Everyone in New Jersey thinks they can run an Italian restaurant. I don’t think I want to.
Being part of an Italian restaurant is all I’ve ever known. I was born into a generational, family owned business that has been operating for more than fifty years. My grandfather’s dream was my playpen. Literally. Warm smiles were usually accompanied by a pignoli cookie or a cannoli. The servers were like aunts, uncles and cousins. What a fabulous and affectionate way to spend my childhood. It was not a life of privilege in the conventional sense. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. But a wooden one suited me just fine. Of course, the reality of the business eventually climbs into your life. My childhood Candyland was a living, breathing, hectic restaurant. And it wasn’t always sunshine and dreams. My first real job in the restaurant took place at the tender age of 13. Twice a week, for a total of four hours, I labored in the bakery. That time was primarily spent pouting, standing along the wall, brushing crumbs onto the floor and trying to look busy whenever my parents walked in. All the while, the actual workers were glaring at me. I wasn’t helping. I was in their way. Other kids I knew got grounded when they did something wrong. I was forced to help the hostess on busy Saturday nights. I did more moping than greeting. Ironically, when I look back, I would have to say hostessing was my favorite duty. It required the least amount of actual movement or labor, and I got to stand there looking all dolled-up for a few hours. Working in the bakery would come in second, since all I really had to do was fold cake boxes, weigh pastries, hand customers breads or pizzas,
and assemble cookie trays (so that one extra would land in my mouth). My least favorite (and current) duty is waitressing. Although it is the highest-paying job in the restaurant, at the end of a shift I am covered with grease and alcohol, my head is filled with customers’ complaints and I am dog tired. Being a waitress is really hard work. This is compounded by my natural talent for messing up orders, dropping plates and spilling drinks on patrons. Once I was blind-sided by a negative review of my service after I thought I had done an amazing job with a table. The customers’ actions and generous gratuity seemed to confirm this, yet they smack-talked me on the way out to my manager. That was an especially low blow to my ego. Although being part of a restaurant family has its occasional perks, family members tend to get the short end of the stick compared to the employees, particularly when it comes to the more unpleasant jobs.
There have been numerous instances where I’ve had to get down and dirty. Really dirty. When there’s a clog in the restroom, it always falls to a family member because we can’t say, “I quit!” Also, if I have an amazing date on a Saturday night, or maybe I’m just having one of those days, can I call in and say I’m a no-show tonight? Fugghetaboutit. Can they call me in on my day off because someone else left them hanging? Absolutely. So here I am, a struggling writer with a handful of clippings and a college diploma, looking to get out of the restaurant business as soon as I can afford to. It’s not a decision I came to easily. To take over the family business and continue the Piancone legacy would put a colossal beam on my father’s and late grandfather’s faces—especially since I am an only child and the oldest of seven cousins. Although pride would be coursing through their veins, my family members completely support and understand my need to pursue the career of my choosing. And needless to say, without the help from my family and the restaurant, I would not have been able to receive my undergraduate degree, or be able to put money aside for graduate school. Of course, this is New Jersey, so there’s always someone out there dying to run an Italian restaurant. If that’s you, my advice is to involve your extended family—but also to go in with your eyes wide open. You will need a family that is at least semi-stable, and always ready to man-up and hold down the fort. For what it’s worth, here are some additional words of wisdom:
Treat Family & Workplace Like Church & State. No one wants to talk or think about work after they’ve made it back to the sanctuary of the home. Imagine being overworked and exhausted and then having someone—I won’t mention any names, Mom—asking an endless series of rapid-fire questions. Was it busy? How much money did you make? What’s your schedule? How did the food look? Were there a lot of people at the bar? By the same token, everyone needs to leave work baggage at the door. This is definitely easier said than done. It is also inevitable that your personal life will clash with your work life. Expect it, but don’t invite it. Bottom line? Separate home and work problems. Long-term it’s the only successful route to take.
Respect the Pecking Order. The boss is the boss, the chef is the chef, and family members need to fit in to make a place run smoothly. As the boss’s daughter, I got treated differently. The chefs were nice to me even though, as a rule, they don’t have such a peachy demeanor. On the flip-side, no one wants to include you in small talk. It’s amazing how kitchen conversations suddenly end when I pop my head in and say, “What’s up, guys?”
Don’t Take It Personally. If a customer is unhappy with the food or gripes about the service, chances are he or she is complaining about a family member. Let it go. Stay calm and respectful, even if your stomach is tied in knots. Everyone has an off day, including Mom and Dad. In my case, there’s an added twist since my boyfriend works in our restaurant. When a customer calls him a cutie pie, I need to tell myself servers and patrons are always flirting. Again and again and again. All kidding aside, the Piancone family has experienced business and personal success due to our genuine love and passion for the restaurant and one another. Unlike a corporate work environment, our staff is made up of handpicked prodigies that we know truly care about the well-being of the restaurant because they are our best friends. Our church and state may continuously clash, and a few customers may give us grief, but at the end of a long night, we know we’ll come together and share a glass of wine. Which, believe me, beats the heck out of those pignoli cookies.
Editor’s Note: Johnny Piancone (johnnypiancone.com) is located on Broadway in Long Branch. Francesca’s grandfather and his brother started in Bradley Beach in the 1950s. Francesca graduated from Lynn University in Florida. She wrote for Gold Coast magazine before joining the EDGE family.