bigger, Bigger, BIGGER?

I attended the Planning & Zoning hearing last Wednesday which addressed the large Mill St project.  It was very interesting to say the least.

This parcel of land is currently zoned for light industrial use.  This means that we could see a warehouse or medium sized manufacturing company bring its business to Shelton.  The Iroquois gas pipeline runs directly through it as well as the beloved Paugussett trail, which has been lauded and championed for decades.  The grand vision is to re-join the ancient trail with the Housatonic river.

The issue which has now arisen is that the land owners would like the city to change zoning for this parcel to a PDD or a planned development district.  This would give potential developers carte blanche in the way of applied usage of the space.  Their proposal includes a 9 story high rise apartment building as well as a “downtown feel” shopping area for the potential residents, all spilling out onto Bridgeport Ave.

Don’t worry, the developers are also planning to expand Bridgeport Ave to accommodate all of the new residents and customers, but only between exits 12 and 13.

These developers and their lawyers keep saying that this project will make Shelton lots of money.  After hearing them as well as the opposing viewpoints voiced by current neighborhood residents, I am convinced that changing an established zone to accommodate this project will not only ruin a beautiful scenic road and historic trail system but it will forever alter the personality of our fair city.  The only real money to be made is for a select few – not Shelton at large.  My plea is for the P&Z commission to deny the zone change.

As a business owner in town, I am cognizant of the desire to grow our city.  We are in a position logistically which sits perfectly in balance between NY metro and NE country.  It very well may have come to a point where we need to re-visit our grand plan and make some changes.  But while Shelton is poised to become the next big city in CT, we must ask ourselves- is this what we all want?

I hold a different vision for my Shelton and I have spoken with many residents who feel the same way.  We really do not want to be the next Stamford.  There are many residents who left cities like that for a reason.  What if we actually took some care and built up the culture and historic beauty of Shelton?  We have amazing natural resources, a rich cultural history and the potential to become the next tourist mecca of CT.

Droves of people already come to our city for our agricultural gems like Beardsley, Jones and Stone Gardens farms.  We have the hotels and restaurants to accommodate tourists up and down Bridgeport Ave.  We’re on one of the most historic rivers in the country.  Let’s celebrate it!  The more people I talk to, the more we agree that it is time to bring the Village back to the Valley – not the bigger Bigger BIGGER! (56)

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Thank you, Ralph

Did you know that there should be a Domino’s pizza where GROW now stands?  True story.  When Fred and I were first looking at locations for our luncheonette, we had our eyes on a different spot around the corner.  The landlord kept putting us off and didn’t return our phone calls.  We were getting really frustrated and didn’t think it was going to happen.  Then one of our friends said that the corner space on Howe Ave had a sign up and that we should check it out.  It was then that we met Ralph Matto.

He showed us around the space which was then a makeshift locksmith storefront.  As we walked, we told him our story- that Fred is a really talented chef and that we were going to open a shop dedicated to soup.  Now mind you, at the time we had been met with a lot of discouraging feedback about our idea.  Our friends and family were trying to talk us out of quitting our jobs with two small children just to follow a dream.

He listened and we said our good-byes.  I really liked Ralph.  He was straight forward and he reminded me a lot of my dad.  Nevertheless, we thought that he would blow us off the same way the others did and that our unrealistic dream would be put on hold yet again.

To our surprise, we actually heard from him a few days later.  He told us he saw something in us that excited him.  Apparently, Domino’s had come to him and he was ready to sign a lease with them, but we came along and Ralph decided to take a chance with us.  It was a phone call that changed our lives.

Over the years, we have grown to love Ralph Matto.  He has always treated us like family and has been nothing but gracious and kind.  He has come in many times to eat and chat.  We found out that in the eighties, he led a downtown revitalization movement and was fully immersed in restoring this city.  He’s told me stories of growing up in his mother’s downtown bar and I have met countless people who know, love and respect him.  He has a deep love for this city and the people in it.

