Liz Masnik wears neither cloak of pretension nor air of detachment. I sat down with her on a quiet afternoon in Landmark, our conversation imbued with the same warmth and conviviality found in her downtown Raleigh bar and restaurant, The Borough. I wanted to know about her experiences as a local business owner, and what kept her going in such a highly demanding industry.
Natively from Springfield, Virginia, Liz has called Raleigh home for nearly a decade. And, like many, her first dose of the service industry was in college. Entrepreneurship had not entered her mind at this point; in fact she had yet to form a clear idea of where her post-William and Mary days would lead. “I was an English major,” she laughs. If there was one thing she knew for certain, it was that office life and the nine-to-five career path were not for her.
Fast forward to 2011, when The Borough enters its fifth year as a downtown Raleigh fixture. Liz likens her relationship with The Borough to a parent-child relationship. She explains that in the beginning, she had no idea what its identity would ultimately become. Her concerns hedged primarily around getting the business up on its own feet. “Let's just get the doors open and see what happens after that,” she says.
Liz's “don't look down” mentality and openness to the path her business would naturally take provided a strong infrastructure, while the personalities of its staff and clientele gave the place substance and texture. Today we have a Borough where piercings and tattoos mingle with popped collars and sculpted coifs, and people from a multitude of demographics share the same stage. This convergence “should be really natural,” Liz notes. “I think about it every day. It's like a really fascinating social experiment... I've never been to a place with such a mixed clientele... [a place that] doesn't define itself one way or another.”
When asked what life experiences helped form her business philosophy, Liz immediately referenced her time in Ireland. Tucked away in a rural landscape, far from anything remotely metropolitan, Leitrim never quite regained its footing after the mid-nineteenth century potato famine. It was here that Liz worked in a family owned pub, stepping into the newly vacated shoes of a much loved predecessor. As a freshly minted American university graduate, ingratiating herself to the pub's regulars was quite the brackish task. Not more than a couple of months into her tenure, Eilish, the pub's matriarch, pulled Liz aside. She chided Liz for being “too American” and for too freely dispensing her opinions and worldview on those for whom it had no historical or social context. “Shut up and listen,” Liz summarizes Eilish’s advice. This interaction—intervention, really—“totally transformed my way of thinking and transformed my life,” Liz recalls. When asked how her 22-year-old self’s experience affects her business philosophy today, Liz describes her interest in the lives of her customers and the value their exchanges have in her life. “I honestly prefer listening to their stories and how they live their lives... and how they view the world.”
For all of her ambition and business savvy, Liz's lack of ego is refreshing. Toothsome food and drink menu aside, The Borough offers much to its community simply by being an establishment that does not drip with pretension. In turn, it offers much to Liz as well, providing a kinetic and social environment that is far from beige. “If I didn't own a bar, I would work in one,” Liz assures me.