For Leah Nagle, a small Marietta restaurant is the culmination of a vision for a new kind of economic development in the Susquehanna River town.
By bringing together some 40 local investors, Nagle and her husband, Scott, harnessed the power of their community to make Heart Cafe a reality.
“The whole point is to develop community — more than one person doing everything,” Nagle said.
In April, the business at 17 E. Market St. opened with a three-days-a-week schedule featuring light fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It recently expanded to five days and added an outdoor patio, giving it total seating for around 50.
Nagle, 36, is a Marietta Borough Council member with four children, ages 4 to 10. She led the effort to recruit backers for the project that included an unexpectedly extensive renovation of the space.
Investors contributed both time and money, and Nagle estimates it took $45,000 to get the cafe open.
“People ask me all the time: How did this come about? It’s really a miracle. I feel like it was an idea from God,” Nagle said. “The time commitment and the investment of the members is the only thing that’s made it happen.”
When did this idea originate?
It’s almost exactly a year from the day that we opened that the space became available, and I kept walking by it going in my head, “That needs to be a cafe.”
Why did you recruit member/investors instead of just doing it on your own?
I’m a big fan of no debt. Personally, I’ve experienced the opposite end of that, so my husband and I don’t have money to invest.
The beauty of this big group is the talent I’m bringing in. One of our main time investors is a bookkeeper, so I don’t have to pay bookkeeping fees for the first year.
This group of people will invest in another venture here and there and grow Marietta as a team.
What was your pitch to investors?
“I want your time, and I want your money.” It was a certain dollar amount, and we made an equivalent time share so the person who works that same amount of time would be equal.
Some of the people were able to put in time to the building itself because it needed a major renovation, which wasn’t part of the plan.
Every step of the way, I kept getting more people behind me. Some people had questions, or their spouses didn’t believe in it, so they kind of fell by the wayside. But now they’re, like, “We support you. We wish we could have been in on it.”
Do you have experience running a restaurant?
My experience basically comes from being a mom. I’ve moved through the stages of grocery shopping at your local grocery store, then going to Giant, and then going to BJ’s, then worked my way up to restaurant.
I’ve always liked to crunch numbers, as far as food costs. I had an experiment that I did in my house a couple years ago called the Breakfast Club. I invited everybody I could to come to my house and have breakfast. I did a cost analysis and did all my recipes there. Those are the same recipes I have now in the café.
How do you make decisions with a big group of people?
The decision-making process is being modified because once you’re open — all these decisions go into the process of getting it open — but once we’re open, now we’ve turned it over to the manager.
It’s kind of like having a baby then being, like, “Here, it’s up for adoption. You all take it. Run with it.” Then they’re done with it, and they pass it to the manager, and I’m like, “There goes my baby.”
What kind of cafe is this?
We are very organic, to the degree that a restaurant can be organic. We are really trying hard.
I’ve been warned from a couple other restaurant people, “Don’t go overboard” because it is extremely expensive. It’s hard to get those items, and you’ll spend all your time running around.
So we’ve tried to balance that, but that’s frustrating to some of my members because they’re like, “We thought you were going to be all organic.”
Are the investors the employees?
No. They don’t work there. The investors helped it get up and going, but they are required to work four hours a month (on an ongoing basis). They come in right now and perform the dish-washing duties — they’re like the janitorial staff.
Why don’t more people open a restaurant this way?
It’s hard. I think people are inherently a little bit self-centered, and they want to be able to be the decision-maker themselves.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
If I had to do it over again, I would have made sure that I had a sidekick — someone who was 100 percent available to be my assistant — because there was a lot of communication that didn’t get passed through carefully, because I was running so fast and so hard and busy at home.
What do you think the prospects are for the restaurant?
I don’t expect it to fail because we have such a big base. Even if just our families and friends keep coming back, then we’re going to be self-sufficient.