Co-Owner: Border Grill
1445 4th St.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Yelp: 3 stars
Interview Date: Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Mary Sue Milliken, co-owner of Border Grill with partner Susan Feniger, grew up in Michigan in a family that celebrated with food. “My mom was a good cook, and food was very important to our family,” she says. “She was a single mom from the time I was 12, and so we didn’t have a lot of money to go out to eat – instead we would buy great food and cook it together – we celebrated with home-cooked food.”
A home economics class during high school was the inspiration for Mary Sue to pursue a career in food. “I hated high school, and was determined to finish it as quickly as possible,” she says. “That home economics class made a big impression though and my sister said it was stupid to get a college education and that I should take up a trade. She introduced me to a chef, Greg, and as soon as I graduated high school (at 16 years old), I moved to Chicago and started working in kitchens.”
At 17 ½ Mary Sue gained entry to chef school. “I was immersed in food 24/7 and loved what I was doing,” she says. In addition to school, she also worked in restaurants and bakeries. Her sister’s friend Greg hired her, and she soon fell in love with his partner Rob. “We lived upstairs from the bakery and when we had any time off we would eat at the best restaurants in town. One of the best was Le Perroquet, and I decided that I wanted to work there.”
Mary Sue approached the owner, Jovan, and he said “I would love to hire you, but I could never have you in my kitchen – the guys couldn’t handle it.” Mary Sue says that she he offered her a job as a hat check girl. Not one to be discouraged, “I started a letter writing campaign,” she says. “He finally got back to me and let me work in the kitchen. I ended up overachieving pretty spectacularly and then one day Susan walked in and he offered her a job on the spot – I think he figured that if I was such a hard worker, she must be, too!”
Jovan became an important mentor to Mary Sue. “He was a dear friend and guided me,” she says. “Susan and I worked there together and did a great job. We learned more in that kitchen than anywhere else. Then Susan moved to California and I decided that I needed to get away too. Jovan was going to France and offered to take me along and help me get a job. I went to France without a job and I couldn’t speak French … nobody would hire me.” On their last night out before Mary Sue would have to return to the U.S. Jovan took her to a restaurant run by a woman chef. “She hired me on the spot,” she says. Mary Sue quickly assimilated, renting an apartment and taking intense French classes for four hours every morning. She worked there for about a year, all the while keeping in touch with Susan, who during that year moved to the South of France for an apprenticeship.
Susan came up to Paris for a visit and “over a few bottles of wine we decided that we should go into business together,” says Mary Sue. “We left Paris with almost no money – Susan went to California and I went back to Chicago. Six months later, Susan called and said I should move to California. I said ‘no way,’ but she’s very persuasive!” Susan had been running City Café – there was no kitchen, just two hot plates, but a lot of freedom and opportunity. “I agreed to move out as long as we got a stove, which we did,” says Mary Sue. “I did not leave Los Angeles for three years after initially coming – I was completely immersed in the café. You know, you go to chef school, you apprentice in France, and then you end up working in a tiny café with one stove, but we were having the time of our lives – going to the market, finding cool things.”
The owners of the café quickly recognized Mary Sue and Susan’s potential and made them partners in the business. “After working in all those fancy restaurants, it felt very free and lovely to be calling our own shots,” says Mary Sue. “We were able to really be our own bosses for the first time, and we started getting a lot of attention while cooking from our hearts – cooking food we love.” Soon they needed more space, and opened City Restaurant, which was 500 square feet, and turned the original café into a taco joint. “We weren’t sure whether we would do tacos or Japanese noodles or a really good hamburger stand,” says Mary Sue. “We went on a 3-week research trip to Mexico and drove around to get inspired. We discovered that we loved the street food, not the restaurants, and that’s what we decided to bring back.” Their concept – the Border Grill – was a hit, and they quickly outgrew their space and moved to the Santa Monica location in 1990.
Meanwhile, the partners had written two cookbooks together and got a show on the Food Network, Cooking With Too Hot Tamales (Note: this was the first cooking show that I ever watched religiously, and I still use many of the recipes!). They sold the City Café in the early 1990s and opened Ciudad in 1998. (Note: The week that I met with Mary Sue, they were in the process of converting Ciudad into a Border Grill; the process is now complete.) In 1999 they opened the Border Grill in Las Vegas and added a kiosk in downtown Los Angeles and two food trucks. “The food trucks are really fun,” says Mary Sue. “We’re able to feed customers where they are and do so many things that we love to do.”
Mary Sue’s favorite part of being a restaurant entrepreneur is the opportunity to constantly surprise and delight people. “When you are in the restaurant you get to cook the same thing every day, so you can constantly tweak and refine every part of every recipe,” she says. “When you’re obsessed with food like I am, you notice how small changes impact a dish and enjoy constantly improving it.”