‘We Wanted To Create Our Own Italian Village’
SUZY AND BILL MENARD HAVE TWO GREAT LOVES OF THEIR LIVES.
The Iowan and Floridian met in a campaign office in 1984, brought to DC by a shared passion for politics. A year later, Walter Mondale wasn’t president, but Suzy and Bill were married.
After varied stints in politics—including the 1988 Michael Dukakis campaign—Bill enrolled at Georgetown Law. At the end of freshman year, he was given the opportunity to do a summer semester abroad in Florence.
‘I knew I loved Italy and I figured Suzy would,’ Bill says. ‘We had a one-year-old son at that point and it sounded like a great adventure. We moved there for three months, rented an apartment in Florence, and became residents of this little neighborhood.’
‘Our cousin was with us, and we would wake up every day and go shopping, to the park, and the public pool,’ Suzy recalls. ‘It was like one big play date. Bill would come home and do his homework, we’d put Austin to bed, and the two of us would go out for the night. As the mom of a newborn. I had this great life. If I couldn’t fall in love with Italy, I’m an idiot.’
Idiot, she was not. Suzy and Bill became regulars at the local birreria, making friends with a few men who taught them Italian.
‘It was a chance to share the culture,’ Suzy says. ‘I was learning all of my Italian at the bar.’
Back home, Bill graduated and took the bar with every intention of working for a big firm. Now parents to a newborn daughter, Suzy and Bill decided to have what they assumed would be one last hurrah—returning to Italy for the summer.
The time passed quickly, and their old friends at the birreria were dismayed when they left for Switzerland—Suzy’s dream trip.
‘With a husky voice, our friend Sergio said, ‘Why would you ever leave Italy?!’ They have no pasta, they have no wine!’’ So we get to Switzerland, check into the hotel, and go downstairs to get a beer,’ Suzy says. ‘There’s a little line on the glass for the fill marks, so the guy pours the beer and it’s a little over, so he dumps it out until he gets to the fill line. We’re like we’re not in Italy anymore. We got our cuckoo clock and hightailed it out of there.’
‘As it turns out, Sergio was right,’ Bill adds.
By the time they returned to DC, the Menards were hopelessly in love with Italy. Bill satisfied his itch with a weekly language class in the basement of his K Street law firm, but they had two more children, and life went on.
Years later, one of Bill’s classmates invited him to join her and her husband at a cooking school in Italy. With four young children in tow, Bill and Suzy took them up on their offer. Serendipitously, they connected with the charismatic chef.
‘He wanted to set up an export company and sell Italian food on the Internet, which was just starting at that point,’ Bill says. ‘It just seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. He was well connected in the culinary world, and I said ‘I’m a lawyer, I can figure out how to import things to the states.’
In 1999 they started a small online company with Yahoo store; their Italian friend shipping the inventory to the Menards, who began making frequent trips to Italy to meet the suppliers.
‘It was this apprenticeship sort of thing that we’ve used as a model ever since,’ Bill says. ‘You meet people who are interested in what they do, you get to know them, and before too long you’re in awe with what they do. A lot of it isn’t rocket science—you’re taking olives and crushing them to turn it into oil. But it’s rocket science in the care in which they do it, the passion that they have, and the way they throw themselves into it. It’s overwhelming, and it’s not something you see in America. We work harder, and more hours than most people, but it’s more for the result and outcome, and I think Italians are more into the process.’
Deep into their own process, Suzy and Bill eventually found themselves at a crossroads. They considered leaving the business, but a brick-and-mortar location intrigued them.
‘We’d already done the legwork of learning how to bring everything over, and made all the connections,’ Suzy says. ‘So we decided to open a storefront.’
The Menards partnered with good friends and opened a retail store in Bethesda. After seven years, they were still invested in the business, but wanted to buy their own building. They spent a year and a half looking for a space that could not only accommodate retail, but create a community.
‘By the end of our search, we were in the mindset that we could just be done with the whole thing, and that’s when we saw this building,’ Suzy says. ‘We both walked in, looked at each other, and said this is it.’
Via Umbria opened on Wisconsin Avenue in 2015, the original retail concept expanding into a market, café, restaurant, and event space that offers weekly dinners with the chef, wine tastings, and cooking classes. Suzy and Bill acknowledge the danger in trying to do too much, but say—when done well—the whole transcends the pieces.
‘Our house in Italy is a five minute walk from the local town,’ Suzy says. ‘You walk in town and there’s a little grocery store, a few amazing restaurants, a butcher shop, a bakery, a vegetable shop, and a few household shops. You go to the coffee bar and little kids are all running around, older men are reading the newspaper in the morning and playing cards in the afternoon. We wanted to create a place that would be our own little town in Georgetown. Nothing makes me happier than when you look down on our café and people are actually eating together and talking, and little kids are crawling around. I feel like they feel at home and that’s what I want.’
Bill still can’t fully articulate what makes Italy so special, but says it’s born from this sense of community.
‘Italians are so connected to their land and their traditions. We don’t have a lot of that here. At Via Umbria, we have Italians and people from the embassy come in and they say it reminds them of home. It’s not just the stuff we have, it’s the ambiance. It feels right.’
When they aren’t in the shop, Suzy and Bill host tour groups at their second home in Umbria—filling their kitchen with Americans and Italians brought together by something that transcends language.
‘Food is the catalyst around which you can create community,’ Bill says. ‘It removes any barriers of people being able to connect to one another, and creates opportunities to connect. That’s what we’re trying to transport over here, but the Via Umbria story isn’t an easy one to tell because it’s more than just one thing.’
The mark of any great love story.