By: Patrick Maguire
Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service
As I announced in a blog post on 1/30/16, this series will celebrate ‘Mom and Pop’ shops in the Boston area, and possibly beyond. Over the next several months I will be dedicating blog posts to owners of restaurants and small businesses who contact me and respond to a questionnaire designed to capture their experiences of owning, working, and operating a business together.
The first person to email me with her tale and insight was Valerie Gurdal. Valerie is co-owner of Formaggio Kitchen with her husband, Ihsan Gurdal. I lived in the South End neighborhood of Boston for 13 years, and loved having Formaggio right around the corner. Their selection of cheeses, beer, wine, charcuterie, and specialty items are legendary in Boston, Cambridge, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Thanks to Valerie for sharing her story and launching this series.
Valerie: Formaggio Kitchen is three small retail specialty shops: Cambridge, Boston, NYC. We fondly refer to Cambridge‐FK as the mother ship, which was started in the late 70’s by Norma Wasserman. Ihsan, my husband started in 1982 and I started in 1984. We soon started a slow buyout of the business from Norma. Like most things at Formaggio, we have grown slowly and organically. So we didn’t start out with a mission statement we both started out as counter help who soon discovered we loved food retail. As time when on and we started taking on more responsibility, we wanted to know more about the source of the food, the producer, the farmer and we started traveling, which then led to our importing of the products we found.
SNS: What are your individual titles, roles, and responsibilities?
We are both co‐owners of all Formaggio operations. The Cambridge shop, South End, NYC and the Annex. The Annex is our warehouse where all the goods we import get delivered, mail order headquarters, and classroom facilities. I, Valerie, run the south End shop, Ihsan runs the Cambridge location and we have a great manager in NYC. (The NYC shop is only 250sq ft) Together we decide on the direction of the shops and areas where we need to improve. We choose the product lines that we import, and make staffing and travel decisions.
Where did you grow up and how did you end up in Boston?
I was born and raised in Miami and loved it. I came to Boston for college and never left. I still hate winter and I travel with food in my glove compartment out of fear of being stranded in a snowstorm, and I’m a loyal Miami Dolphins fan.
As a kid, what did you think you were going to be when you “grew up?”
As a kid I wanted to be an FBI agent, or a spy. I came to Boston to go to Northeastern to major in Criminal Justice and Accounting. I ended up graduating from BC instead.
What other jobs have you worked besides running your shops?
I always worked with food–waitress, prep cook, catering, and then Formaggio Kitchen.
What was your first restaurant‐related job and where was it?
94th Aero Squadron next to the Miami International Airport as a waitress. I loved the adrenaline rush and camaraderie of the staff. And I made enough money to send myself to Spain for 6 months.
How did you (and Ihsan) meet?
When I returned from Spain and moved to Boston for school I stumbled upon FK and decided I needed to get a job there so I could return home to Miami and open a shop like it. So I applied for a job. That was 1984 and Ihsan, my now husband, hired me. It was lust at first sight and I really did want to learn everything about the business. I kept daily notes and still have them. I was going to call my store in Miami, Sunset Corners. I think the location is still a good choice.
How long have you worked together?
We worked together daily from 1984‐1999 when we opened the South End location, and I now work in the South End location and Ihsan is in Cambridge.
How many hours a week do each of you work? (How many of those hours overlap when you’re both working together?)
Varies from season to season, anywhere from 8‐12 hours a day. We have been doing this going on 30+ years, so by now we have cultivated a great team around us.
Did anyone give you any advice before you started working together?
No, we didn’t even think about it. We dated while working together, got married, and still worked together. We really weren’t one of the couples that talked and planned things out, even though I am a planner. Guess love does that to you…
How would you describe your working relationship?
We are better at talking about the shops than working together daily in the shops. We are both opinionated, both always right, and stubborn–all those good qualities. But when we were in the same shop we each had different responsibilities and departments. That helped our relationship.
Is working together harder or easier than you anticipated?
When I first left to go to the South End, the shop was slow and I was used to the busy crazy pace of Cambridge, and I missed Ihsan. Soon I discovered I could never go back. I like having my own control. We work so differently. I am better at the big picture, Ihsan is better at negotiating with vendors, public speaking, the face of the shop, and teaching classes.
