Chieko and Robby Cook
Bar: Barringer Bar, Houston, TX
Dating since: 2006
Married since: 2013
Working together since: 2014
Barringer Bar in Houston is a local love story. Houston natives Chieko and Robby Cook came up in the bar industry, and met on the job. At the time, she was working at the Houston chain Sam’s Boat and he was building out a new project around the corner. They began as bar friends, listening to each other’s problems, until their mutual attraction turned their cross-the-bar talks into something more.
Despite their chemistry, they were cautious about entering into business together during their initial courtship, and only ended up owning a bar by chance after they got married. Mere months after getting hitched, they were given the opportunity to take over a bar and they couldn’t turn it down—despite the odds. “You hear all the horror stories,” Chieko says. “I’m a numbers person. I know exactly how many bars make it or break it. I know the divorce rate of people who go into business together, especially in the field. It’s 84 percent.” She adds, laughing, “I’m a total Debbie Downer.”
Running the bar without investors to act as a safety net meant the business was totally theirs, but the pressure was certainly on the couple from day one. Still, they came prepared. They’d seen how other mom and pops succeeded and failed, and they knew they were in a relatively good position. “If you look statistically at how long these people have been together before they go into business together—or their background, if they’ve been married before, their age demographic—when you start looking at all of that, it does break down better in our favor,” Chieko explains. “If we weren’t together for over seven years before we opened a bar together, I don’t think we would have made it through the first year.”
Robby agrees: “When you get into business together, there are good weekends and bad weekends, good months and bad months. There are lean times—when you’re really stressed and you’ve got to eat some ramen to make your business work—and those can bring out some rough points. We could push through because we had a solid, longstanding relationship when we got into it.”
Chieko and Robby learned a lot in their time together before Barringer. “In our minds, we had an imaginary bar forever because we never thought we’d have an actual bar,” Chieko says. “We’d say, ‘When we own our imaginary bar, you’ll be in charge of X and I’ll be in charge of Y.’” The pair split up tasks, with Robby taking on menu creation and front of house hospitality, and Chieko taking the reins in the back of house and on the books. “That’s the general dynamic,” Robby says, “but the lines are gray.”
Things are bound to get gray when a married couple works so closely with their staff. Barringer employees half-jokingly refer to Chieko and Robby as mom and dad. That dynamic requires careful navigation when the owners disagree. Employees joke that “mom and dad are fighting” when sparks fly, but Chieko and Robby try to keep any heated discussions away from the front of house and employees’ ears.
“Everybody’s confused if Robby says one thing and they turn around and I overstep him,” Chieko says. “If he makes a cocktail menu, we budget it out. I might tell him, ‘No we cannot have fresh handpicked seaweed for every drink.’ He has to respect that. But ultimately, whatever he puts on that menu, I train to make those drinks just like everyone else. I respect that. If I have a problem with that, it’s behind closed doors.”
If Chieko has one bit of advice for fellow couples, it’s to know your role and stick to it. As for Robby, he suggests couples take personal care seriously. “Anybody going into business together, whether they’re married or dating or whatever, should do what we try to do (and don’t necessarily do successfully) which is find time for ourselves.” With 35 years in the industry between them and Robby’s role as president of the Houston chapter of the USBG (United States Bartenders Guild), getting away from fellow bartenders can be a challenge, but it’s a goal worth fighting for. Whether that means staying home and watching CSI reruns, or his muay thai classes or her yoga sessions, or the stay-cations the couple take together at a local hotel, that time away from business—either separately or together—is important.
“If you let it consume 24/7 of your life, at some point, that’s going to make it come to a head,” Robby says. “In a relationship,” Chieko adds, “of course you should complement each other, but you should have your own life and I should have my own life and together we should have a good life where we share lots of aspects together.”