We’re more than a year into the pandemic and many of us now know what it is like to work from home with our children – helping them learn remotely in between our Zoom meetings or settling them down for naps while we send emails – but what is it like when a family business really is family and the kids have to come into the shop each day? Some small, family businesses have had to learn how to facilitate their children’s online lessons and parent preschool-aged little ones, all while simultaneously running the shop.
Just off East Madison and Lake Washington Boulevard, where the Arboretum meets Madison Valley and Madison Park, is a modest business center. It’s a neighborhood hub housing a dry cleaner, a few medical offices and Arosa Café.
For the past seven years, Arosa has been run by Cesar and Adriana Santangelo. The café’s owner/operators are also the parents of two: 9-year-old Alessandro and 3-year-old Luciana. Originally from Venezuela, Cesar and Adriana moved to the Seattle area 2003 on the recommendation of Adriana’s sister already living in the city. The couple worked their way up through the food service industry, with stops in the Northgate and Ballard and Eastside neighborhoods, before acquiring Arosa Café and the recipe for its specialty Leige waffles.
Working in tandem behind the counter, Adriana and Cesar have created a warm and friendly atmosphere that has endeared Arosa to the residents of the Madison Valley and delighted visitors wandering over after a stroll through the Arboretum. The north wall of the café is dominated by snapshots of loyal customers; these pictures tell the story of Arosa through the years. Photographs of Alessandro and Luciana alongside their parents and regulars are like marks carved into a kitchen doorway – recording growth and the passage of time.
A photo of Arosa and the Santangelo family over the past year would be from a story that looks very different than anything taken before.
In 2019, the family was stretched thin but managing. Alessandro was in school near their home in Bellevue and Cesar and Adriana were dividing their mornings between opening the café and school dropoffs. Luciana had outgrown the baby carrier her parents wore while manning the espresso machine and would toddle between the back area and the front of the shop. Afternoons were a rush to close and cross the bridge to pick Alessandro up from aftercare. Cesar was also working a second job to make ends meet. It was a grind for the young family but, as Cesar puts it, “the café is Plan A, B, C and Z.”
When the pandemic hit, the picture refocused.
Work and school together: How they do it
The café never shut down, but the Santangelos had to rethink not just their business but their family logistics and parenting as well. Last March it was suddenly to-go orders and online lessons, mochas and monitoring learning. The Bellevue School District transitioned quickly to a virtual platform and so the café transformed into a classroom.
Whereas before, Adriana and Cesar could split the morning duties of opening Arosa or staying back to get the children up and off to school, nowadays the whole family is on the same schedule – Alessandro and Luciana are in bed early in order to be rested and then up with Mom and Dad so that everyone can arrive at the café by 6:30 a.m. to prepare for the morning rush and lessons via the laptop.
Cesar is conscious of how customers may perceive their experience in the café with the children around, but he has prioritized their needs as well. In the beginning, Alessandro had a little desk in the rear, “but we like him better in the front so we can see when he is off task.” Luciana has a cozy corner in the back room for nap time and plenty of things to keep her busy. However, the kids are also fully integrated into the customer-facing life of the café.
As Cesar puts it, “When you come to Arosa, you’re going to get the real deal. This is not a fake family business.”
In the mornings, Alessando delivers orders to customers at other businesses in the building. As Adriana explains, it has helped an otherwise shy boy to develop confidence in ways that would not be possible if this was a work from home/learn from home situation. And Luciana is learning to be independent and communicate her needs as she bounces from the front to the back of the shop throughout the day.
Work and school together: the pluses
The family has noticed other advantages to having the kids in the café.
“When you are distanced for work and you get home, it is tiring and you don’t always have the energy to appreciate,” Cesar notes. It’s a hard lesson he learned while working elsewhere in the food industry before the Arosa dream came true; he missed out on some of his son’s early milestones. Now there is no missing out.
Business in the shop surged last April and hasn’t let up, allowing Cesar to quit his second job and focus all of his time on family and the family business. As Cesar observes, “We are working double now because we have the children here with us.” But they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Alessandro’s classes will remain fully remote for the rest of this year, but the family knows that the fall could be very different.
“I would be looking forward to going back to recess in person,” the soon-to-be fourth-grader admits. He will miss his morning hot chocolate treat, though: “We don’t get that at home.”
This unexpected year of uncertain business and makeshift school has been a net positive for the Santangelos, and, like all of the photos on the café wall, it will become another part of the family business story.