What do you like the most about working together?
I like that our overall vision is the same that we love to eat and drink so wherever we go we seek out restaurants, food shops, markets and of course, cheesemakers.
What do you like the least about working together?
Ihsan gets too intense and I have to voice my opinion and really the staff doesn’t need to witness our power plays.
How have you avoided killing each other?
A second shop.
What do you rely on Ihsan for that you would hate doing?
Ihsan is better at the negotiating prices with vendors, not my strong suit.
What qualities do you value most in employees?
Honesty, commitment, passion, and being on time.
What do you enjoy doing most when you’re away from the business?
Anything in the sun. Lots of travel, cooking, eating, horseback riding, boating, trying my hand at gardening, so far not so good.
Any issues you care deeply about that you want to share?
One of the things I love about the South End location is there are so many independently-owned businesses. If people don’t want every neighborhood or every town to look and feel the same, Gap, Pottery Barn, Starbucks, etc…, then the consumer needs to support the independent shops. These shops give character and individuality to neighborhoods. I don’t want to visit a new city and walk around and see the same shops I see at home. I want to experience something unique in each section of the city. The big stores can out purchase us, but in my opinion, they can leave the neighborhoods soulless.
Do you cook at home?
We do cook together at home. During the week dinner is very simple usually a piece of grilled fish with what we call ‘razzle dazzle’, basically a salsa which can be chopped tomatoes with hot peppers, lots of herbs, citrus or a caper-based one or bread crumb-based, whatever we have around, and a salad, maybe a vegetable. We always have lots of dried hot peppers on hand. We have a large group of friends in Westport MA where we have a house and over the weekends we entertain a lot, anywhere from 6 to26. Our group of friends all like to cook together and we tend to grill and eat more meat and drink more wine. Since our weekend groups tend to be large, we started doing potluck which works out great since everyone has their specialties. When we go to someone’s house we usually bring the cheese and charcuterie platter, go figure… During the weekdays we wake up early around 5‐5:30, walk the dogs or unload a ‘file’ shipment from Europe and go either to the gym or directly to work so I consider having coffee at home on the weekends a luxury. Ihsan makes the coffee, toasted Pain Poilane with fresh goat cheese and simiit toasted with cheese and turkish anise seed and fresh squeezed orange and pomegranate juice.
Do you schedule ‘date nights’? How often? What did you do on your last ‘date’?
We always find a night to be alone. Fridays when we get to Westport, we almost never go out and spend the night cooking at home just the two of us. Date night during the week can be as simple as a night at home‐‐good food, good wine, good company. One of our last formal ‘lets go out on a date night’ was in the summer we drove to Al Forno in Providence and ate for about 3+ hours. The waiter was perfect. We ordered so much food and he paced it perfectly. He didn’t bring out all the food at once crowding the table–oysters and martinis, rose with the next four plates and a grilled pizza, and then we were still hungry so we ordered the rib eye steak.
What are some of your favorite Boston area restaurants?
Any dreams\fantasies about opening a restaurant completely different than your current shop?
As you grow in a business you tend to stop doing the things that you loved in the beginning‐‐helping customers, doing the little things. You tend to end up doing a lot of admin work, which I like. I am lucky to have a good balance of both. We aren’t a restaurant, so a fantasy would be a small neighborhood (Cambridge) wine bar that we could walk to with really simple food from our travels‐‐combining all our favorite tapas bars in Spain and mezes in Turkey, bistros….
What characterizes your favorite type of customers?
Polite. we have customers who come in every day, some two or three times, and while we can’t always please everyone and sometimes run out of things, it’s so refreshing when the customer is polite. We pride ourselves on our customer service.
What are you most proud of about your shops?
We’ve been doing this job for 30+ years and still love most parts of the business. I love our product selection, the staff’s knowledge of the products, and our customer service. Our tastings and classes are a great way to share information with our customers. I am extremely fortunate here in the South End to have a very supportive core staff, but at the same time dealing with staff is also one of the most challenging aspects of the business.
Any advice for couples thinking about working together in a restaurant/small biz?
Have different roles and responsibilities. Try to remain calm and don’t take the work home with you‐‐easier said than done…
If you’d like to participate in this series, please email me at Patrick@servernotservant.com. And please forward this blog post to ‘Mom and Pop’ Shop business owners who might enjoy sharing their story. I’m also seeking a Boston media partner to share these posts. Thank you.
