Nicole Bermensolo and Michael Berl had multinational securities portfolios, investment clients and tailored suits while on Wall Street. Then came a visit to Japan and Kyoto’s generations-old, 10-seater restaurants—and the two friends traded in their corporate white collars to evangelize the sweetness of yuba. That’s how Hell’s Kitchen based Kyotofu—and a brave new partnership—was born. 

 

Seven whirlwind years in New York’s food trenches make Nicole and Michael storied veterans. Here are their pearls of wisdom—useful for partners just starting out, or for those who are years in but still driving each other crazy.

 

“The first time I went to Japan, I was so impressed by the passion and tradition of restaurant owners. They learn from their family—simple dishes and ingredients passed down and served simply in some of the tiniest settings I’ve ever seen. Some of the best cuisine I’ve ever tasted was in nondescript counter bars that had been there forever. The food was incredible. Just incredible. I was so inspired by Kyoto. I still am.” —Mike

 

“I’ve always wondered if I was Japanese in a past life. I’ve had so many of those moments…. In a factory, the first time I had fresh tofu skin—it’s called yuba, just the same as the skin that forms when you heat milk up—I remember thinking: This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. Warm and creamy and just the best thing ever. We had to bring it back with us.” —Nicole 

SET BOUNDRIES

 

During the first year, Nicole and I made the mistake of complaining to each other, talking about bad days. But we didn’t realize that by spending so much time together and talking about it so much, we were recycling stressed energy back into the business. You’ve got to have somewhere else to siphon off that stuff. I might be tempted to call Nicole after we close a frustrating day because she’s the only person who really understands. But you absolutely have to detach, and think of what you give the other person in terms of energy. Is it necessary? Is it healthy, or are we just ratcheting each other up? We knew that if we could give each other mental breaks, we’d be better and calmer when we were each on deck. —Mike

 

ACKNOWLEDGE EACH OTHER'S
STRENGTHS & WEEKNESSES

 

There’s a lot of stress when you start a new business. It’s easy to get caught up with wanting to get things right. Before you know it, you both have your hands in everything. It’s not sustainable and not efficient. Mike can walk into a room and immediately sees process in a very systematic way—he knows how to organize people and tasks, and sees bottlenecks that I don’t, even though I’m right in the middle of it. I’m so grateful that he’s got that clarity. A good partnership is all about how you complement one another. —Nicole

 

Nicole is a really good communicator. She’s able to explain things in a way that’s really clear and makes sense. In terms of finding the right people, there was a lot of transition and change early on, and it took me awhile to learn how to approach those dialogues. But she’s got a knack for it, and it was such a good moment to stand back and realize that. —Mike

 

SET CLEAR ROLES & EXPECTATIONS, THEN TRUST

 

It was a big moment to sign my name next to Mike’s on a multimillion dollar lease and a substantial loan. I have trust that he will take good care of everything when I’m not there—from making the tofu fresh every day to the feel of the space with music and lighting. Stepping on each other’s toes doesn’t do anyone much good. —Nicole

 

It helps to give and take ownership over decisions. If we don’t agree, we still need to move forward, so if Nicole is in charge of that issue, she makes the ultimate decision. And she manages the process that follows after the decision has been implemented, successful or otherwise. And, like me, she admits when she was wrong and vows to keep learning. —Mike

 

ROLL WITH THE PUNCHES

 

Running a business can be just as frustrating as it is rewarding. If something can go wrong, it will. You will need to not lose your cool—and look for a partner who can do the same. Neither of us was very patient before we opened our own business, but you can’t be that wound up and get anything done. You have to learn how to let things go in the interest of moving forward. There’s limited time in a day. You have to choose how you focus your hours wisely, and not let the inevitable things-going-wrong derail the partnership or the day. —Nicole

 

SET YOUR SIGHTS ON THE SAME DESTINATION

 

Set one-year, three-year, and five-year milestones for your business. What is the end goal? You may not necessarily agree on day-to-day decisions, like what color the menu should be or which exporter has the best deal on silverware. But you’ve got to line up where it counts. Some people may want to sell the business in two years and be very happy with that. Others may be in it for a lifelong passion. Check in with your partner on these big questions. If you’re navigating towards the same long-term goal, it’s easier to get over the small things. —Nicole

 

BE SPOTTERS FOR ONE ANOTHER

 

The best part about having a business partner is that you’re not in this alone. Giving your business partner a break for a night off means that you can do the same. You can’t let each other get tapped. Nicole’s an amazing worker, but it took her awhile to realize that working well doesn’t mean working until you collapse. Because of her tendency to throw herself into her work, I had to lay down some law to make sure she took care of herself. When you’re exhausted, it’s hard to think clearly. You have to give your mind and body a chance to relax. She does the same for me. Gives me a chance now and then to get out of the restaurant, get out of Manhattan. And when I come back, I’m lit up again. Which is the way it should be. —Mike