When you drive down Vista Ave in Boise, Idaho, you see this retro-looking mechanical woman, scrubbing away on her washboard. The even better part is that her outfits change on a monthly basis, typically fitting with whatever upcoming holiday or season. If you talk to any Boise long-time local, they can distinctly recall who is called “Betty the Washing Woman“.
Why should you care about this random street sign story? This belongs to Mary Jean and Paul Wegner, who are the owners of Cucina di Paolo, a quirky, hole-in-the-wall Italian cafe. “That’s the only other woman my wife will let me kiss, and I kiss her every time I change her clothes…once a month!” Wegner has said on a local radio station. Bless my heart. Do you know of anywhere else in town that does that kind of thing?
The community of Boise has enjoyed their lasagnas, pastas, and desserts for more than two decades – they’ve known some of their customers since they were toddlers! Mary Jean makes the best damn pies that I have ever laid my taste buds on. Their pot pies make Marie Calendar look like dog food. Precious and personal trinkets – family photos, newspaper clippings, children’s drawings, seasonal house decor – scatter the 13-person max cafe, taking you back to the comfort of your grandmother’s house. Mary Jean’s crazily authentic demeanor, with the uptown, 5-star quality of Paul’s food gives this small restaurant the true mom-and-pop shop feel that we all ache for in the age of big industry. To quote Mary Jean: “Paul’s the stellar cook and I’m the mouth that tells you why you want the food!”
Why does all of this matter?
Last fall, Paul passed away, shattering the hearts of the Boise valley. The response afterwards was something you see out of movies. People covered the restaurant’s windows with sticky notes and cards to share their love for the couple. The last time I saw Paul, I was being handed a business t-shirt and was teased that I could have it for free if I promised to be a great walking advertisement!
This moment and all of my rest with Cucina di Paolo have redefined business for this millennial. When I was a misunderstood 23 year old, who walked in looking for a quiet place to have lunch in my neighborhood, I was made to feel like I was a part of the culture right off the bat. I ended up coming back often for their weekly sweet treat because they made me feel a part of something outside myself. It felt like my happiness and inclusivity was an integral part of their business and success. And guess what? It was!
What’s the secret to business? Authenticity. It’s being whoever you are, from wherever you are, and being fully present in your craft. MJ and Paul found a way to monetize their goodness and I’m humbled. Customers will respond best to humanity.
As said by Paul himself: “We started with a tub of ice, a pan of lasagna, a microwave and gave out samples to start our business. Go with your dream, go with your instinct. That’s what it’s about.” For wisdom beyond their years and for just making damn good food, thank you for gifting Boise.