Disclosure: This is not a sponsored post. No compensation was exchanged between Formaggio Kithcen and Patrick Maguire/Server Not Servant in exchange for publication of this post. Social media sharing of this post by Valerie and Ihsan Gurdal, Formaggio Kitchen and affiliates is anticipated but not required. Thank you.
By: Patrick Maguire
Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service
Many of us lament the demise of ‘Mom and Pop’ shops, especially when they give way to soulless, ‘plastic’, national chains like those prevalent in Boston’s emerging Seaport District.
‘Mom and Pop’ shop as defined by Investopedia:
A colloquial term for a small, independent, family-owned business. Unlike franchises and large corporations, which have multiple operations in various locations, mom and pop shops usually have a single location that often occupies a physically small space. The “shop” could be any type of business, such as an auto repair garage, bookstore or restaurant.
To me, ‘Mom and Pop’ shops are about people who keep their heads down and grind out a living every day without a lot of fanfare. This blog post launches a series celebrating ‘Mom and Pop’ shops in the Boston area. It was inspired by Sharon and Chad Burns, co-owners of Farmstead Table in Newton, MA, and clients of my consulting business. Sharon is the pastry chef, and Chad is the executive chef, and both have multiple responsibilities beyond those titles. After meeting with them weekly over the last few months, I’ve gotten to know what their roles are, and what they rely on each other for.
I love supporting small businesses and good people, and that’s what this series is about. Some very popular restaurants and food trucks in Boston, Erbaluce, Sweet Cheeks, Tiger Mama, Select Oyster, Brewer’s Fork, Deuxave, Blue Ox, Moonshine 152, Trina’s, Steel & Rye, Stoked Pizza, Villa Mexico Cafe, Trade, Nebo, and State Park mentioned in my 10/22/15 facebook post and thread, are all owned by couples who work together in their restaurants. Over the next several months I will be dedicating blog posts to owners of Boston area restaurants and small businesses who contact me and respond to a questionnaire designed to capture their experience of owning, working, and operating a business together.
Send an email to Patrick@servernotservant.com if you’re interested in receiving a questionnaire and being featured in a future blog post. Media inquiries to same email, please. This is an opportunity for ‘Mom and Pop’ shops to tell their story and create content for their social media platforms. Please forward this post to anyone who might be interested in participating. Thank you.
By: Patrick Maguire
Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service
Interrupting regularly scheduled programming to promote my PR, Social Media & Hospitality Consulting business for restaurants and small businesses in the Boston area. Stay tuned for another SNS blog post soon. Thank you.
Be humble about your success. Luck, timing, and a lot of other people played a significant role in it.
This advice from Donald Wharton, Plymouth State College president, was included in the shortest graduation speech I ever heard while attending my brother’s graduation from Plymouth State in 1997.
I think about those words often when observing the social media posts from individual chefs and their restaurants. The ill-advised, obnoxious, “look-at-me” marketing that a handful of chef/owners employ can actually undermine their personal ‘brands’ and can be detrimental to their business. Many employees and customers find it off-putting, and can see right through a chef/owner trying too hard to be a “badass,” and not trying hard enough to keep their eye on the ball, mind the store, and do what’s right for their employees, customers, and long-term for their business. Personal chef or staff ‘brands’ impact perception of a business, and impact some diner’s decisions to support or avoid restaurants.
So why do they do it? Ego. And their publicists, PR agencies, marketing firms, (often detached, soulless corporate entities) don’t have the courage, or the perspective and knowledge to tell them it’s a bad strategy. Instead, they are enabling them to ensure they will continue to be paid ridiculous amounts of money. Too many restaurants are paying exorbitant, unnecessary monthly fees to individuals and companies delivering ‘fluff’ instead of strategic, candid, blunt advice. I get the ‘big picture’ strategy, but many of those fees are a huge gamble, and in most cases, a waste of money.
