“Marriage is about two flawed people making each other better…And with us a lot of the time, we make ourselves better by fighting.” – Allison Robicelli
Does life offer any greater gifts than food and love? Where a well-executed balance of flavor and textures – sweet and savory, acid and heat, creaminess and crunch – is the key to good food, a well-executed balance of other forces – harmony and discord, laughter and tears, fighting and prospering – is at the heart of many of the best, most productive relationships.
With Valentine’s Day approaching, we wanted to take a look at a relationship between a couple for whom food, love, and marriage and are inexorably intertwined. And we could think of no one better to shed light on the roller coaster ride of life and love in the world of food than Allison and Matt Robicelli, a Bay Ridge couple who lost everything, but survived, clawing their way back to the surface with relentlessly creative, surprising, and delicious…cupcakes. That’s right. Cupcakes.
We met Allison and Matt at Hom Café, near their home in Bay Ridge, to talk.
So guys, not many couples live and work together, spending twenty four hours a day, seven days a week in the pressure-filled environment of a start-up food business. How do you do it?
Allison: It’s not that uncommon to find couples in this sort of situation in the food business. Because nobody who’s not in the food business would put up with this shit. Nobody.
When I was younger I didn’t think I was ever going to get married. I didn’t want to. My career was what was most important. I remember there was this one guy I was dating. It was late October and he said, “When can I see you again?”
I was like, “January.”
He said, “What do you mean?”
I said, “It’s the holidays. It’s my busy season. I can’t deal with you right now.”
To make it in this business you have to give everything. You’re not doing it for the money. And people who aren’t in the business never understand that. They’re like, “How can you be working ninety hours a week for a hundred dollars a day!? What are you doing!?
I’d say, “A hundred dollars a day? That’s great money! I can cover my rent, I can drink and I eat at work. I don’t need anything else.”
It’s a very stupid career for stupid people, and outsiders don’t get it.
So why do you do it!?
Allison: It’s the only thing I can do.
Matt: It’s the only thing we enjoy doing. It’s like a sickness. It’s an addiction and you can’t get away from it. Sometimes you get burnt out and you think, “God I hate this! I just want it to end. I can’t do it anymore!”
So you find yourself on Craigslist looking for a job that has something to do with the degree you got in college and you think, “God this all sounds so boring!” And you find yourself just casually checking the ads in the restaurant and hospitality section, and before you know it you’re like, “Ooooooh, this looks interesting. Hmmmmm.”
Allison: We’ve quit the kitchen so many times. I’ve been in the food business for ten years. I’ve quit six times. I’ve said, “I can’t do it anymore. I’m going to have a normal life. I’m going to get a normal job, work in management instead of the kitchen…”
Matt: I mean, we’ve closed our own business about four hundred times!
Allison: We shut down Robicelli’s last week! For forty-five minutes!
Matt: We were like, “SCREW THIS!”
Allison: For forty five minutes there was no more Robicelli’s. It was done. I was like, “Matt, just say the word. I’ll go on Twitter right now and tell everyone we’re done.”
We opened our first gourmet shop a few years ago here in Bay Ridge because we wanted to get out of the kitchen. Not because we really wanted to, but I was pregnant with Atticus, our first son, and we wanted to have a normal life, with normal hours and benefits. Health insurance.”
Before that, when we were both working in restaurants, we’d get off work at three or four o’clock in the morning. We’d cook at home or we’d stay up and play Trivial Pursuit.
Matt: She’d play Trivial Pursuit and I’d go along for the ride.
Allison: I’m known as an expert Trivial Pursuit player. I’ll win the whole game on my first turn. I’ll just get every question right until the game is over. And he’d just sit there and play with me anyway. Because he loves me and he’s the coolest guy ever.
With a kid coming, we realized we couldn’t have that life anymore. We figured opening a gourmet shop was the great compromise. You wouldn’t be making food, but at least you could be around food, curating food.
The universe keeps telling you to get out of the food business. I’ve had every good reason to get out. I’ve bussed tables, washed dishes, cooked, done sales…I’ve done everything that’s supposed to convince you not to do it, but we still did it and we’re still doing it…because we’re dumb!
