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Jeff Daigneau Creates a World of Possibilities at Lattitude
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Jeff Daigneau says he’s long desired to be a chef/owner, the coveted title that most all those who enter the restaurant business aspire to. After working at several area landmarks, including, most recently, Max’s Tavern, he decided that he didn’t just want to be in the kitchen — he wanted to be in his kitchen. The story of how he created Lattitude in West Springfield speaks to the myriad challenges — and sleepless nights — facing those who choose this road.

Jeff Daigneau calls it the “itch.”

And like many of those who start working in a restaurant, usually washing dishes, at a very young age, he got it — big time.

Elaborating, he told BusinessWest that many of those who get exposed to the challenging but intriguing restaurant business early on get drawn into it and make plans to make it a career. From washing dishes, they move on to peeling potatoes, chopping onions, and assorted other duties. Those not intimidated by the long hours, hard work, and industry lifestyle often go to college to learn how to cook — Daigneau turned down a full scholarship at Johnson & Wales in Providence to attend a two-year program at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y., instead — and eventually go to work in someone’s kitchen.

However, if one truly gets the itch, said Daigneau, he or she eventually wants their own kitchen, and if they go down that road, they get everything that comes with those bragging rights, from those long hours to credit card balances with lots of zeros to often-sleepless nights spent wondering how to make ends meet.

Daigneau got all that and much more — including the enormous challenge of coping with the Big E, located directly across Memorial Avenue from his establishment (more on that later) — when he decided to open Lattitude more than 20 months ago. He has absolutely no regrets, though, and nothing even approaching a second thought about his high-risk entrepreneurial gambit.

“That’s because it’s … really a lot of fun,” he said, shaking his head for emphasis. “I get to have fun every single day.”

This fun comes in the form of creativity he can express in myriad ways as he plays out the role of chef/owner, or “true chef/owner,” as he puts it, explaining that some who put this title on their business card are chefs who own merely a small piece of the restaurant in question. Daigneau, former executive chef at Max’s Tavern in Springfield, owns Lattitude lock, stock, and salad forks, and he has those credit-card balances — once soaring above $150,000 but now down to $30,000 or so — to prove it.

In that role, Daigneau is, in essence, carrying out the mission that prompted him to choose the name Lattitude, while giving the word an extra ‘t’ for some flair and to be a little different. “Latitudinal lines go around the world,” he explained. “I try to give people a little flavor of the world.”

Elaborating, he says part of that aforementioned mission is to educate his patrons, and he does so by introducing menu items such as “true” San Francisco cioppino, a bouillabaisse-like dish, and keeping some prices on wine “stupidly reasonable” to give people a chance to sample various labels.

Overall, his strategy is succeeding. Revenues are running well ahead of projections for where he thought the restaurant would be at this juncture, and the sluggish economy has, in his opinion, been a non-factor, a testament to the fact that he’s obviously doing something right.

As for the Big E, well, it was a big part of a first year that Daigneau described as a real learning experience.

“That first fair … it nearly put us out of business,” he explained, noting that the doors had been open only a few months before the start of the exposition’s 2008 run, and he simply didn’t know what to expect in terms of the challenge of luring customers to that stretch of Memorial Avenue for those 17 days in late September.

This year, he says, he’ll be ready, with a game plan — he’ll pay for his customers’ parking, for example — as well as some aggressive marketing to remind people he’s open, and a refined attitude born from last year’s experiences.

Meanwhile, for the other 49 1/2 weeks of the year — and fair time as well — the Big E represents opportunity, said Daigneau, one that he intends to fully maximize.

“We do very well with a lot of the weekend shows,” he explained. “The Morgan Horse shows have been really good, but all of them have helped — the dog shows, a motorcycle show, even the gun and knife show; someone from Ohio came in for dinner and asked what kind of heat we pack around here.”

In this issue, BusinessWest looks at Daigneau’s early success recipe, and how his story is typical, albeit with some different wrinkles, of those involving individuals who get that itch.

Entrepreneurial Flavor

Daigneau says he probably wouldn’t have his own kitchen — or at least not the one he currently patrols — were it not for a 57-page business plan he wrote for the restaurant that would become Lattitude.

“It was a work in progress for about three years,” he said of the document he eventually handed to commercial lending officers at Berkshire Bank in early 2008. “It was rock solid, and full of true facts and figures.”

Solid enough, apparently, to convince those at Berkshire to write the bank’s largest restaurant loan to date — $400,000 — after a few other institutions wouldn’t even talk to him. That wasn’t enough for Daigneau to get the doors open, actually; he had to start using his credit cards. But it came close, and it exemplified just how different, and compelling, the concept for Lattitude was and is.

