Like so many small business enterprises, the independent, family-owned restaurant faces a daunting list of challenges in today’s market. In the current recession, diners are economizing, looking to find discounts and “special offers” of all kinds, while restaurant operating costs, inevitably, continue to rise. Competition comes in the form of big-name corporate chains, supported by gargantuan advertising budgets. In some parts of the country, the family-owned restaurant is a dying breed and, even in Vermont where the traditional usually trumps the trendy, the chains have made inroads on the local restaurant industry.
Yet some of the old school dining spots have demonstrated their staying power, and ability to hold on to a loyal customer base. In South Burlington, The Rotisserie, in near-continuous operation for forty-plus years, seems to have hit upon the right formula for longevity.
In 2002, Sean and Jennifer McGrath, along with Sean’s brother Brendan, purchased The Rotisserie from previous long-time owners, the Madden family. Sean had worked as an elementary school teacher, while Jennifer worked in the financial industry, but both had once held part-time jobs in the restaurant business. In 1998, Sean left teaching to buy the Williston Road location of Marco’s Pizza. When The Rotisserie went on the market just four years later, he found the opportunity too good to pass up.
When they took on the businesses, the McGrath’s knew the risks and sacrifices to come—big up-front investments, countless management issues, hard work and long hours. But they had confidence in their approach to restaurant management and, nearly ten years later, the sacrifices have paid off.
“There are enough pieces of the pie for everybody,” says Sean, regarding his competitors, and he respects the customer’s desire for good value. “We don’t ‘a la carte’ people to death,” he says, “we offer a full, multi-course meal for a single price.” All the McGrath’s take pride in the high-quality, scratch-made food served in their restaurants, but they are also aware that it is the comfortable, hometown atmosphere that local diners find so appealing.
“There is only one Rotisserie,” says Jennifer McGrath, “what we have to offer is our uniqueness.”
The restaurant has a vintage, homey feel with warm interior colors, cozy booths, and an utter lack of pretense. There is no din from piped in pop music, no wordy sales pitch from your server. This is a place to relax and to savor what Jennifer modestly calls “casual home cooking.”
In fact, The Rotisserie offers an ambitious menu with items like filet mignon served with sauce Béarnaise, many fresh seafood entrees, as well as signature chicken and pasta preparations. The house specialty is prime rib of beef, massive roasts that are slow-baked for hours, then hand-carved to order. Breads, sauces and soups are scratch-made daily by Brendan McGrath and his staff. The thick, crunchy batter-fried onion rings are a customer favorite.
Exactly three years ago, the McGraths faced a major setback when a fire damaged The Rotisserie, forcing a ten-month long shutdown. During that interim, says Jennifer, the owners made every effort to stay connected to their regular clientele, and assuring them that The Rotisserie would be back.
“We knew we had to make a comeback, and we took the approach that less is more,” says Jennifer, knowing that devotees of the restaurant would want to find the old atmosphere and style of service restored. Fresh paint and updated fixtures were installed, but the fundamentals didn’t change. “When we re-opened,” she says, “we had a honeymoon phase all over again.” The clientele came home. Now the McGraths are working on strategies to grow that clientele, offering specials like super deals on chicken wings and meaty beef spare ribs, and lavish weekend brunch menus. Catering is offered at both The Rotisserie and Marco’s Pizza, for events both large and small, including weddings.
Just a short walk from The Rotisserie, at 1301 Williston Road, Sean McGrath heads the team at Marco’s Pizza where, working alongside his young and energetic crew, he prepares scratch-made dough everyday for his authentic, hand-tossed New York style pizzas and the crusty ciabatta loaves on display in the window. The ciabatta is used to make mounds of garlic bread and serves as a base for the restaurant’s long list of over-stuffed hot and cold sandwiches. The kitchen also produces daily batches of fresh meatballs, a popular hot artichoke dip, and classic pasta preparations.
“I live here,” says Marco’s patron Stan Piotrowski of Colchester, “Sean is absolutely the best.” Piotrowski says he and many of his friends make regular stops at Marco’s because Sean has hit all the right notes with great food and good value, served up in an easy-going, neighborhood pizzeria setting. The McGraths have opened a second Marco’s location at 4066 Shelburne Road.
The hours are still long and the sacrifices are many, but the McGraths’ commitment to their loyal customer base has not wavered. They are a family with life-long ties to the area, the kind of young entrepreneurs who have chosen to stay close to home and invest in their community, creating jobs for others in the process. They are raising families, coaching little league teams and, whenever possible, providing support to community-based charities. For the McGrath’s, running family-owned restaurants is labor-intensive to be sure, but a labor of love it is.
Terry Ward Libby has been a free lance writer and cookbook author for nearly twenty years, covering restaurant industry trends, artisanal food production, and the farm-to-table movement.
SOURCE: Terry Ward Libby, Contributor