So we decided to open this gourmet shop. To be curators of food, to work normal hours, and to have health insurance. That was the thing – with the baby coming we needed benefits. We had to be a real family and have benefits so we could take care of our kids. We had never had benefits before!
That had been a big thing between me and my family for years. We grew up here in Bay Ridge. If you grow up in Bay Ridge, you join the civil service or become a teacher or work for the city – to get the benefits. That’s what everybody does here. That’s what it’s all about and that’s what we were told to do.
And here’s me working ridiculous hours for no money, coming home in the middle of the night with knife wounds, and they’d be like, “Why don’t you go to the hospital?” And I’d say “Because I don’t have benefits!”
So when I got pregnant, they all said, “OK listen. You’ve had your fun. Go work for the city. Or get a real job.”
Matt and I said, “OK, we’ll do this retail thing. We’ll have a normal life.” We opened the gourmet shop specifically to get out of the kitchen, to give our kids a normal life.
Matt: We opened the store on a Friday in September of 2008, and the stock market collapsed the following Monday. We did pretty well until March of 2009, when the city started cutting back city employees’ overtime.
Allison: This neighborhood was built on overtime. People went from making six figures a year on overtime, to making their base salary, which was less than half that.
Right after the city cut overtime, people stopped coming in. That’s when we started to make the cupcakes – just to do something different to bring people in. The store was failing, but the cupcakes started to take off. So all of a sudden we were running two businesses – a gourmet shop that was barely surviving, and a cupcake bakery. It was hell.
I don’t think we’ve ever been closer to divorce than we were then.
Matt: No way, that was as bad as it could possibly be. We couldn’t afford babysitters, so Allison had to be home during the day while I was running the store. I’d come home and she’d go in to bake all night.
Allison: Any time we were together, I was working on my Blackberry, just trying to find ways to get people into the store. We couldn’t afford a computer, so whenever we were together he’d be watching the kids and I’d be on the Blackberry.
We were trying to find money for staff, money for rent. We had to drop our health insurance, which was the whole purpose of opening the store! We started to hate each other.
At some point we sat down and we asked ourselves, “Is this worth it? How much money is our marriage worth?”
We both thought there was something really special about our relationship. I knew that no matter what happened, I’d never find anything like what Matt and I have together again. So we agreed to close the shop.
Matt: We had been fighting like cats and dogs as the store was going under. And the day we decided to close the store, it just stopped. There was no more fighting.
Allison: We were happy again, but it was also terrifying. We knew we’d had a great product but it didn’t work and we lost our life’s savings. We went from having a little bit of income to having almost no income. I’d look at the kids and think, “God, we did this for the kids, and it didn’t work and I’ve ruined everything. Their college money, health insurance…everything we had is gone.”
It was the scariest thing ever.
Matt: But there was nothing else to do but figure out our next step. And that’s when we started the wholesale cupcake business.
Allison: We had decided to start the cupcake business a few weeks before we closed the store because that’s what everyone was asking us about. We were getting calls from people saying, “Where can I get your cupcakes in Park Slope? In downtown Brooklyn? Why don’t you open a store in this neighborhood or that neighborhood?”
Everyone wanted the cupcakes. So we said, “OK, let’s do this.”
We started out with two clients – Hom right here in Bay Ridge, and Blue Apron in Park Slope. We would make cupcakes and drive around in our 2000 Honda Civic with the kids in the backseat making deliveries.
Matt: At the beginning we had orders for maybe seventy five cupcakes a week, so we were pulling in about ninety dollars a week.
But it slowly started growing, and kept growing.
How did it grow? Were you out there hustling all over Brooklyn, or did word just spread?
Allison: Oh God, we were working it so hard. Walking into every shop in Brooklyn. One thing we’ve always had going for us is that drive to make things work.
I started my first business in high school, at Stuyvesant. I was a political consultant for kids running for office on the student council. At Stuyvesant, if you wanted to get into Harvard, which everyone did, you had to have killer ‘extra-currics.’ I won a hundred percent of my clients’ campaigns. I placed two class presidents. I was the high school’s first political consultant.