We’ve been very fortunate to have dodged a bullet so far this winter in terms of the weather. Fortunately, the current 10-day forecast has NO SNOW in it, and even calls for a high temperature of 56-degrees on Wednesday! (Fuckin’ A, or fuckin’ oath as my Aussie friends would say.) We’re far from out of the woods, but hopefully Boston area restaurant business will not be hit hard like it was last year. I realize that many of you have been preparing for difficult months financially during the slower winter months. If you’re doing a little better than you thought, and have a little more time, now is the perfect time to re-examine your PR, social media and marketing strategies without spending a lot of money. You will be better positioned to capture even more business during the busier months if you invest the time and effort now to tighten up your game plan.
The strategies that I recommend are the antithesis of the over-priced, over-hyped, “agencies.” Rather than trying to win national popularity contests, I recommend the organic, grass-roots, real strategies that worked for our team during the early years at jm Curley. We gained national attention because of our consistent, sustained effort locally, as we built and nurtured relationships with our employees, customers, neighbors, vendors, community, and industry peers via social media and in-person. No one knows or cares about your business more than you do. Detached, 3rd party, ‘corporate’ entities cannot capture and communicate the spirit, personality, soul, and mission of your restaurant the way you and your staff can. I can work with you and your team to implement effective strategies at a very reasonable cost.
There’s a sweet spot between the extreme of paying a national media firm and spending no money and doing very little social media marketing on you your own. For those of you doing nothing or not enough with social media, can you really afford to ignore the potential benefits to your business? There are so many restaurants that aren’t even in the conversation when customers are deciding on where to dine because the restaurant does nothing to remain current and relevant. They’re not even benefitting from ‘passive’ marketing because they don’t even have active Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts for customers to promote them on. And they’re stuck because they feel it’s a daunting task to get in ‘the game’ at all. If you’re willing to invest the time, it’s really not too difficult.
I’m taking on a few more customers immediately, and welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss the possibility of working together. Please email me at Patrick@servernotservant.com for a list of services I provide. Thank you for your consideration.
PS-Please feel free to forward this to anyone who could benefit. Thank you.
By: Patrick Maguire
Book Chapter: Customer Hall of Shame
All I can think about is Napkin Lady.
- Did she really ‘drop’, or as Mr. Wells delineated, ‘hurl’ her napkin to the floor?
- Did she ‘drop’ it on purpose to elicit a response from the server, or to test the staff?
- Was the napkin ‘drop’ staged by NYT restaurant critic, Peter Wells?
- What kind of adult human throws a napkin on the floor in protest at any restaurant anywhere?
- Is Napkin Lady a monster?
- How did Napkin Lady’s dining companions respond to her?
- Will she be invited to dinner with Mr. Wells again? If yes, is he a monster?
Per Se, on the Upper West Side in NYC, is one the most highly-regarded, expensive restaurants in the world. On Wednesday, New York Times restaurant critic, Peter Wells awarded Per Se two out of four stars in a predominantly scathing review. According to the NYT, two stars is “very good,” but Wells’ narrative was far from that. Menu items were described as droopy, rubbery and flavorless, gluey, mushy, dismal, random and purposeless, limp, dispirited, lame, and bouillon, “murky and appealing as bong water.” The negative comments about service included, haphazard, unobliging, oddly unaccommodating, and oblivious sleepwalking. And the experience was seen as a no-fun house, lame, disappointingly flat-footed, out of date, mediocre, and among the worst food deals in New York.
The two-star review was a significant departure from the four stars awarded by legendary NYT critic, Frank Bruni in September of 2004, and the four-star review by the NYT’s Sam Sifton in October of 2011. Mr. Sifton called Per Se, “… the best restaurant in New York City…”, and lauded, “It’s synthesis of culinary art and exquisite service is now complete.” “It represents the ideal of an American high-culture luxury restaurant.”
Who cares, right? The restaurant geek world does. Most of us can’t afford to eat at places like Per Se, but following the news in and around restaurants has become a sport that consumes us. And the news about the two-star ‘demotion’ caught fire with many of those who play, enjoy, watch, and broadcast ‘the game’. The 1,000+ animated comments from the NYT website are a testament to the interest in a review of elite restaurants like Per Se. A sampling of the reactions:
- Is fine dining dead?
- Are ‘celebrity’ chefs too cocky and complacent?
- Does the critic have an entitled, narcissistic, personal agenda?
- At the Per Se price point, shouldn’t one expect perfection?
