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VIA’s Competitive Edge: Inside Pre-Meal with Worcester Restaurant Group’s Youngest Sibling

Brandon, Server of the Week at VIA Italian Table on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA

Brandon never set out to be the golden boy. Then again, who does? But, he’s won Server of the Week three times and according to General Manager Keith Carolan, “He could have won it 85 times.” When new employees ask Carolan how to improve, his advice is to follow the lead of a seasoned employee. Carolan goes on to say, “If you want to understand the culture, if you want to learn how to represent yourself and the company, if you want to know how to sell and to gain regulars – Brandon is a perfect example.” It’s true. He’s on time, courteous, professional, he looks the part, and he can sell you a bottle of 2014 Caymus Special Select in his sleep.

Brandon, Server of the Week at VIA Italian Table on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (source: VIA)
Brandon, Server of the Week at VIA Italian Table on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (source: VIA)

This week, Brandon made it to the finals of the “fantasy wine” playoffs, a competition in which the staff chooses from an abridged version of the wine list and subsequently plots their attack. Servers go head to head in a throwdown of sales and scholarship. “There are over 125 bottles of wine on the list and a lot of them are extremely hard to pronounce,” jokes Carolan, then adds more seriously, “It helps servers get acclimated with the winemaker and the fermentation process.” He finds that VIA Italian Table’s employees thrive when he fosters their competitive nature.

Friday’s pre-meal meeting takes place on the patio. The level of attention from the staff suggests that of a varsity lacrosse team preparing to hit the field. Carolan is the coach, dressed in a posh pink button down, which stands out from the monochromatic crowd. The front of house staff is dressed in uniform. A breeze ruffles their perfectly pressed black shirts and tugs at their tidy white aprons. It’s no secret that this is a business. Plenty of local eateries play at the idea that they are the result of an owner’s eccentric passion-project-turned-success. VIA, on the other hand, is an unabashedly corporate affair.

Keith Carolan in the wine cellar of VIA Italian Table on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Keith Carolan in the wine cellar of VIA Italian Table on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

At eleven years old, Worcester Restaurant Group looks at VIA as the youngest sibling. “We’re starting to date ourselves a little bit, but any restaurant who has stood the test of time gets people’s attention,” Carolan says, praising the cuisine of Executive Chef Bill Brule. VIA is still sprightly enough to know that technology should facilitate hospitality and not stand in the way of a restaurant’s relationship with its guests. Like many of the nation’s top restaurant groups, they have adopted Reserve because it was created by people working within the industry. People who “get it.” Reserve has simplified operations at VIA in a variety of ways. For one thing, they’re finding that new customers are benefiting from partnerships with platforms like Instagram and google, which allow guests to book tables with one click. “It has been an invaluable transition and I can’t imagine life without it at this point,” Carolan says. With Reserve to manage logistics, he is left to what he does best – grooming his front of house staff.

We examine the 2017 Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc. “Twirl it, smell it, taste it, let me know what you think,” Carolan says. He circulates the room, doling out wine and observing the analytical processes of his front of house staff. “Some people like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. This tastes nothing like New Zealand. This is clearly from Sonoma,” he tells us. “Nobody has any questions about the wine?” he asks, “I guarantee I’m going to ask someone a question now and they won’t know the answer.” One of the servers flips open her notebook.

“Okay, then. What is Fume Blanc?” Carolan asks.

Brandon knows the answer. Obviously.

“Fume blanc is a dry Sauvignon Blanc made in the United States that has undergone oak aging,” Brandon reports.

“Who created the term?” follows Carolan.

“A big winemaker…” Brandon pauses before eventually arriving at Robert Mondavi.

It's patio season at VIA Italian Table on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
It’s patio season at VIA Italian Table on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

Carolan launches into the origin story of Mondavi’s 1960’s marketing campaign, soaring on a high of viticulture. “We talked about merlot and the movie ‘Sideways,’” he reminds his staff, “Merlot sales dropped off a cliff after consumers heard one snobby wine guy say, ‘I’m not drinking any [expletive] Merlot.’ The same thing happened with Sauvignon Blanc. It wasn’t selling well. The perception of it wasn’t great. Robert Mondavi coined Fume Blanc. Other wineries started adopting the name. He never put a trademark on it – not that he needs the money.” He informs the room that the Ferrari-Carano will run $10 a glass and $40 for the bottle. I can see the sales pitches swimming in their eyes. He swirls, smells, and tastes before saying, “It’s rounder than the other Sauvignon Blanc we have by the glass. I think it’s the right time for this wine, but I’m interested to see what our customers will think of it.”

Carolan cruises through matters of business with poise and concision. A clarification that the lobster cocktail will include a blend of tail, claw, and knuckle meat. “Where are the lobsters from?” he asks to a choral response of: “North Atlantic.”

A reminder that if there is a birthday, the server is to deliver a birthday card with the check. The cards are stored on the salad station. “It’s a small detail that goes over really, very well,” he says.

An announcement that one lucky new employee will be waiting on the managers this evening. “Don’t worry, it will just be the most awkward thing you’ve ever done,” he assures her, followed by peals of laughter from the crowd. Later he explains that the final training shift is a role play. “Everybody makes mistakes but that’s where we hope they end,” he says. Servers must prove themselves through nine training shifts in order to show that they are ready to work on the floor as a part of the team.

And then there’s the topic of Father’s Day on June 17th. “On Mother’s Day there could be rain, hail, sleet, or snow and they will come regardless. On Father’s Day, if it’s sunny, there’s some chance they may be grilling instead. And quite honestly if it is beautiful, we do tend to see a dip in business on that day,” he tells the staff.