I had cancer when I was twenty one. When I was going through chemo, what was I going to do, lay around at home waiting to die? No. I learned how to cook, studying Jacques Pepin videos and all kinds of books.
When we didn’t have enough money for Christmas one year, I baked illegally out of our house, making cookies. I’d go out and sell them at church fairs. I did that every weekend for two months so we’d have enough money for a nice Christmas.
Maybe it’s a Brooklyn thing, or maybe it’s an entrepreneurial thing, but we’re both kind of programmed to do what we have to do to survive. OK, we don’t have enough money? We can sit around and bitch about it or we can get up and do something. And that’s how we do things – we get up and do something.
So how did you manage things with the kids at home when you were getting the cupcake business started?
Allison: The plan was that I was going to make the cupcakes and Matt was going to get a job until we built up enough clients to be able to bring him back on. So he started interviewing.
Matt: I went on one interview, and the woman recognized me. She knew who I was. She lived up the block from Blue Apron and she had had our cupcakes and she liked them a lot.
And she refused to hire me! Not because I was overqualified or underqualified, but because she thought I needed to keep making cupcakes. She thought that that if she gave me the job, the cupcakes would come to an end.
It was a $75,000 a year job! I was like, “I have a wife and two kids! We’re broke! I need the benefits!”
She said, “No. You can’t give up on your dream!”
Allison: Ha ha ha. It’s funny now, but it was not funny then.
With kids involved, the stress of all this must have been insane. How did you keep it together?
Allison: I don’t know whether most marriages would survive that. I don’t think we’re special or anything. I just never take Matt for granted. We appreciate each other.
When you’re married, everyone likes to think back to when you were single – “Oh, that was so much fun!” But when you really think about it, being single sucked. When you’re single all you want is to find someone who will love you completely and unconditionally. We knew we had that, and we were like, “What? We’re going to give this up because we’re broke?”
I’m really happy that we lost everything. I wasn’t happy then, but I’m happy now. When you lose everything, there’s nothing you can do but sit back and look at what you have. I had the kids, and my parents and extended family who rallied around us and made sure we were ok. I had good friends who didn’t treat me any differently because we had failed, because we were broke. And I had Matt.
It’s the worst way to completely understand what matters in your life, but if it helps you understand what really matters, then it’s worth it.
And you survive. We survived losing the store. We survived losing everything. And when you go through all that with one person, you realize that you can survive anything. As bad and scary as it gets, what’s the worst that can happen? We’ll have to stop making cupcakes? I mean, I’ll go work in a diner on the side of a road somewhere. We’ll mow lawns. We’ll figure something out. We have each other, we have our kids – we’ll figure something out.
Matt: It’s not all about money. Money is worthless in a lot of ways.
You guys said that having a normal family life was a big priority when you opened the store. Are you managing to have some degree of normalcy now with the cupcake business?
Allison: We could have been a lot more aggressive in expanding. As we’ve been growing the business, every time we’ve had to make a decision we’ve asked ourselves, “Can we do this and maintain a good family life?” And if the answer is no, we usually don’t do it. You don’t get this time back. Your kids don’t get this time back. They’re only little once. You don’t get a do-over.
Our kids don’t know we’re poor right now. They have no clue, which is great. As long as they have their mom and dad they’re happy, and that’s what we’re giving them.
How is it working together all the time? Do you get sick of each other?
Allison: I left the kitchen a few months ago when we could finally afford to hire a couple of people, to start managing all the paperwork and the business side of things. Before that, we were together all the time. We realized that the only time we were apart was when we were in the bathroom, and sometimes not even then. And we said, “You know, this can’t be healthy.”
Now that we’re apart for eight hours a day, we’re like, “We’re not spending enough time together!”
Matt: The worst part of being together all the time in the kitchen was that when we’d go on dates we’d have absolutely nothing to say. You can’t ask, “So, how was your day?” when you’ve spent all day, every day for the last year together. And I would feel like that should bother me, but it didn’t.
Allison: There’s nothing wrong with not talking sometimes! One of my biggest fears in life is awkward silences. And that’s why I ramble so much. And rambling can be exhausting so it can actually be nice to be with Matt and not have to talk.