- Are servers and staff being exploited at the “best of the best” restaurants?
- Who can even afford to eat at places like that?
- Why don’t people spend money on helping others instead of lavish meals?
- Finally, someone had the courage to speak the truth.
- The first staff meeting following the review is really going to suck…
And I just can’t stop thinking about Napkin Lady…
The first two paragraphs of the review from Peter Wells:
The lady had dropped her napkin.
More accurately, she had hurled it to the floor in a fit of disillusionment, her small protest against the slow creep of mediocrity and missed cues during a four-hour dinner at Per Se that would cost the four of us close to $3,000. Some time later, a passing server picked up the napkin without pausing to see whose lap it was missing from, neatly embodying the oblivious sleepwalking that had pushed my guest to this point.
Shortly after the review went live, I posted the following on my Server Not Servant Facebook group:
Perhaps Mr. Wells’ dining companion was role-playing to test the staff as fodder for the review. Or, perhaps she’s a bitch who acted like a petulant child… Hard to imagine someone thinking it’s ok to “hurl” their napkin to the floor while eating and drinking at Per Se. That’s no “small protest,” it’s a bullshit, entitled, bitchy move, especially if it wasn’t on her dime. I’m also interested to know if Wells will ever invite the woman to dine with him again. If she wasn’t acting, and he does invite her back, it speaks volumes.
My friend, Chef Mark O’Leary replied to my tweet to Peter Wells, “That was my first question, how much entitled fervor must you have to throw a napkin on the floor as an adult?”
I emailed Peter Wells on Wednesday night and asked him:
- Was throwing the napkin staged by your dining companion or you to test the server’s response, or was it a legitimate, out-of-control, hissy fit initiated without your prompting?
- Was your inclusion of the ‘napkin drop’ hyperbole to add drama/color to the prose?
- How did you and your other dining companions respond after she hurled the napkin to the floor?
- Were you or anyone you were with embarrassed?
- Did you or anyone at your table admonish her?
- Did she apologize to you and your table and/or the server or any other workers?
- Will you ever invite “Napkin Lady” to dine with you again?
- Feel free to add anything else that you’d like me to include in my post.
Mr. Wells responded that he wouldn’t answer my questions because he makes it a policy not to comment on public reviews, especially negative ones, and finished with, ”Readers can draw their own conclusions about my words, just as they can draw their own conclusions about a post in which a woman is called a bitch twice in a short paragraph.”
I read hundreds of the comments following the review on the NYT website (sport/entertainment, right?), and I’ll leave you with one beauty:
What happens now?
Can Per Se survive this? Does the entire staff get fired? Is the chef’s career ruined? Is the owner expected to publicly respond? Do they close for a month and reopen? Are they going to have to cut prices? Do they call in another ballerina? (Just joking about that last question. Sort of.)
More importantly, is Napkin Lady a monster???
By: Patrick Maguire
Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service
The Boston bar and restaurant industry is reeling from the devastating news of the sudden death of esteemed barman, Ryan McGrale over the weekend. Ryan was an ebullient professional whose life touched thousands far beyond the Boston and NYC restaurant communities where he worked. The outpouring of love and support for Ryan’s family, friends, and co-workers on social media has been incredibly inspirational. Based on the volume of those posts, the magnitude of McGrale was far, deep, and wide.
Ryan McGrale lived up to the hype.
I met Ryan at No. 9 Park in Boston, one of my favorite restaurant bars in the city several years ago. Whenever I walked in and saw the dynamic duo of Ryan and John Gertsen behind the bar, I knew I was in for an awesome experience. If I stood for too long chatting at the host stand, Ryan would often whip up a Pear Martini, come out from behind, and start asking loudly, “Who ordered the girly drink?” while walking through the crowd, and eventually taunting/embarrassing me when he handed it to me. His pranks and antics are legendary.
Ryan’s service and hospitality were impeccable. He was unfailingly polite, extremely gracious, respectful, and had a remarkable talent for consistently making me and whoever I was with know that we were in great hands. He was extremely knowledgeable, took great pride in what he did, and he worked very, very hard. He was effusive and genuine, fast, friendly, feisty, and funny. His mechanics, charm, and showmanship were a treat to witness. And man, did he ever have the gift of gab. His bar was always entertaining. He wasn’t a big guy, but he was a force who had full command of the bar with his expertise, confidence, hustle, and humility.
