Young entrepreneurs create their space in the local restaurant scene

Laynie Erickson, Staff Reporter

Two new restaurants opened in Kittitas County this summer. While the restaurants differ in both menu and atmosphere, they do share something unique in common. Both are owned and operated by entrepreneurs in their 20’s who happen to be roommates.

Long-time Ellensburg friends Mackenzie Cohen, 27 years old, and Jillian Johnson, 28 years old started their own businesses with the goal of expanding the food industry in the community. 

Cohen opened Kittitas Cafe, a hometown coffee shop back in June. In early September, Johnson opened Julep, a southern kitchen and cocktail bar.

Both young entrepreneurs live under the same roof in Ellensburg with their husbands. They started their careers in the food industry working at the Tav, before deciding to each use their skills and experience to expand Kittitas County’s restaurant options.

While both agree their youth and energy have been an advantage in their entrepreneurial endeavors, they’ve faced their share of challenges. Mainly, finding financial backing. While many older, more established business owners may have easier access to the capital needed to open a restaurant, Cohen said she believes that experience in the industry was far more important. 

“I think that sometimes older people with money open businesses, but don’t have any experience actually doing it and sometimes that doesn’t lead to much success,” Cohen said. “Having done the grunt work and doing it for so long, that’s helped us be able to serve people and put out quality food.” 

 Johnson said she has been pleasantly surprised by the support they have received despite their youth. 

“I think people look at you the same way they look at somebody who is 50 and owns a business,” Johnson said. “They look at you with respect and excitement.”

Both Cohen and Johnson agree that one of the biggest benefits of being a young restaurateur is the opportunity to be a part of the community. 

Johnson said, “The biggest benefit for me, is that I get to meet so many people. I get to work with other business owners in town, and get to learn so much.”

Cohen also said she feels a strong loyalty and responsibility to the community. 

“I think we are the future for this town and want to make sure cool businesses are open and good jobs are provided,” Cohen said.

In their years of experience in the food industry as employees, both women have learned skills they believe make them better business owners. This includes how to treat their young employees fairly, a skill Cohen attributes directly to the “girl bosses” they have worked for previously. 

“They were a huge inspiration for treating people properly and showing appreciation,” Cohen said.

Even though they are owners, both still spend a significant amount of time working directly with their customers. 

“What I enjoy the most is being able to be on the floor and just talking to people,” Johnson said. “I love meeting tables that have come in because they have heard a good review and want to try it out.” 

Cohen said she agrees that connecting with customers is one of the most rewarding parts of the job, even though oftentimes customers are surprised to learn she is the owner. 

“I think some people think I’m someone that’s just working here,” Cohen said “They assume that my mom, who works here full time now, is the actual owner of the business.” 

Cohen said she doesn’t let that deter her and encourages others to chase after their dreams, no matter their age. 

“If anyone’s thinking of doing something like this, and they are worried about being young and unprepared, they can do it!” Cohen said.