Motherhood prepared Hilda Staples for restaurant ownership

Many working moms have to structure their lives around the demands of their jobs, choosing a home close to where they work and scheduling their childrens’ activities around meetings and work obligations.

But Hilda Staples, 42, built a job to fit her life as a mom of 7-year-old twins. She opened three restaurants within a few blocks of her house in downtown Frederick so she could have a challenging and fulfilling career but maintain some flexibility in her schedule and be close enough to home to be available to Beverly and Jules.

“I get to set my own hours, I get to do what I want to do,” Staples said. “I created this so I could have the luxury of doing what I want to do.”

The three restaurants — Volt, Lunchbox and Family Meal — were all inspired, at least in part, by Staples’s life as a mom.

Volt was born of postpartum boredom. After staying home with the newborn twins for a few months, Staples was restless and bored. Her husband, Jonathan, jokingly suggested she open a bar in town to get out of the house and meet people.

Lunchbox, which sells sandwiches, salads and soups, evolved from her frustration with trying to pack a healthful lunch for her kids. Her first thought every morning, she said, is “What are they going to eat?”

And Family Meal came about because she thought parents should be able to take their children out for something better than fast food. She said she wanted to create a family-friendly restaurant with the same quality of food that a special occasion restaurant such as Volt would offer. (As an added touch, the restrooms at Family Meal are stocked with diapers, wipes and powder.)

Staples goes into Washington one or two days a week to check on her other restaurants, Range and Graffiato, but otherwise, she doesn’t have to venture farther than the 20 minutes it takes to get to her son Jules’s school in Middletown. Her job is full-time, but it also allows her to go to events at school, or to stay home when one of the kids is sick. She says she can’t imagine trying to juggle motherhood and a traditional
9-to-5 job.

While chefs Bryan Voltaggio and Mike Isabella handle the food at the restaurants, Staples does the behind-the-scenes work of running the businesses. She pays bills and taxes, secures permits and takes care of payroll and human resources. It’s not glamorous, she said, but she’s good at it and she really enjoys it.

“I do all the [stuff] that nobody else wants to do . . .” Staples said. “I used to always joke that Bryan gets the fan letters and I get the bills and the vendors.”

Being a mom of twins, although not the typical training for owning a restaurant, turned out to be really helpful, Staples said.

“That first year when you have your baby is really hard,” she said. “Especially as a first-time mom. You don’t know what you’re doing, whether you’re doing it right or not. . . .

“With the restaurants, it’s the same thing: Am I doing this right? Am I going to screw it up in the first six months and then it will just be like a miserable failure for the rest of its life? It’s so similar to giving birth.”

Staples and her husband, a venture capitalist, live in Frederick in the house he bought in 1997, when they were dating. They got married in 2000. She was working for a public relations firm in Baltimore when she got pregnant with the twins, but she quit her job when she could no longer make the hour-long commute comfortably. After a few months of staying home in Frederick with the babies, she decided to open a restaurant, even though she had never even waited or bused tables.

“Once I had the kids I was really bored and tired, and thought, ‘This can’t be my life,’ ” Staples said. “I would have never had the restaurants if I didn’t have the kids.”

She found the perfect space for what became Volt, her first restaurant, in a historic building in downtown Frederick. But with all of the permits and planning required to transform the 1890s mansion, she quickly realized she needed help from someone who knew something about restaurants. So she called Voltaggio, a Frederick native who was the chef at Charlie Palmer Steak in the District. She had read about him in a magazine list of the top chefs in the Washington area.

Staples lured him away from Charlie Palmer and Volt opened in 2008, the year before Voltaggio competed on Bravo’s sixth season of “Top Chef.” They have opened three more restaurants together in recent years, and she opened Graffiato in the District with Isabella, also a “Top Chef” alum, in 2011.

Jonathan Staples says his wife has guts to spare, and he encouraged her to take a chance on Volt. He knew Hilda’s just-do-it attitude could make it successful.

Staples grew up in Alexandria with her mother and her older brother and sister. They came to the United States from Iran when Staples was 7, fleeing the revolution, with one suitcase each and no knowledge of English. Her father did not come with them. Her mother worked long hours shampooing hair and sweeping floors at a local salon.

After Staples graduated from T.C. Williams High School, she took out loans to study political science at Marymount University. She went to law school for a short time but decided she didn’t like it and left for a job on Capitol Hill, which is where she met Jonathan. She moved into public relations because she realized she wouldn’t make much money working on Capitol Hill, she said.

Watching her mother work so hard to give her and her siblings a comfortable home has motivated Staples to take risks.

“I’ve gotten all of my initiative, and the fact that I’m going to do it because it’s not an option to fail, from my mom,” she said. “What she went through is so much harder than anything I could ever imagine.

“I have the luxury of comfort. When I started the restaurant, it was not a hobby, but if I failed at it, it wasn’t like we wouldn’t have enough money for my kids to eat, or pay rent, so I have that luxury, which she didn’t. It always seemed like if she could do what she did, of course I can try to do something.”

RELATED: Hilda Staples shares her parenting tips

A typical day in Hilda Staples’s life

Mari-Jane Williams covers parenting and family issues for Local Living and schools for the Prince William and Loudoun Extras.
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