Daigneau probably first starting thinking about it when he was washing dishes at a small breakfast place located on the Congamond Lakes in Southwick. This is where the itch first developed. It progressed while Daigneau, an Agawam native, went to work at the Chez Josef banquet house, where he handled a number of duties over a stint that lasted through most of his high school years.

“You start out washing dishes — everyone does — and you realize that what you’re doing is kind of cool,” he said of how his passion for the business developed and evolved. “Soon, you’re peeling potatoes and peeling carrots, and you get an itch — and that’s exactly what it is, an itch.

“You initially look around and see what else is going on, and you see the guy at the grill and the woman doing the fries, and you say, ‘I’d like to be doing that,’” he continued. “And pretty soon, you end up there because someone doesn’t show up for work. Eventually, you’re working on the line. By my junior year in high school I had decided that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

After attending CIA, Daigneau worked in a few restaurants, including Eastside Grill in Northampton and School Street Bistro in Westfield, before eventually landing at Max’s. He started as executive sous chef, was quickly promoted to executive chef, and, in 2007, was tabbed to lead the eatery’s catering division.

Daigneau said he enjoyed the work, but kept returning to the notion of running his own establishment, a thought that first entered his head maybe five years ago and never actually left.

“I wanted to be able to do what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s not that I didn’t believe in everyone else’s way of doing things; owners were always giving me a lot of freedom, but I wanted more. I wanted to be the chef/owner, I wanted that level. I’ve had that goal since I was a kid.”

He started scouting for suitable sites, and had trouble finding what he was looking for. He said that when he “stumbled” across space, actually three spaces, in a building on Memorial Avenue that comprised the old Caffeine’s restaurant and the former home to Kent Pecoy Construction, he knew he’d found a home.

“I don’t know why, I just knew,” he explained. “I talked to the landlord and signed a lease immediately. I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have a liquor license, I didn’t have anything; I just said, ‘I’ll figure it all out later.’”

And he did.

Salad Days

As he assessed his first 15 or so months in business, Daigneau said most things have gone according to that detailed plan he worked out for the lenders. But not everything, obviously.

The restaurant has become popular with most demographic groups and draws patrons from across a wide geographic radius, he explained. But it has become, somewhat to his surprise, extremely popular with women, a fact he attributes to well-lit parking areas and entrances and a feeling of safety not attainable in many settings.

And then, there’s the Big E.

Daigneau said he was caught somewhat off guard last year by the fair, which can be a drain on Memorial Avenue businesses, as he soon learned. Most restaurants in the vicinity of the fairgrounds simply shut down for those 17 days (with most using their real estate to park cars), he explained, adding quickly that he didn’t have that option last year and, despite his strong start, doesn’t have it this year, either.

He’ll be open, but with the understanding that Lattitude will become more of a bar than a restaurant those 17 days, and he’ll be pouring far more draught beer than specialty martinis. But he wants his regulars and potential first-timers to know he’ll be open for lunch and dinner.

And despite the solid nature of his business plan and no shortage of confidence in his abilities and business instincts, Daigneau says there was plenty of apprehension in the weeks and months after he opened the doors to Lattitude. “I didn’t sleep much those first eight months,” he said.

Overall, Daigneau says he believes he’s planned — and guessed — right when it came to his menu, basic approach (a heavy emphasis on local, fresh produce) and the general experience he provides.

As for the cuisine, he calls it ‘Global American’ in another reference to latitude, and says he likes to mix things up, with new offerings regularly on both the lunch and dinner menus, with the former becoming increasingly popular of late with the business crowd. It features everything from a ‘house made mac & cheese’ to a grilled scallop salad to ‘Asian spiced grilled king salmon.’

“I didn’t want to limit myself on anything,” said Daigneau, referring both to what’s on the menus and how offerings are prepared. “I change the menu almost every day — dishes come off, dishes go on. We change all kinds of things because we want to educate people, not intimidate them.”

Most all of the items on the menus are prepared or accented with locally grown produce, said Daigneau, adding that he’s at Cecci Farms in Feeding Hills every day. “A case of tomatoes is $25 there, while I can get one from the wholesaler for $10, but I want the local,” he explained. “To have a true farm restaurant is a lot of fun.”

There’s that word again. Daigneau used it repeatedly in the course of his talk with BusinessWest, and he used it with sincerity, while reiterating, repeatedly, that this business certainly isn’t all fun and games.

Check, Please

Daigneau said his father got married a few months ago. It was still another event for which he handled the cooking.

He took the occasion to look through some old photographs and noticed that in practically every one taken over the past decade, he was in a chef’s outfit. Recalling the event prompted him to recite something he’s probably said hundreds of times in his career: “this isn’t a life,” he said of what it’s like being at the upper levels of the restaurant business. “It’s a lifestyle.”

It comes to those who get the itch, he continued, adding that few ever regret scratching it, and he certainly doesn’t.

After all, how many people get to have fun every single day?

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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