Rachel Van Dolsen.
"Oh no, I'm just not cool enough for that,"
The first time I saw Rachel Van Dolsen, that's what I thought.
It was an abnormally warm Saturday in October of 2015, and I just stepped off the G Train and into Greenpoint for the first time. My denim Forever 21 jacket rested awkwardly over my narrow shoulders as I climbed the steps toward Manhattan Avenue, a hopeful attempt to signal even a blip of Brooklyn-chicness at my first ever "cool creators of New York" brunch, hosted by The Brothers Buoy.
I pulled open the chilled metal door at The Bounty and immediately saw Rachel glowing under a beam of sunshine pouring through the window beside her. A large, straw hat resting at the perfect angle on her delicate blonde head, she removed her sunglasses and smiled at me.
That's when the thought hit me, "Damn, maybe I gotta get a hat,"
I'd been in the city for six months, still continually marveling at just how cool New Yorkers are. I introduced myself to Rachel right away, hoping to somehow absorb her trendy sophistication. Her energy was infectious.
"Come, sit! Did you get a drink? How do you know the boys?"
She began her personal narrative, telling how she launched her PR company, RVD Communications, out of her Brooklyn apartment in 2012, after dabbling through some of New York's most reputable agencies. And as she dove further back in her timeline, explaining the many road signs that eventually led her to where she is now—including finishing a master's degree in liberal studies and art history—my fascination with her grew stronger.
"After my thesis, it seemed like a viable thing to take a year and decide what I was going to do next," she explained between sips of the mimosa in her hand. "I was 25 and thought if I was going to take the risk it had to be now. You get more and more commitments as you grow up.You don’t get to make that choice again."
HEAR RACHEL TELL THE STORY OF HER FIRST CLIENT, A SIGNIFICANT TURNING POINT IN hER CAREER:
"I can get a martini at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday, right?"
Fast forward to today, I walk with quiet leisure down Lorimer Street to meet Rachel for an early lunch in Williamsburg when she emails me. I wipe the late-July sweat from my forehead, smiling at her question and replaying our initial meeting in my head. I knew then, but more so now, that much of who I am identifies with who she is.
"Of course you can," I reply. "Of course we can."
Looking down at my watch, my tiny pink sneakers quicken their pace as I delve further into my memories of Rachel's story and how her outwardly convoluted path to owning her own company somehow forever made sense to her.
"As a kid, I always had a hard time with authority," I recall her explaining. "I was a good student but one of my biggest struggles, honestly also my biggest strength, was my distrust for authority and rules. I was always asking 'but why does that rule exist?' and pushing things as far as I could push them."
I remember she described a childhood filled with moments when adults in her life insisted that she should grow up to be a lawyer, to build cases and talk to people, essentially exactly what PR is. Combine that with her tendency to reject relying on someone else to tell her what to do or how to do it, and entrepreneurship seemed her only path.
So armed with the knowledge that she was born inherently great at something that she also loved to do, that's that all she needed, right? She'd be instantly successful with unbelievable ease, yes?
Rachel said that the challenges came one after the other, usually in ways that she hadn't anticipated. As her business expanded, she faced not only the usual decisions about who to work with and how exactly to make her brand stand out as hers, but also unanticipated decisions without clear answers: When do I hire a staff? How much do I pay people? When do I start paying for office space? What does growth mean? What’s the next step? Why am I doing this?
"A lot of entrepreneurs will tell you that the first year is the hardest, but I truly think it gets harder as you go," she admitted. "I know that's not a popular opinion, but I believe it. You’re playing on a completely different level as you move forward. But even on my worst day, I’m naturally good at this job. Sure, somedays I’m not my best and I make mistakes, but at least it’s something I intrinsically know how to do well."
Rachel's agency, now a team of 14, primarily represents brands in the food and drink space in New York City, deeming themselves "the ultimate ambassadors" to the various clients they serve. And so with her restaurant and bar repertoire naturally quite stacked, my heart flutters as I enter the large wooden door to Sauvage, Rachel's favorite neighborhood spot.
It's late morning in a neighborhood of young creatives, so the restaurant is still waking up, filled only with two or three groups of people caught somewhere between breakfast and lunch.
I see Rachel immediately. Her long canvas dress flows delicately above her heeled brown leather sandals, her red bandana loops effortlessly around her neck, and of course her signature hat sits right where it always does.
11:04 a.m. and she already ordered that martini.
"You're fine with sitting at the bar, yeah?"
Hopping off her stool to meet me for a hug, she hands me the cocktail menu as I nod without question, seemingly to say "why would we sit anywhere else?"
A clear sister to the famed Maision Premiere, Sauvage labels itself a "cocktail den." The bar's perfect white marble forms a long race track oval through the front of the restaurant, while green vines weave playfully through countless liquor bottles and a gorgeous mixture of shiny copper bar tools and crystal clear glassware.
After exchanging our usual quick catch-ups, Rachel tells me as we settle into its warm embrace, why Sauvage prevails among her favorite places in the city.
She explains how her day-to-day life consists of countless subways and cabs to various client meetings all over Manhattan and Brooklyn, and while she loves each and every restaurant she represents, Sauvage exists as the neighborhood haven she loves to come home to.
"You just feel fancier here, like you're out on the town," she laughs. "I've lived in Williamsburg for seven years and was so excited to see this space become something chic but still friendly. It could easily lean pretentious, but it doesn't. The staff is lovely, the food is great, the cocktails are beautiful. It's just perfect."
With our cocktails in hand, a Kettle One dirty martini in Rachel's and a Sloe Moon’s Rose house cocktail in mine, we place our family style lunch order and sink down into our wooden barstools just enough to feel time stop for a little while.
"I think it's because my mom overfed us as kids,"
Placing her fork down and picking her martini up, she laughs over her answer to my question about why she decided to specialize her agency in food and beverage PR.
She and her brother were "chubby teenagers" and obsessed with food, a thrilling surprise for their petite mom who loved having kids eager to eat whatever she put in front of them. And then once Rachel landed her first PR job in the hospitality space, she realized that promoting great restaurants and bars was just kind of her speciality.
"I've always been obsessed with flavors and I've never accepted that I don't like something." she says. "There's nothing I won't eat."
Between bites of egg yolk-splashed farro, my mind wanders to the various articles I've read about Rachel over the years, including a feature in Brooklyn Magazine's Top 100 Influential People in Brooklyn Culture. Throughout her press coverage, there's a reoccurring narrative mentioning a "Boss-Lady" title.
And with that in mind, I can't help but wonder what kind of boss Rachel envisions herself to be.
After a final forkful of smoked salmon, the question spills out of me, and Rachel almost immediately answers that it's one she considers for significant portions of every single day. Pushing back a portion of her curled blonde hair, she places her empty martini glass on the bar and her voice softens a bit.
She explains how she strives to create an environment of honesty, where her employees don't have to hide things or make excuses. She says she wants them to trust her enough to admit when they make a mistake.
"You can have high expectations and continue being a human being."
Hear Rachel explain how she's trying to break the usual employer norms:
"Can I get you ladies another round?"
Our waiter jumps in, breaking that earlier mentioned time-stop and reminding us both that we each have full days of work still ahead, regardless of the bliss we currently reside in.
And in almost in perfect unison, we acknowledge those responsibilities with regretfully polite "no thank you's" and "we're all set's."
"So, what's next?" I ask implying both for this afternoon and for longterm.
She takes my question to mean the latter, and explains that unlike most entrepreneurs she doesn't have an end game right now.
She reaches into her empty martini glass, pops the olive into her mouth and laughs,
"I guess I'll have to go on a vision quest one day and figure that out."