Ralph was the first person to take a chance on us.  He truly believed that we had a shot at making something good and supported us every step of the way, even when it wasn’t the easiest business decision.  We owe so much to him and I want him to know just how special he is to Fred, myself, our family and the community of Shelton.  Thank you, Ralph.  You have given us something which we will always cherish – your blessing. (35)

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Gotta Love it

Over the past week, GROW has been the target of a political Facebook smear campaign.  We believe that we were randomly chosen and that the person involved has no idea who we are and what we are about.  They wrote a scathing, untrue and hurtful review and posted it on a national political page.  As a result, people from many different parts of the country negatively “reviewed” our restaurant and bashed us based on ignorance and a negative agenda. I had to bite my tongue and not hastily reply to the lovely woman from Texas (never having been to CT, let alone to GROW) who said that our food sucked and that she would never come back to our restaurant again.

For the life of me, I cannot understand the logic behind these actions.  We are a small business, trying our best to grow and thrive in a beautiful country where we are allowed the freedom to do so.  We welcome all to our establishment with open arms and a warm place at our table.

I have seen this before.  A former employee who is disgruntled and angry creates a false identity and posts on a small deli’s page that they are a “customer” who just saw roaches and or mice scurrying around the place and that the service was horrible.  They were disgusted and will never patronize the place again.  This brand of disease spreads like wildfire.  People immediately comment, vowing “never to visit that disgusting deli.”  “How dare they not care about roaches?”   “I want to vomit just thinking about it!”

Now it is up to the business owner to scramble, trying to figure out what the heck just happened.  They are forced into a corner, defending their impeccable reputation.  Years and years of hard work can go down the drain just because a baseless rumor spreads over the ether, fueled by one person’s opinion that they should have been able to take six smoke breaks in a shift. (I am loosely basing this employee on a few that I have had in the past and several which have been employed by other business owners I know).

Facebook, which can be a great platform for advertising and posting yummy food pictures, can be a death sentence when placed in the hands of hate and anger.  Fortunately, in our case, the negativity was short lived and obviously random. But for others, it can be a devastating blow.  Before believing any negative reviews and or posts, please investigate the source.  Do they have any history?  Does this person have any real interests? Jobs? Family?  Investigate the target.  How were the reviews previously?  What is their reputation in the community?

We are all in this together and we have the power to either build a greater community or tear the very fabric from which we were created.  Let’s choose the former.  Together. (40)

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One crazy summer

My college experience started and ended at the University of New Mexico.   It was a great school and it was really affordable in the 90’s.  My goal was to become a high school English and Drama teacher.  Ah, those best laid plans…  I remember being in a big lecture hall thinking “I am sitting here, listening to this man spout out and making me memorize things from a book written by a different man whose experiences may or may not have anything to do with my life.”  as I stared to doze off.

Needless to say, I didn’t last very long in college.  I was a person who had to go out and experience life on my own.  My path was leading in the direction of working with people and what better way to do that than to travel?  My friends and I made it a point to day trip whenever we could and as the opportunities arose, we adventured farther and farther.

When I turned 21, three of my girlfriends and I took the summer off and drove my Honda civic hatchback to Alaska.  We weren’t quite sure what we would do when we got there, but we recognized at some level that our best chance to learn and experience was right then and there.  Fear of the unknown was not allowed to be a factor.

After a long and storied journey, we found jobs at a Salmon processing plant, living in a tent city on the Kenai peninsula (really just a bunch of tarps shantied together in the factory’s parking lot).   Our duties included fish cavity scraping, egg sack redistribution and quality control.  The smell of salmon belly rot will forever be burned into my brain.  We were constantly smelly and dirty and we worked 12-14 hours a day.  But the sun was always up and we were young.

That summer led me on a new path.  I began to realize how to communicate with people on a new level.  We worked with a couple from Russia, native Alaskan Eskimos (no igloos and it was warm, so no fur lined parkas), a group of 4 deaf college boys travelling together, as well as gang members from L.A. trying to put their thug life behind them.  Out of sheer circumstance, our social constructs fell away making room for familial cooperation, and we worked together to get the job done.

I realize that there are many professions which require extensive book learning and collegiate certifications.  I do not recommend learning mechanical engineering by jumping into a helicopter, tearing it apart and piecing it back together.  But there are certain aspects of any profession which cannot be conveyed in a lecture hall.  What that summer taught me is that I can make a family out of any group of people.  I am able to find a common ground with anyone with whom I strike a conversation and build from there.  This skill has proven to be invaluable to me both in my personal life as well as in the profession which chose me. (84)

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It was the best of times…

I had the unique experience to simultaneously work for the best and worst bosses I have ever come across. My time was split between two small businesses.  I was working as a licensed massage therapist for a local spa and also as a stained glass artisan for The Glass Source in Shelton.  Both of these opportunities involved a field I was passionate about, but they could not have been farther from each other in actual experience.