After being married for seven years you get complacent. We had to make an emergency cupcake delivery to the Upper East Side before the Super Bowl and we were in the car and didn’t shut up the whole time. Other times we’ll go to a restaurant or something and there’s all that pressure to talk. We’re not good at that. We’re good at impromptu moments.
Matt: And we’re good at texting. We text each other constantly.
If I’m at work and my phone is in the other room charging or something, she’ll freak out and start texting the girls at the kitchen being like, “Where’s Matt? Why isn’t he answering?” She starts sending me messages saying, “I’m getting in the car and coming to the kitchen if you don’t answer your phone right now!”
Allison: I’m always worried that he’s lost his hand in the industrial mixer or something. That’s how my brain works.
Matt: Right. Of course we have two other people working with me in the kitchen. I’d like to think they could handle an emergency. But she’ll start thinking, maybe they all got sucked into the mixer!
Allison: Growing up, it was like our family motto was, “God forbid!” It was, “God forbid this! God forbid that!” When I was a kid – and granted, New York was a much different place in the 80’s – but when I was like four years old I’d be told, “Don’t run ahead of us on the sidewalk, because god forbid, somebody will take you in their car and rape you and kill you and leave you by the side of the road!”
All the time. “Don’t go near the subway. They’ll stab you to death on the subway!” “Don’t go near the park. The people in the park will kill you!”
I’m from a Sicilian Catholic family. My dad used to tell me all the time, “Don’t tell a lie. If you ever tell a lie, your bed will burst into flames and incinerate your body and as the flames sink into hell they will take your ashes with you!”
Ha ha ha. So that’s how I was raised, and as a result, to this day, my imagination runs away from me that way.
I never stop thinking of terrible things that might have happened to him when I can’t get in touch, even for a minute. So we text each other constantly to say, “I miss you.” Or “Look at this dumb joke.”
You guys have been married for seven years. You have kids. You are business partners. Do you fight a lot?
Oh we fight all the time. There’s always just a ton of shit that the world is throwing at you. Whether you miss your train or you have a bad hair day or there’s no money in the bank…all the little stupid disappointments. You can’t take out your frustration on the world or you end up on the 11 o’clock news. You have to get it out and someone has to take it, and I think that’s what marriage is kind of all about.
We’ll have fights that aren’t even directed at each other. When you’re scared about things, you fight. We fight about money a lot – even rich married couples fight about money. If you’re kids are being bad you’ll fight because you’re worried that you’re not a good enough mom or a good enough dad. Do you yell at your kids for that or do you yell at your spouse? You yell at your spouse.
We know at this point that sometimes you have to fight just to make yourself feel better. And the biggest part of marriage is holding up the other person when they’re not holding themselves up well. And that’s one of the best things about being married – knowing that I don’t always have to hold myself up all the time – knowing that when I’m in a bad spot, Matt’s going to be there.
I think married couples should fight. I think it’s good for you. But there are rules. There are lines. You don’t always fight. You know when fights end. You know how to contain them.
Matt: I’m new to this fighting thing. My background is more about keeping it all inside. But I’m doing ok with the fighting.
Allison: Ha ha ha. We can’t be productive if we have all this shit inside eating us up.
The cupcakes came out of a huge fight. We had a big fight about money. We were sitting there screaming at each other about the store. We were scared and angry. We were yelling at each other about whose fault it was that we had decided to open it in the first place, about not working hard enough. And once we were done, we were like, “OK, we got it all out. Now we can think.”
You can be productive and have ideas once you’ve emptied yourself of all the fear and anxiety.
Look, most marriages would probably end in divorce if the people fought like we fight, but it works for us. We understand that you’re supposed to fight. There are couples that want to be perfect, that want to smile all the time. You can’t do that! That’s not sustainable. If you’re pretending that your relationship is perfect, and pretending to smile all the time, you’re doing it wrong! We’re all flawed human beings. Marriage is about two flawed people making each other better…And with us a lot of the time, we make ourselves better by fighting.
Matt: We can just be honest with each other in a way that most business partners can’t. Even if there’s something you really don’t want to be honest about, and even if it leads to a fight.