Ryan McGrale was a bartender’s bartender. He took pride in being and calling himself a bartender, not some elitist, manufactured name for the trade that he plied so well. Many industry brothers and sisters spent time with him to brainstorm about everything from cocktails to career choices. He was smart and wise beyond his 36 years. He was well-respected and a trusted colleague, and good friend to scores of folks in the industry.
Deepest condolences to Ryan’s family, friends, co-workers, industry peers, and customers trying to grasp the shock of his death. Many of us are struggling to find the words. To that end, I will repeat what I posted on facebook a few hours after I heard the news. Ryan was the quintessential “life of the party,” with tremendous, infectious levels of energy, spirit, and enthusiasm. I’ll never forget the early days at No. 9 Park with Ryan and John together behind the bar, and how good they were at their jobs. Ryan was extremely talented and elevated the game in Boston, NYC and well beyond. He was a gentleman, a showman, a character, and a great ball of fucking fire. This cuts to the core. “Good people” gone way too soon.
In closing, I’ll rely on the help of a few friends from their public comments:
Louis DiBiccari, co-owner of Tavern Road, Ryan’s employer:
Ryan is gone and the pain right now seems insurmountable. I know I’m struggling real hard with it. But I also know that he left us so much to remember him. It can be seen, felt, and experienced through his family at TavernRoad and amongst his peers throughout this great community. You will find reminders of him through Ray Guerin, Will Tomlinson, Steve Schnelwar, and for generations to come. There are names in this city that we recite within our training methods. People who taught us what we know and we speak of them often when we’re explaining how and why in context to our trade. Ryan McGrale is amongst those names. The people we mention when we speak of the great ones and what made them special. He’s a hall of famer. First ballot. May his spirit live on in each of us for the rest of our days.
Lou Saban, veteran Boston barman:
What an unbelievable week of loss. Beirut, Paris, and now one that hits very close to home. Ryan McGrale and I only shared a few conversations but it’s always sad to lose someone who dedicated their lives to making people feel like they belong somewhere. The only comfort you can take in this situation is the endless amount of pictures and videos of him living life to the fullest and making people’s hearts burst with those positive feelings that we spend our whole lives searching for. What a fucking success of a life. Just keep this week in mind when you wake up tomorrow. Everyone goes at some point but its more important than anything to live your life in a way that if you went tomorrow everyone would be talking about the times when you MADE THEIR LIFE WORTH LIVING. Take a look at some of pictures of Ryan and follow his lead. Live a remarkable life. Life is a balance and the only reason we feel this terrible is because people like him made us feel so awesome when they were around. You can be a total, unmitigated success, just like Ryan.
Ryan Brown, Boston DJ and industry friend in a tribute to McGrale:
You were absolutely tireless in your professionalism. You built something lasting out of things that don’t last. You created. You gave so much energy. You cared. You engaged. You mentored. You learned. You broke rules and you made rules. I sat at your bar countless times, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends, but there was a reason why I was sitting at your bar, and it definitely wasn’t because of all the Nelly. There is something spectacular about watching someone with so much skill do their job. And I’m not just talking about all the technical cocktail knowledge that I know barely anything about, but I’m talking about how you talked to people, how you navigated, how you moved. Above all else though, you made me feel at home, and on those days when you are trying to wrap your head around where home is or what home even is or means, making someone feel at home is a gift. And I thank you for always giving that selflessly. Literally always.
Ashley Stanley, founder of Lovin’ Spoonfuls Food Rescue non-profit:
My heart is heavy for so many industry friends today. Boston lost a truly good guy, so many hearts are breaking all last night and this morning.
There’s been too much turmoil and sadness in the early weeks + months of the season that is supposed to represent gratitude. Maybe the message here is that every day we have a chance to grab the people we love, tell them that they matter – and not wait. Maybe we ought to say too much instead of not enough. Even when it is overwhelming – imagine if we flooded each other and the world with acknowledgment, gratitude and love instead of holding it in and waiting for the ‘right’ moments. Somebody might need to hear it. You might need to say it.
Love loud and often, friends. Let’s not leave anything on the bar.