In the days after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, many of us focused on what was missing. The New York City skyline felt bare. The world felt altered. And, in the quiet Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Heights, an out-of-work actor named Delissa Reynolds sought comfort in the ways she knew best — food, friends, a sense of belonging.
“It was a very tender time,” says Delissa. “People in the neighborhood really drew in together. We’d have weekend gatherings, usually at my house, where anyone could come to hang out, sometimes just over rice and beans.”
These “Sunday dinners” helped transform the experience of loss into a celebration of togetherness. And, for Delissa, they became the spark for Bar Sepia, a pioneering neighborhood bar and restaurant she’d open three years later. Next month, her dream project turns 11 — a milestone unimaginable back in those “tender” days.
Five hard-won lessons in perseverance
Sepia’s path — from a gleam in Delissa’s eye, to fledging business proposal, to winner of the 2013 Brooklyn Small Business of the Year award — required passion matched with determination. She persevered, not in spite of the challenges, but in response to them.
It began by fully knowing, and sticking to, her vision. While Prospect Heights has evolved into a booming, trendy neighborhood, Delissa’s vision for Sepia remains the same: “There should be a touchstone in a world of constant change. There’s so much value to something familiar. I wanted to create a place where everyone felt welcome.”
And it is. It’s a place where nearly everyone coming through the door is greeted affectionately by name. Where she personally cooks a three-course, seasonal Sunday dinner every week. Where, when she notices new patrons, she welcomes and introduces them around.
But for all her innate stick-to-it-iveness, Delissa learned firsthand what it takes to truly persevere. “Owning a small business has really pushed me past my personal limitations,” she says. “Whenever you feel frustrated, or that you’ve had enough and want to go home, you’re forced to handle the problem. To get up, keep moving forward, to refine, and make things better.”
In short, every stuck moment gives her “a deeper well to draw from.” Here are five of her best tactics.
1. Be creative with the resources at hand
• How she was stuck: As a career stage actor, Delissa had zero business experience.
• What she did: She Googled “how to write a business plan” and talked to a previous boss in the restaurant world, other bar owners, the SBA, and business mentors at SCORE. Digging up statistics at the Chamber of Commerce also yielded results: “I calculated: This is the basic density. The number of families. I’ve lived here for x many years, I know y% of people. The Brooklyn Museum has almost a million visitors a year — if I could corner just 1% of that, I knew that I could be successful.”
•What she learned: Don’t let a lack of expertise or experience stop you from tackling a problem. Learn as you go instead. For Delissa, this meant taking one deliberate step at a time, and asking the experts for advice.
2. Use criticism as a way to make yourself (and your work) better
• How she was stuck: When Delissa solicited feedback on her draft business plan, everyone “punched holes in it.”
• What she did: She welcomed the tough feedback, using it to create a proposal that could meet the test of a bank’s financial scrutiny.
• What she learned: Feedback is invaluable, when applied constructively: “I had never done anything like this before, and I wanted to know all the possibilities and problems I might have.”
3. When bad stuff happens, don’t lose your focus
• How she was stuck: The first loan officer she encountered at the bank wouldn’t look at Delissa’s bulletproof business proposal or let her see the VP she’d planned to meet.
• What she did: Steeling her resolve, she walked out, cold-called the VP, and asked for five minutes of his time. He okayed the loan after reading the entire proposal on the spot.
• What she learned: Whether it’s a bar fight or an employee forgot to put in the beer order, don’t succumb to the emotions of the moment: “You indulge yourself for a few minutes, and then you keep moving. You have to keep your presence of mind.”
4. Learn from the past to avoid repeating it
• How she was stuck: As a first-time bar owner, every day brought new surprises and frustrations.
• What she did: Delissa and her staff started a “bar journal.” Every night, they would write down the night’s happenings to share with and learn from each other.
• What she learned: “Looking at the past makes you thoughtful,” she says. “You reflect on what you didn’t do, and own what you did do. Learning is about remembering not only the things you do right, but the things you do wrong.”
5. Gratitude gives you fuel to persevere
• How she was stuck: Even after 11 years in business, there are still crummy days.
• What she does: Delissa reminds herself that she didn’t do this alone: “Every step of the way, friends, family, even people who didn’t know me were kind, generous, and patient. They just reinforced that, if I’m getting this much support, the universe is conspiring for my success.”
• What she learned: Her deep sense of appreciation reminds her why she’s there in the first place, and gives her the resolve to keep stepping up to the plate.
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Delissa Reynolds is a New York based actress, neighborhood activist, bar owner, and food enthusiast. In 2004, she opened the celebrated neighborhood hub Bar Sepia and is in the process of developing her podcast cooking show and cookbook series Chef In A Shoebox: Big Meals From Small Spaces. She is a recipient of the Eileen Fisher Women In Business Grant, the Eileen Fisher “Take Part: In Her Company Campaign” and The NYC Small Business Neighborhood Achievement Award. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and dog.