Yola Founder Laura Smith Talks About the Yogurt Shop’s Closing

The co-owner of the Dupont Circle spot offers a glimpse at the tough side of local entrepreneurship.

By: Anna Spiegel

The Dupont Circle yogurt shop Yola announced yesterday via Facebook that it will be closing for good as of September 28. Service will continue as usual over the next ten days. The number of online messages of condolence and support for the small business are evidence of its popularity in the community, but co-owner Laura Smith offers another perspective on local entrepreneurship—one that’s unfortunately far more common than the Top Chef-ian successes—in an essay that she shared with Best Bites Blog.

So You Want to Open a Restaurant

In December of 2010, my father and I opened Yola, a coffee house and DC’s only fresh, not frozen, yogurt bar (Pinkberry has since added fresh yo to their lineup). I believed our current food system was morally and nutritionally bankrupt, and I would be damned if I wasn’t going to do something about it.

At first, our venture appeared successful. We sourced our yogurt from small farms in the area, and people were smitten with our socially conscious, healthy mission. The space, with its exposed-brick walls, was inviting. It had that buzzing energy of people enjoying food and each other. We continually had to add employees to keep up with growing demand, especially in the mornings. I fell in love with the art form of coffee, and I enjoyed talking to our customers who felt the same way. At one point, a regular customer turned to me and said, “It must be so great to be getting this rich this young!” I felt like I was pulling off a great charade. At any moment, everyone would realize the truth. We were losing money, and we were losing it fast.

People only saw the front end of the operation. The back end was another, less compelling story. We worked countless hours trying to tweak our system, to stop the steady flow of money out the door. We changed the menu and brought a consultant onto the team. We worked on publicity, we tweeted, Facebooked, offered daily deals, created specials, cut inventory, and raised prices. Then, of course, there was the unglamorous business of actually running the store. I spent the majority of my time as a conflict resolver for employee and customer squabbles, and as an amateur plumber. I learned patience: Yes, it is a good idea to spend 25 minutes on the phone with a supplier about the one head of kale they forgot to deliver—the only way successful restaurants stay successful is by counting every nickel, dime, and head of kale.

When the money finally ran out, I learned how to not pay a bill. Previously, I’d never let $5 go unpaid for longer than a week. Now I was slippery. “We’ll have the money next month,” I learned to say. Worse than being called a jerk by a supplier for late payments was the feeling that you were one, and this is what kept us up at night. My original goal—the desire to revolutionize the food industry and run an imaginative cafe where people could gather and exchange ideas—became a more meager goal: get out with my integrity intact.

This past summer, when I knew the store was finally falling apart, I took a job as a pool manager at a country club to help with mounting debt. I had a lot of time to feel sorry for myself and think of what we had lost as I picked up soggy towels. Like many, we were the losers of the food industry. We lost money—some of it was other people’s, but the vast majority of it was ours or from small business loans in our name. We lost sleep. At points, my parents thought they might lose their house. I spent four months happily doped up on Celexa for an anxiety issue that my psychiatrist said “shar[ed] symptoms with PTSD.” I lost friends simply because I didn’t have time for them. But on the rare occasions that I was able to muster the strength to stop feeling sorry for myself, I could recognize that I had a lot to be thankful for.

We gained strong intangibles—things no one can take away from us. I will never forget the power of negotiation, how far an apologetic smile can go, and the knowledge that even if you lose everything, you will learn how not to lose everything next time. And as we prepare to pack up Yola, I remain proud of it. We had an idea, and it was real—for a while anyway. Perhaps this is what we are all yearning for when we say we want to open a restaurant: a sense of our power as individuals to achieve things that are concrete and entirely our own. And if it doesn’t work out, you will have to learn how to fail with dignity—a skill that is more valuable than all the other lessons combined.

So what is there to say to all the would-be entrepreneurs? Can I encourage you to live boldly while wet-blanketing your aspirations of opening a French cafe? If you like French cafes, go visit one. Because opening your own will make it very hard to enjoy that experience ever again. If you are sitting on the other side of that plush grass (likely a desk) and you choose to stay where you are, then let my story offer you a moment of peace, a brief reprieve from wondering what if? And wear a knowing smile the next time someone tells you of their burning desire to open an artisanal ice cream sandwich shop.

—Laura Smith