The spa started out as a great opportunity with regular hours, work in my field and benefits.  I liked the women and the clients with whom I worked and it was a great opportunity.  However, things changed very quickly.  My coworkers and I started experiencing inconsistencies in our schedules and house rules.  The upkeep started to grow slack and the owner was less and less present.  We started having to make excuses and apologizing for management.  The environment became toxic and did not represent me or how I wanted to express my craft.

The Glass Source was the completely opposite situation.  Fred and I took an introductory class and I fell in love.  Debbie Breither, the second owner after the original owner/artisan Mary Pilsbury passed from cancer, saw something in my talent and offered me a job.  The space was small but tidy and her whole family worked there.  Debbie’s mother was the bookkeeper and her father the comptroller. I felt instantly at home.

From the beginning, I was amazed at the amount of grace Debbie possessed.   She made it a point to know everyone’s name, even if she had only met a person once.  When she gave a quote, she would tell the client that it would take a little longer than she expected, because she would rather pleasantly surprise them than give false hopes and empty promises.  Debbie loved her craft.  She had an uncanny attention to detail and executed as only a true perfectionist could.  She cared for her clients.  Her employees were treated like family (the ones you like) and I loved coming to work every day.  And working with stained glass was an amazing experience which I will always cherish.

The glaring difference between these two people was the level of care and attention they gave their businesses.  The spa owner was in it as a money-making venture- nothing more.  She made her money, but after a while her bare minimum level of care and integrity wore away at any staying power and the spa eventually failed.   Clients were disappointed and employees were left to fend for themselves.

Debbie had moved down South to semi-retire and passed the business to Mike Skrtic, an artisan with whom I worked.  His level of care and craftsmanship is equal to if not greater than before and he carries on the tradition of intuitive customer service and a keen eye for quality and detail.  He is the realization of a true apprentice becoming a master craftsman and Debbie took the time to teach him the art of small business ownership.

As a restaurateur, I feel that I learned so much from that time in my life.  I learned as much what not to do as how to do things correctly.  I learned what happens when you don’t treat your employees and clients with the utmost of respect.  And I know from experience that the short term decisions that I make can and will come back to either help or hinder myself and my business.  I choose the road of kindness, inclusion and care for my craft.  Thank you both for these valuable lessons. (68)

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I wanna be a princess!

I see business ownership as very similar to being a princess.  Try to stick with me here, folks.

Just like any other little girl, I thought I wanted to be royalty.  They can dress up and play all day, they have everything and everybody at their disposal, and when a princess speaks, everybody listens.

I got the unexpected chance to be a princess when I visited my Nonna in Sicily for a summer.  My family all lives in Collesano, a small mountain town where everyone is either related or, well, related.  I was 25 and had been living on my own for a few years.  I was accustomed to coming and going as I pleased.

When I arrived, I was in for a rude awakening. The social customs in mountain town Sicily differed greatly from 1990’s America.  I was not allowed to be seen in public without a chaperone.  If I wanted to leave the house, I had to lock down a cousin to make sure I was well-accompanied.  There were many times when nobody was available to babysit me and I had to look out from my balcony (really, they all have balconies) wistful of the freedom enjoyed by everyone around me.

When I finally got to leave the house, it was well known who I was.  Since I was a Manganello, I was considered to be a part of the family. However, I was still L’ Americana.  Everywhere I walked in town, kids would cat-call me and the widows in their vestibules stared me down, ready and armed with the evil eye if I made a wrong move.  I was the first generation of Americanized Collesano, so I had to represent my family with honor and grace.  No exceptions.

The up-sides were equally memorable.  I was approached by many family members and friends, who told me stories of the town and of my dad, who had recently passed away.  I was able to fill in some lineage blanks and the time I was able to spend with my grandmother, learning from her and getting to know her as an adult, is an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Here is where I tie it all back together.  Owning a business is something people dream about.  The notion is that you enjoy complete freedom and do whatever you want.  Money is always plentiful and you don’t have to answer to anyone.

The real picture of small business ownership is not as fanciful.  We are less free than you think.  Our businesses are like our children.  We do not have the luxury of leaving our job- it follows us wherever we go. Our minds are always preoccupied with the weight of ownership and may not pass the buck of responsibility to anyone else.  It begins and ends with us.  Like I’ve said before, we don’t take vacations and, financially, we always seem to be skirting disaster.

