Dishin' That: Right place, right time, relentless sass

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Long ago in a galaxy far, far away (OK, it was Boston in the late 1980s) I had a hospitality industry partner in crime who is a soul sister to this day.

Initially, we were leery business acquaintances who became friends by looking for fun and adventure in everything we did. Both working professionals within the same hot company, we had one foot in the ancient, etched-in-stone corporate playbook, and one in the underground rebel-camp manifesto, doing things in radically different ways.

Together, we laid low and mashed up old operational directives with new ones that made sense. Everything was cool when things went right.

In its prime, the company we worked for was a 227-unit fast service pizza chain fully owned by one humble, lovely man who immigrated to America as a small child.

He was soft spoken and the kind of guy who kept everyone on his A-List. He sent me flowers (and a bonus) when my daughters were born, and I knew he wondered why I continued to work after becoming a mother. Overlooking the fact that I was my small family’s primary bread winner, he was confused by his own expectations and value system.

So I made it my mission to do and be it all. Sure, I was torn myself, but I had the opportunity to pave trails for other women in the company. I cried with hormonal guilt and from missing my babies. But I was also fueled with further propose when putting up a new menu board filled with my verbiage describing the food. I faked it a lot back then, and for a good while it worked.

Successful expansion throughout New England happened quickly. Our visionary founder with a high school education surrounded himself with an executive staff of hard-working childhood friends, many of whom had an excellent sauce recipe from the old country, but no formal industry experience. Eventually, outsiders were woven into the makeup of the corporate culture, but at heart, it remained a Good Ol’ Boy organization until its sale to a multinational food-and-beverage congolomerate decades later.

As for me, call it being in the right place at the right time, coupled with dream job manifestation and relentless sass. Plucked from the field, I moved from the polyester uniform of operational management to the corporate marketing and public relations department. I owned suits with stylish shoulder pads and became a Filene’s Basement regular. What I never did was buy senseless shoes without slip-safe soles. I wanted to bridge the gap between operations and corporate marketing decide-and-announce mentality. Lace-up shoes were a metaphor for my commitment to that daunting task.

Sure, I loved my role rubbing elbows with marketing agencies and planning local store grand openings. I took it personally when doing strategic plans for “opportunity” locations (under-performers pushed into existence by a great real estate deal) who needed the love.

Always a champion of those on the front line, I took on promotional and advertising ideas that looked good in theory, but would be a nightmare to implement. Maybe it was too cumbersome for our point-of-sale computer system. Maybe it was too labor intensive to justify the expensive advertising or field-wide training push. Maybe the food cost error and waste margin was too conservative. Or, maybe it was just a dumb idea that I intuitively knew the public wouldn’t embrace.

In order to keep my street credibility with the field and speak from experience in marketing meetings, I worked one shift a week in a store close to home. Earning the crew’s trust by pulling my weight (emptying a grease trap is one of the most disgusting things ever), I knew way back then I would always work in the trenches.

My return to fine dining from this corporate machine would come a year or so later, after my move to Maine. But not before sharing notable moments with my cohort, the general manager of the Lynn, Massachusetts, store.

The Lynn store was a world unto itself, a top performer in a tumultuous neighborhood. There were robberies, scary needles left in the restrooms and homeless folks setting up camp by the Dumpster. And there was no one better suited to take it on than a 26-year-old, 5-foot-2-inch redhead from upstate New York named Jacquelyn.

Next Week: Corporate restaurant adventures in Lynn, the City of Sin.

Peas & Qs

Even though I missed the grand opening of 33 Elmwood in Westbrook last week, I can confidently say this place is unique. Having followed the concept from inception to operation, a top-heavy management team has been hired to oversee the structure necessary to ensure success.

Indoor bowling isn’t novel, but indoor bocce is. That, and a stunning bar and dining area with no detail overlooked makes this a winner. Still not sure? Look up GM/executive chef Shawn Lewis’ accessible menu. Couple it with local beers, craft cocktails and a surprising wine list, and you’ll be intrigued.

Think nooks and crannies for parties, happy hour and more. Plus, make time to say hello to Sergio, the management top dog. His charm and depth of knowledge alone make the trip out Route 302 worth it.

Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to nladd@theforecaster.net, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @Nhladd.

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