At 4 p.m., a sweet little spark plug abandons her crayons and appears at the edge of the room to get Carolan’s attention. She comes up as high as his knee. “You want to pull perfect checks?” he asks the little girl. She nods and dumps a mountain of crumpled slips out onto the patio from a glass fishbowl.

I look quizzically at Brandon and he explains that a “perfect check” includes drink, appetizer, entree, and dessert, thereby qualifying an employee to win incentives from Worcester Restaurant Group. Yet again, Brandon thinks he has all the answers. And perhaps he does. When it comes to reliable service, no one hits the mark like VIA.

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Armsby Abbey’s Many Moving Parts

On a late-winter morning, I found myself standing outside 144 Main Street at 6:58 a.m., tapping on the kitchen window of Armsby Abbey. Executive Chef Sean Dacey was fit to butcher a 29 lb. lamb and I hadn’t even had my coffee yet.

He opened the door and then disappeared into the walk-in where he fetched Ram, the one year old lamb that had arrived from Chimney Hill Farm the day before. “There’s a growing acknowledgement that we need to be using the whole animal. Everyone’s squeamishness about this kind of thing is dissipating,” Dacey told me.

A lot of the Abbey’s animals come with names, a simple consequence of the fact that Dacey maintains close relationships with his farmers.

“It can be emotional for farmers,” Dacey said, recalling Walker Farm’s prize steer, George. “George had grazed seasonally, rotating through Joanie Walker’s fields to maintain the health of her soil. She gave us George and then came in to eat him because she trusted us,” he explained.

Dacey takes particular pride and care when cooking with older animals.

“In the factory farming system, older animals are generally viewed as a negative. But, we know that animals that live full lives and get pastured have amazing qualities. Joanie Walker takes three times longer to raise her cows than most farmers and that’s more expensive for her,“ explained owner Alec Lopez.

“There’s a growing acknowledgement that we need to be using the whole animal. Everyone’s squeamishness about this kind of thing is dissipating,” says Executive Chef Sean Dacey.

Walker’s visit to Armsby Abbey for her final farewell to George was not unusual for the establishment. Influential brewers, chefs, and farmers have flanked to the Abbey to enjoy the fruits of their labor (sometimes literally) since it opened nearly a decade ago. Regardless of whether a respected farmer or a first time customer sits down at a table, Dacey expects his staff to be more than just knowledgeable. The restaurant’s table management system, Reserve, certainly helps. The system allows staff to monitor and maintain customers’ visits, dining habits, dietary restrictions, allergies, and requests. If a farmer is coming in for a special goodbye, you can be sure there’s a note in Reserve so that his or her server can be briefed.

Gazing at the primal cuts of Ram (the lamb) in the early morning light, I asked Dacey, “How much is your front of house team expected to know about what goes on back here?”

“Everything,” he responded.

On Sunday, I returned for brunch, this time on the other side of the pass. The general layout at 144 Main Street is curious in that the kitchen is located across the hall from Armsby Abbey’s dining room.

I could tell that Dacey was not exaggerating about the awareness of his staff. Our service was nothing short of remarkable. I ordered the stout braised lamb served with seared mashed potatoes and a rolled oat cake, and topped with smoked turnip puree, butter braised carrots, pickled potatoes, and a soft-cooked egg. Ram tasted just as handsome as he looked.

On Monday night, Dacey invited me back once more to attend a staff meeting about primal cuts and charcuterie. At the Abbey, weekly meetings provide key opportunities for interpersonal moments between the kitchen and the front of house. During a busy service, much of the communication among these two parties takes place with iPads and pagers. “Armsby utilizes a dual iPad system that runs Reserve; meaning our host station and our kitchen run the app simultaneously for real time information,” owner Sherri Sadowski explained, “without Reserve, the only window into how busy the dining room is, is via the tickets streaming from the printer.”

Armsby Abbey attracts an eclectic crowd. “During a busy dinner service, Reserve allows the kitchen to see what kind of night it is; be it a date night where the room is filled with deuces or more of a rowdy atmosphere where the dining room is overflowing with larger parties. Every shift is different and Reserve allows the kitchen to keep tabs on exactly how the shift will play out,” Sadowski shared.

On Monday nights, Dacey is free to move at an easier pace. It’s technically his day off, but he finds these gatherings too important to neglect. Dacey wants his team to be knowledgeable enough to sell his most unconventional dishes because he views them as not only exquisite, but also humane. Above anything else, Armsby Abbey’s kitchen strives to run with patience – a constant struggle in an industry where things seem to move at full tilt.

Dacey began the training by reminding his staff, “At your pre-shift meetings on Fridays and Saturdays, there is time to relay information, but no time for nuance. That’s why we’re all here tonight.”

Lopez and Dacey went on to recall a workshop with butchery legend, Adam Danforth, at the Chefs Collaborative Summit last summer during which Danforth broke down an 11 year old lamb and cooked the cuts on ripping hot cast iron for immediate consumption. The experience accentuated flavors rendered from working muscles, affirming the decision that the Abbey has made to support farmers by taking on older animals like George. This practice began with previous Executive Chef Damian Evangelous who departed in March for the west coast.

When the meeting concluded at 10:30 p.m., I watched a few members of the staff hang back to ask Dacey and Lopez questions. Others thumbed through a copy of Danforth’s book and nibbled at what was left of the head cheese. At 11:00, when Dacey felt sure the staff was prepared, he finally defected to get some sleep for a few precious hours. I can’t help but suspect that he even cooks in his dreams.