So the next time you think wistfully of the fanciful life of the small business owner, please know that for all of the “freedom and glory” we get to experience, there is an equal amount of weight and responsibility attached.  It is usually worth it and I am thankful every day, but I sometimes fantasize of the comfortably secure life which I do not get to experience. (71)

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You gotta know when to hold ‘em

When I think about what it takes to run a business, I am reminded that we are gamblers.  Not in the literal sense- I’m not spending my free time at slot machines and poker tables.  What I am talking about is taking blind chances, grounded in faith and confidence.  Not only did we have to take the chance of our lives when we decided to open shop with $50 left to our name and two small children to care for, but we entered into the realm of constant flux.

We make little bets every day.  We open our doors, not sure who will walk into our lives, needing our services.  Will there be any business today?  Will they like our food?  What if it snows? In April?  Do we have a solid, long lasting concept or are we just a flash in the pan?  Yes, this is what goes through my mind on a daily basis.

When we need to hire someone new, we are also rolling the dice.  We don’t really know who they are and what their story is.  No matter what their references are or how much experience they have- everyone’s story is different.  How they will work with us is unknown as well.  There is a lot to be said for chemistry and flow of personalities in an intimate workspace.  We have all experienced a job which looked great on paper but… and the gamble doesn’t always pay off.

I can’t always be there to bake the desserts, so my goal is to teach someone else to do it.  One of the biggest leaps I take is when I share what I love to do, hoping that the bug will catch with my current student.   I can’t tell you how many times I have taught my chocolate mousse recipe.  Or my key lime tart.  The scones, ah the scones.  I am always hoping that my next protégé will be the one that sticks.

When I share a baking recipe, I get really jazzed.  And they get excited.  I get hopeful and start to teach more recipes.  It all goes well for a while, but then starts to go downhill.  Either the level of passion that I have just is not there or their level of confidence is not where it needs to be.  I never know which one it will be, but it is pretty inevitable.  They start messing up or lose interest and stop showing up for work and I have to start all over again.  Snake eyes.  This actually breaks my heart.

I know that I am a perfectionist and that I have high standards.  I also know that baking isn’t for everyone, but I tend to see something in people that they don’t recognize.  Talent and creativity.  I am willing to put it all on the table, time and again, with the hopes that one day the bets I make will pay off. If even one of my students will find their passion run with it, maybe one day they will be willing to take the chance themselves and live the life of an empassioned gambler.

  (79)

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Handmade

Over the last few years, we have participated in a few local farmer’s markets including the new Shelton Farmer’s Market.  In addition, we are proud to be a part of Celebrate Shelton’s Downtown Handmade Market.  As I peddle our breads & spreads, I look around at all of the specialty items and their proud makers.  I am in awe of the craftsmanship.  Heather in the corner has spent countless hours crocheting hats and shawls in a rainbow of colors and textures.  Lisa and her daughter Gabbi have turned their passion for their animals into a line of pet treats made from local all natural ingredients.  Kevin and his wife have developed a line of kick-ass BBQ sauces which sell out every time.  I haven’t even mentioned the soaps made by Lisa whose medicinal properties have been meticulously researched and balanced in just the right proportions.  The list goes on and on.

These are people who have taken their passions and created products to share with their local community.  It is usually done after their 9-5 jobs and squeezed into their busy lives. They light up when someone asks the origin of their coconut lemongrass soap.  They will happily tell you exactly where the sweet potatoes came from which became the biscuits in your bag.  And if there is ever a problem with an item you get from either the farmer’s market or the handmade market you can bet that the issue will be resolved immediately and that you will be over-compensated for your inconvenience.

When it comes to buying something handmade, there is more to it than just an exchange of money for a product.  There is a transfer of love involved.  The loaf of bread you hold in your hand was not just spit out of a production line in Chicago and transported halfway across the country needing preservatives and chemicals for “freshness”.   It was made last night and packed this morning just for the people at the market.  Just for you.  And we want you to love eating that loaf of bread as much as we love making it.

The craftsmen at these local markets take a chance every week.  They work hard at what they do. Sometimes nobody shows up to the market and they have to lug a carload of unsold items back home.   Still, they will work hard to replenish their goods in the hopes that next week will bring even more people interested in sharing some positive energy.