Allison: We don’t lie to each other because we can’t. We know each other too well. We can tell when the other one is lying. At least I can. Matt is the worst liar ever. He’s terrible at it. That’s why I know he’ll never cheat on me.
Matt: And the thing with affairs is that they’re way too much work. Who has time for an affair?
Allison: I don’t have any time for an affair. It would be way too hard to schedule. Too much work.
But feelings do get hurt. We’re both really fanatical about the quality of what we’re doing. We’re both perfectionists.
Matt: Our standards are way too high. When it comes to cupcakes and the business anyway. When it comes to anything else our standards are way too low.
Allison: Ha ha ha. We totally shot ourselves in the foot with this whole ‘excellence’ thing! If we had just gone for ‘above average’ we’d probably be a lot happier!
Matt will come up with an idea and I’ll just say, “No. That’s not going to work. That’s not going to sell.”
And he’ll say, “You’re crushing my dreams!”
And then we’ll just fight it out and get over it.
I don’t know how other people at other jobs work – a lot of people are probably afraid to have bad ideas or make the wrong decisions. But we can talk about it and figure out the right moves to make by arguing.
Matt: A good example was the Buffalo chicken cupcake. Big fights on that one.
Allison: Huge, epic fights.
This sounds really stupid now, but he had this whole thing that I wouldn’t let him do the cupcakes he wanted. I had come up with the chicken and waffle cupcake and everyone liked that, and Matt was like, “You got to do a chicken cupcake! I want to do a Buffalo wing cupcake!”
And I just thought it was too much. I thought it was going too far. We never want to do stuff that’s silly or kitschy. Everything has to be good, and has to be done for reason.
It took us four months to develop the shell for our whoopee pie, just because we wanted a certain type of crispness on the top. We plan these things very meticulously. I just didn’t see a Buffalo wing cupcake as something that would be pleasing or balanced. I saw it as a gimmick. And we don’t do gimmicks.
So we finally fought about it so much over the course of a year and a half that I let him do it for his thirtieth birthday. To shut him up!
We spent a long time on it. Matt came up with the idea of basing it on a celery root and carrot cake. We had to do a bunch of prototypes before we got the flavors balanced right. We didn’t want it to be overly savory or sweet. But we got the cake part right.
The blue cheese buttercream we had down pat. We had invented that when we still had the store. So we had those two components, and then we said, “OK, how do we work the chicken in?”
We knew how to cook the chicken. The challenge was the sauce. The key to a good buffalo wing isn’t heat, it’s actually the acid. Whenever you cook something and you think something’s missing, it’s usually acid. Seven times out of ten it’s acid. Three times out of ten it’s salt.
We needed the right acid to act as a bridge, tying all the other flavors together. We decided to use citrus, because the acid in the citrus juice would have one foot in the heat of the pepper, and one foot in the sweetness of the sugar. In the end, it wasn’t really sweet or savory. It was its own thing. It was a trip. And that’s the point. It really screwed with my head for a while, and that’s what good food does.
In cooking the basic thing is contrast and balance. If there’s something soft on the plate, add something crunchy. If there’s something really sweet, add something salty or tangy. You have so many taste buds on your tongue – if only one of them is going off, you’re having a one-note experience. And that’s why there’s always so much going on in our cupcakes. There more you have going on in a bite, the more present you are going to be in that moment of eating. We don’t want people to take a bite of our cupcakes and then immediately forget. We want them to wake you up and make you think about what’s going on in a very subtle way.
The Buffalo chicken cupcake was very direct. Not subtle at all. And when you’re eating it, you’re really thinking about what you’re eating. You almost feel yourself processing it, which is really weird. And that’s what I liked about it. It’s kind of cool that you can do that with food. It’s like experimental art rock jazz.
It’s like Rush! You’re not supposed to always understand what’s going on on a Rush album, but you can still enjoy it.
Matt: Their drummer Neil Peart did have the largest drum kit of all time. He holds the world record for the biggest drum kit ever. I think he had a hundred and thirty six pieces, and he’s still adding more.
Allison: Exactly – the Buffalo chicken cupcake is the Neil Peart of cupcakes. I don’t think Neil Pert ever thought somebody would make a cupcake that was the embodiment of his career! He’d probably be horrified!