Hello Lowell, and beyond! Where do I even begin at 4 a.m., writing this after being prematurely awakened by my brain streaming ideas for this column. “Bad brain, no.”
This is my current blog-address, now that I no longer am able to write for Merrimack Valley Magazine.
More on that later.
On this night, I have slept for only three hours, no matter how hard I tried—a thing that happens too often these days. I tried counting sheep. (True story). I replayed the last nine-holes in my head. (All 52 strokes and the toe wedge). That didn’t work either. I finally gave up and stumbled into my dark and messy office-closet-guest room, skipping the whispered allure of a swig of Tylenol PM. I did that last week and felt like “skata” for the rest of the next day—to borrow the Greek word for, hm, ‘not good’, learned in my early-teenage days as a dishwasher in a Greek restaurant in New York. It was there I found a career while learning many life skills and only the best words from my spirited mentors, their being influential in guiding me down this perilous restaurant path. Thank you Demetrious, George, Yiannis, Nick, Sophia, Peter and Aphrodite…
I truly hate waking before dawn and especially when stress related. It’s much less awful if I’m going fishing or catching the rare flight to Aruba! I assure you however, that the culprit most assuredly is not finding subjects to write about for my columns. I do that in my sleep! (As you see) The truth is, saving-protecting, and reestablishing our three restaurant teams is what drives my middle-of-the-night nonsense in the 20-20’s. These never-ending pandemic days of being understaffed, undertrained, unrested and under fire, while paying increased wages and ever-rising product prices—badly needing more sales, yet unable to handle any more business. This, dear reader, is the foodservice epitome of a catch-22. Add to it, the additional disturbance caused by guests like T. Son who left a one-star review because she “waited ten minutes” and her oysters were “smaller than even China Buffet”. Welcome to my world people. “Hey T. Son, honestly, don’t go away mad but, go away.” Apparently our grace period of empathy and understanding is waning though our challenges are not as the tone deaf manage to fill our ears and demand our strained attention.
But that’s enough of my whining for now. As future columns are written, I will surely dig deeper into the struggle of my fellow restaurateurs and the ongoing-agony of defeat within my beloved industry, the thrills of victory less common these days. We wake each day with the hope that this status will not last for much longer. That feeling remains present, even now after two years. This business we’ve chosen has been more exhausting than ever before in my own 45-year history—having been doing this for way before my hair began to grey. Evidence? Just ask my friend Michael, owner of Lenzi’s Catering, who recently, temporarily, closed his tavern—”Not enough help”. Or, ask the chef-owner of the 10-years successful, Fuse Bistro in downtown Lowell. I imagine Scott Pelletier would share with you his pain, after the news of his closing Fuse in Westford—his 2nd property—after a five-year run. These fine operators are not alone by any stretch.
But again, this is not where I wanted today’s focus to be. There’s time later to continue to expose my inner curmudgeon—I can, and will, rant! Promiso.
While writing this, the morning’s first light began to appear light-blue in my window, alighting sleepily-positive and grateful feelings, that happy-place where I actually prefer to exist, when wise enough to count my blessings—to take note of the endlessly worse situations that other folks endure. Despite our struggle, to struggle is to breathe, and each breath offers opportunity for brighter days.
A masseuse friend of mine said recently that gratitude is “where the winners circle is.” She’s a kook, in the best of ways, extremely sweet and kind and spiritual. “Winning” for me, means having piece of mind—the favorite expression of our restaurant groups’ newest Director of Operations. Jennifer Alvarez says almost daily; “Piece of mind is priceless.” It is in this pursuit that I intend to remain focused. That is, when I’m not being grumpy.
So, only a few hundred words in, I’d like to “begin” again (and end) this column with further gratitude. I welcome those many readers who followed my column for over 14 years in the Merrimack Valley Magazine—the exact number of readers is a bit unclear but I like to think “in the millions.” (It’s a bigger valley than most people think, wink wink)
For those unfamiliar or unaware, that beautifully created publication shut down at the onset of this year—after struggling through the pandemic as so many did—due to reasons ultimately exacerbated by the rising cost of paper. I am often stopped by loyal restaurant guests, or the thoughtful people who I run into at gatherings (or Market Basket!) and am told that my “column is missed.” Hearing that makes me appreciative but sad. I loved writing all 84 columns since the magazine’s inception, sharing perspectives about our industry, all the family, friends and our amazing teams, the incredible (and nutso-crazy) chefs and the (some just as crazy!) guests—all who have sustained our businesses since, like, last century, while keeping me challenged, laughing and at times crying. And now, here I am… for better or worse!
I am grateful to have this forum where hopefully I can entertain you just a little bit and perhaps provide some insider industry-perspective while making a recommendation or two. I promise to try and avoid negativity—there’s already way too much of that out there—and also being “preachy;” Something my three daughters suggest I struggle with. (Insert humble-face emoji here)
I’d like to close with both a gentle suggestion and a quote—one of the very first things said to me when I relocated here 37 years ago; “Be kind.” It was the first advice ever offered me by the ‘Irish philosopher’ and Lowell native, my father-in-law to-be, “Mr Mo” James Moynihan. He proposed it just before I proposed to his beautiful eldest daughter, after our graduating from UMASS Amherst. He and I were enjoying our 2nd Lowell meal together that weekend—shrimp scampi and sauteed chicken livers at the old Bob White’s restaurant—the first having been where everybody knew his name, at the iconic Four Sister’s Owl Diner. Imagine that!
I have spent the following decades trying to heed his simple words of wisdom—and I think have been (mostly) successful. Admittedly, and shamefully, I’ve had my moments. (And, I’m sorry)
Since this is (mostly) a restaurant column, may I respectfully urge us diners out there to perhaps ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ before complaining about your local restaurant when things are not to expectation, or as they “used to be”. It is understandably difficult for most to imagine the depths that my fellow hospitality brothers and sisters are still digging out of, trying passionately each day to return to level ground. We are (all) regularly down a cook, or two, or a server, or two, during any given shift. Our own restaurant group has been unable to offer lunch—not enough staff. We cannot create and promote special events, not enough staff. (How badly do I long for another beer dinner!?) Often, products we order, don’t arrive, or arrive too late to prepare as our purveyors are short-staffed a driver, or two. And on it goes…
So, here’s just a silly thought; Maybe, next time when the food is taking too long, while the new, training cooks work really hard to keep up, just pretend you’re in the Caribbean, on a lazy-sunny day. Smile, wink, order a delicious rum drink, sit back, and think kindly; Life is good, mon. Thank you for reading. -SPlath