Cristina and Andrea Morara initially came to America, specifically Sarasota, to open an espresso and wine bar with some European flair.
What the husband-wife business team got instead, though, was a primer in flexible entrepreneurship.
The result of the shift is a somewhat unique Gulf Coast business — upscale, non-Internet based matchmaking — that is on the cusp of a growth spurt. The couple's firm, Sarasota-based Stellar Hitch, recently took on clients in Miami and Tampa. The Moraras are also considering expanding to New York and Los Angeles.
Not exactly Bordeaux and beans.
But Stellar Hitch is an example of how to stay true to an old business lesson: Listen to customers. Cristina Morara, who was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, says the wine bar, which she and her husband opened in 2007, worked fine enough for a few years. Andrea Morara is from Italy.
After a year or so, Cristina Morara says the bar's mostly single customers began to ask her and her husband for dating advice. Some male customers would ask Cristina Morara to rate their blind dates. Female customers would pump Andrea Morara for tips on how to make their significant others more sophisticated.
“It kept coming up over and over,” says Cristina Morara. “We couldn't believe how many people were coming in and saying 'I can't meet anyone.'”
The Moraras launched Stellar Hitch in 2009. Services in addition to matchmaking include personal image consulting and fashion makeovers. “It's not for everyone,” says Morara, “because we are working with upscale professionals.”
Clients range in age from 28 to 76. They are a mix of men and women and cover the single gamut: divorcees, widows and widowers and people who have never been married. Morara declines to release specific client counts or annual revenues, only to say the client base has doubled over the past year.
The traditional matchmaking industry has also grown, thanks in part to the popularity of online dating websites such as match.com. For example, the New York-based Matchmaking Institute, an industry support and certification group, estimates there are now 1,500 independent matchmakers in the U.S. with more than $250 million in annual revenues.
Morara considers Stellar Hitch the antithesis of online dating. While those services offer a broad way to meet people, Stellar Hitch, says Morara, is hyper-specific. Says Morara: “We want to tilt the odds in people's favor.”
The Moraras meet with each new client several times over a month to get a detailed picture of what they seek in a relationship. Then the Moraras find up to 20 potential matches and, depending on the package the client bought, introduce them to a smaller number of dates.
In some ways, it makes perfect sense that Christina Morara's diverse entrepreneurial career has taken her to matchmaking. She started her career in New York, in advertising — the art of persuasion. From there she worked in Hollywood, in casting — the art of selection. Both of those skills are coveted in the world of matchmaking, Morara has discovered.
The couple's last business, Ca' Rina Espresso & Wine Bar, was a middle ground on the way to Stellar Hitch. The couple sold Ca' Rina last year.
Now, with an expansion opportunity, the Moraras face another entrepreneurial turning point: managing growth. “I'd like to grow to other markets,” says Morara, “but the challenge will be letting go.”
It's a challenge many entrepreneurs face. At least Morara has her husband on her side in the decision. An admitted romantic, Morara loves to tell the story of how she and Andrea met, on a casting call for a commercial in Italy.
“He didn't get the part,” says Morara, “but he got the girl.”
Cristina Morara, one half of a Sarasota-based husband-wife matchmaking service, works with executives who are successful in business but lost in love. Here are some of Morara's tips for finding a mate.
• Be done: When the workday is over, it's over. Says Morara: “Step into your feminine-masculine shoes and remember how attractive it is to have a work-life balance.”
• Be blissful: Take a class, start a group, or do something that cultivates a passion. “You will be around like-minded people who share your interests,” says Morara. “(It's an) instant conversation starter.”
• Be open: Don't make being unapproachable a sport, Morara says. “When you're single, you need to be open to all possibilities,” she adds. “Check your body language, eye contact, social behavior. Are you saying 'come hither' or 'move on?'”
• Be interested: Don't just be interesting, says Morara, but take an interest in the other person. “When you first meet someone,” Morara says, “remember to balance the conversation with questions about the other person. It's a dialogue, not a monologue.”
• Be different: If the routine is work, gym, eat and sleep, then change it. Run in a different spot, suggests Morara, or have dinner at a new place. Even change the way you drive to work.