I invite you to visit one of your local handmade and farmer’s markets soon.  Besides getting out in your local community, you will appreciate the true benefit of purchasing a product made with love. (83)

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But what about the children??

I often sit back and wonder what my children are missing out on being the kids in a small business family.  I know that there are certain aspects of our life which I would like to change.  For instance, we don’t take many family vacations.  We might go camping for a few days(which I love), but we cannot be away for too long or go too far.  Fred usually leaves a day or two early so that he can get back to making soup.  Packing up sucks.  Like really sucks.

Our home life is also dictated by the needs of the restaurant.  We are always running errands on the weekends and it is usually to the detriment of a family hike or outing.  We don’t like it and try to make up for it in other ways, but it is what we have to do.  The kids say they understand, but I know that it is hard on them.

One strange by-product in my children’s life is absence of the weekly grocery store trip.  I cannot remember the last time I have gone to Stop & Shop for more than a handful of things.  They don’t know the routine of weaving up and down the aisles, purchasing small boxes of pasta, cookies or cereal.  We never buy one gallon of milk.  We need at least four.  Instead, we are constantly at BJ’s and Costco.  The staff knows us all by name and know when we’re missing a kid.  Even if we don’t.

For all of the things my children may be missing out on, there are many things for which I am grateful and would never change.  They know our stores inside and out and feel equally at home in a commercial kitchen as they do their own living room.  We are teaching them our art and we are blessed in so many ways that we can share it with them.

There are many different aspects of this life which the kids can gravitate towards and learn from.  Jacob is more interested in the business side of the operation whereas Sarina & Sam love learning how to make raviolis and cakes.  Jackson has a great palate and has become a food critic and Rowan & Bridget are our comic relief. They all pitch in when needed and we manage to have fun no matter what we are doing.

They enjoy a large extended family in our co-workers and customers.  Since birth, they have been raised as very social and helpful people.  They know what it is like to actively participate in community functions and charity events.  We are adamant that they be involved and give back to the community which keeps us going.  They must be humble and thankful.

Although we do yardwork and housework in frantic snippets and dinners are often leftovers from the day’s special, our children are a part of the family we call Liquid Lunch.  It is all they know. It is not an easy life, but it truly is full of love and when I asked each of them what their favorite part is they each told me that they love the good food.  At least there’s that! (73)

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Black Tuesday

Black Tuesday.  You may not remember it, but it will live in infamy amongst the alumni of Liquid Lunch class of ’04.

Fred and I were young parents at the time and we couldn’t afford childcare, so he had Tuesdays off to watch our boys.  We had only been open about 3 weeks and we were getting into the swing of running a luncheonette.  It was my job to run the kitchen when Fred was gone and I thought it wouldn’t be too bad.  I could hold my own with a knife.

At first, it was pretty chill- I was prepping for the day and my cousin Antionette took a few phone calls for specials and such.

All of a sudden, the phones started ringing and they wouldn’t stop.  People started streaming through the door for lunch and very quickly we found ourselves in the proverbial weeds.  Tickets stacked up, deliveries became later and later, angry mobs stormed the castle walls…ok my recollection has become a tad epic.  The point is, we were slammed!  I was making 7 layer salads, sobbing and cutting, cutting and sobbing.  I thought “What am I doing?? How could I possibly think that I could do this?  I could get a job at Starbucks and be just fine.  I can’t.  I can’t.  I just can’t. “

But really, what was I going to do?  Drop the knife like a mic and walk out the door?  As easy as it would be to give up, I took a deep breath, looked at my next ticket and just made it.  Then the next one.  And the next. One at a time. Before we knew it, lunch was over and everything returned to its semi-normal state.  There was a lot of clean up and a couple of apology phone calls which needed to be made, but we had gotten through it together.

We as a fledgling restaurant learned a lot from that day.  We implemented a set delivery schedule, hired kitchen staff who could handle a knife better than me and prepared ourselves earlier in the day for the rush among other things.  We had become better at what we do through experiencing how badly things can go wrong.

Black Tuesday serves as a reminder to me that no matter how bad a situation seems, it is temporary and will pass.  If you are lucky, you might even learn something useful and improve from it.  After 12 years of being in this business, I still have “those days”.  But I try to get through them as gracefully as possible and take the lessons in stride.  It is, after all, what I have chosen to do! (65)

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