstarter campaign covered the final price tag, which included a hood vent, a small refrigerator, tables and chairs. “I think the biggest lesson we've learned is fluidity,” says Caroline, “learning to ride the wave of whatever is being tossed at us, thrown at us, barricading us, whatever it is. The moment you think you have control of all the aspects is the moment that life's going to be like, ‘No.'”
The Krauses and their partner, Tim Jones, co-owner and sous-chef, opened Baba's with a limited menu: breakfast sandwiches, baked goods and Thunderkiss coffee. They hope someday to add regular dinner hours, expand coffee offerings, build a patio, increase seating inside their long, narrow space (if their building is rezoned) and strengthen ties with the surrounding neighborhood. But they also have learned the value of simplicity, the importance of starting small and then mastering the basics. “There is no reason you can't reach for the stars,” Caroline says. “But sometimes you can't do that or have all the things right then.”
Which raises a question: If they had avoided all the struggles of the past two and a half years and completed their original idea without a hitch, would the opening have felt as sweet as this one did? “I wouldn't be as happy right now,” Dan says.