‘We have no other choice’: What it’s like to run a restaurant and parent a toddler in a pandemic

The Book Club chats with Talulla's Danielle Ayer about sacrifice, and reveals readers’ secret desires

Co-owners Conor Dennehy (left) and Danielle Ayer (right) at Talulla in Cambridge on July 26, 2018. Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

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The Book Club continues to explore Makenna Goodman’s complex and captivating debut novel “The Shame” this week—which illuminates the hidden desires, obsessions, and insecurities that permeate so many of our lives. The book’s protagonist Alma, a mother feeling stifled by her life in rural Vermont, grapples with isolation and self image, as well as where and when to prioritize her own aspirations.

We recently asked readers to share their own secret desires with us as we delve further into the text. Jimmy from Ipswich said: “To move my wife and I into a tiny house with lots of land—Wyoming, Colorado, and Hawaii all come to mind. The thought of continuing to be around political divide, local divide and hate is driving me crazy.” Jeanne from Watertown echoed his sentiment to escape: “To move to New Zealand, or Ireland, or Italy. I am ready to do it, but my family is not. To experience life outside the USA.” And one anonymous reader closely identified with the plights of Alma, “I also have many creative endeavors I would like to focus on, but the realities of life take up too much mental and physical bandwidth. I also aim for the sustainable option (yes, I too carried the holey cloth bag until it looked like a hobo’s knapsack from the 1930s), but I also cannot afford the price tag for the majority of these items. The thematic problems outlined are truly something I’ve struggled with—doing something for family vs. for self being a major one).”


As a mom to a three-and-a-half-year-old and working in the restaurant business, Talulla’s Danielle Ayer is no stranger to sacrifice or prioritizing sustainability. The Cambridge restaurant owner and her highly-motivated team of five have managed to adapt during the coronavirus era, cutting costs by 60 percent and debuting a selection of casual fare—all the while continuing to source farm-fresh food as well as maintain their signature tasting menu and fine wine program. We spoke with Ayer to better understand what it’s like to be a parent and member of Boston’s restaurant community right now through the lens of the novel.

One theme that’s present in the book is community vs. isolation. How do you think restaurants foster a sense of community, especially during the isolation of a global pandemic? 

This has been tough on all of us I think. Restaurants do offer a sense of community and are epicenters for social interaction, which help us create our own stories and memories. There is so much comfort in food and drink and sharing those moments with our loved ones is something we all deeply need. Restaurants are doing their best to slowly build back what we once had, but it will take time to get to where we were. Again, we are much smaller so I feel we are able to do this more successfully. We have a loyal group of regulars who dine with us often who trust that we’re keeping them safe to the best of our ability.


The book focuses heavily on sustainable living and eating. Why is it important for Talulla to source food from farmers and winemakers?

We truly are the definition of mom-and-pop. Our restaurant is even named after our young daughter. We are committed to operating on a smaller more local level. We only source ingredients from farmers whom we have a relationship with. It is so important to understand as much as we can about the farms we work with and their practices; this is a core value for our business. Our wine program is the same. Pre-COVID we traveled often, namely to vineyards so we could develop those same relationships with winemakers. Because we are much smaller, we have the ability to connect with our guests more about our products and to tell the stories of our experiences and meeting the farmers and winemakers who we can now call our friends.

The novel’s protagonist is a mother and much of the book focuses on that role—what has parenting been like for you and your husband and business partner during this unprecedented time? 

A balancing act. Most of our attention is tied up in our business, because our livelihood depends on it. We have a great support system, and are so grateful for the friends and family in our lives who have helped us when we needed it. But parenting is tough. We ultimately decided to not put [our daughter] Talulla back into early learning right when it reopened, for the safety of our family (she is three-and-a half). But this has put extra pressure on us at home to try to carve out some time for projects and early learning activities. I know many people are experiencing the same issues. But the fact is, owning and operating a restaurant simply has more demanding hours. Conor will leave for work at 10 a.m. and won’t be home until 11 p.m., so he does miss out on this early time in our daughter’s life. Currently, we have no other choice—the restaurant must keep going. We’re hopeful it will change soon. Luckily, we have carved out time for us as a family, we are only open five days a week, so we do have two full days where we try our best not to work on anything business related.


The book explores an idea that not doing what you truly love can sometimes be just as taxing as choosing to pursue your passions. With the hardships restaurants have faced during the pandemic, have you felt this way at all? 

Sometimes, I have thoughts…I could leave this industry tomorrow, and easily go out and pursue something else, maybe graphic design? Easy! Sometimes, I wish I had the courage to do so. But I think at the end of the day, the creative freedom with working in a restaurant is so liberating.

Join the #BostondotcomBookClub, sign up for our newsletter to get the latest updates, and RSVP to the livestream author discussion hosted by Still North Books & Bar owner Allie Levy on Tuesday, October 27 at 6 p.m.

Where to buy the book: Still North Books & Bar | 

What are your secret desires, insecurities, and obsessions? Share them with us.

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