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New Ownership Has Ambitious Plans in Place for Chez Josef

Marc Sparks

Marc Sparks has worked his way up the ladder from waiter to operations manager, and now to owner of Chez Josef.

Marc Sparks, the new owner and general manager of Chez Josef in Agawam, has a saying for his staff during the vital and busy prom season. “A prom is not just a prom; it’s a room of future brides and grooms.”

But that saying could also be refashioned to fit his new position. It would go something like this: ‘a waiter is not just a waiter; he or she could be the owner of the company someday.’ And that would fit the story of Sparks’ life perfectly.

On July 2 Sparks, through his new hospitality-management company, finalized acquisition of Chez Josef from the Skole family, thus beginning a new chapter in his intriguing career in the hospitality business, one that started in 1990, when he was a waiter in the main ballroom, aptly named the ‘Allan Room’ after Allan Skole, one of three founders of the complex.

“It’s been an exiting ride,” said Sparks of the acquisition process and subsequent developments and strategic initiatives. “Our vision is to grow this business, to honor where we came from, and look forward to the future.”

His obvious pride for his place of employment for nearly two decades is matched only by his respect for the Skole family, who, starting in 1969, built and managed one of the first-of-its-kind banquet halls in the region.

“Allan and Ron [Allan’s son, who passed away in 1999] were visionaries in this business, and they showed me the ropes,” said Sparks. “It’s why I say we honor the past and look to the future.”

The banquet hall, which has been long known as a grand location for weddings, proms, gala fashion shows, and corporate events such as the Super 60 and Pynchon Awards, will soon be given an extensive facelift, said Sparks, adding quickly that, while the look may change somewhat, what won’t is the facility’s dedication to customer service — and being on the cutting edge of change in this highly competitive business.

For this issue’s holiday party planner and focus on area banquet facilities, BusinessWest talked with Sparks about his entrepreneurial gambit and how he intends to make the past prologue for this Agawam landmark.

 

Trendsetters

In 1991, Sparks was attending UMass and working his way toward a degree in Psychology. He applied for work at Chez Josef as a bartender, but the Skoles talked him into waiting tables, and he caught the hospitality bug.

He would stay with the company, taking several titles, and eventually operations manager. Throughout his tenure, he said he carried out his various duties as if he had a “vested interest” in the company, and admitted that, if the opportunity to acquire the facility ever came about, he would work to find some way to make it happen.

And in 2010, those pieces starting falling into place.

“I said to the Skoles, ‘if there is ever an opportunity to step in and purchase’ … and that started the ball rolling,” he explained, adding that the progression was a natural one, due to his many years there. The parties explored options together, and the result, said Sparks, was a transition as seamless as possible.

And a big reason for this is the staff, he said, noting that many, like him, have modest beginnings and long tenures with Chez Josef.

For instance, Executive Chef Marcel Ouimet has been with the company for 42 years, and started as a dishwasher. Anne Wright, second in charge in the kitchen, has 30 years with Chez Josef, as does Edmond Flebotte, executive assistant and purchaser. In comparison, Robin Wozniak, director of sales and marketing, is a relative newcomer, having started just five years ago.

Sparks noticed something in Wozniak, who soon rose up through the ranks, just as Sparks had done, and became a trainer and supervisor. But it was a bit iffy at first, he admitted.

“The first day, I wasn’t sure she was going to make it, but she proved me wrong,” laughed Sparks. “There’s a lot of longevity here; people don’t leave.”

As this experienced team takes the landmark into a new era, one of the keys to future success, said Sparks, is to change with the trends in the industry. But this is something it has always been able to do.

“Chez Josef has historically been a trendsetter, in my opinion,” he told BusinessWest. “We will continue that mission though research and attending trade shows around the country.”

This trendsetting began with Allan Skole in the late ’60s, when standalone banquet houses were a rarity. In fact, most get-togethers, such as proms, happened in the gym at the local high school, and wedding receptions were smaller or held at the local country club. Skole, a classically trained culinary artist, and two partners were pioneers with their concept for Chez Josef, named for one of the partners.

“Even with pioneering this facility, the way that Allan designed the building is brilliant,” said Sparks, adding that the center hallway in the middle of the building that guests never see is a sound-dampening feature to keep the clatter of the kitchen from the guests. Oversized bars were also unique for that time, as were the two grand curving staircases, reminiscent of southern mansions.

 

Fare Game

Sparks said he plans to continue this pattern of trendsetting. His plans are to remain on top of every new wrinkle and curve in the banquet business, and he’ll get to customers’ hearts through their stomachs.

“Everybody is a foodie,” he explained. “With developed palates, you really have to be on top of your game to wow your customers.”

He noted that banquet cuisine is now a global experience, and the fare is a result of East meets West. But the way in which the food is served is also changing.

“There are more chef-attended ‘action’ stations, small-plate and sampling stations, and not sitting down to a four- or five-course meal,” said Wozniak. “Even brides are looking for the action stations; they want the interaction, the camaraderie, and the socialization.”

Sparks and Wozniak both see multiple reasons for this shift from sit-down to stand-up, and number one is the ability to more readily network. Station fare also allows clients to be more creative with the menu while maximizing often-limited budgets.

But keeping up with all that’s new will require due diligence.

“We made a decision, as a company, to constantly reinvest in our staff, in tradeshows, food shows, classes, seminars, and the annual Catersource Conference & Tradeshow in Las Vegas,” said Sparks. “Our job is to be cutting-edge, with the Chez Josef spin; we call it the ‘Chez Josef experience.’”

And that ‘experience’ is in a seemingly constant state of change, he went on, because that is the way things are in this industry now, as the Internet has made clients more savvy about trends and products, while technology makes this almost a 24/7 business. As a result, the pace of the hospitality industry has accelerated, and in many ways.

“I share with my staff that we are in a time like no other; it’s real-time information,” said Sparks. “Brides, clients, they all want accessibility, they want to know what’s going on, and we are linked remotely, in the field, in real time.”

Wozniak said Internet-educated clients are ever-more demanding, which poses both challenges and opportunities.

“They have a definite vision, so we need to meet and exceed that vision,” she said, adding that there are obvious rewards when they do. “All this encourages us to think outside the box.”

Sparks calls this personalized process “active listening as a team,” and said that, of 20 proposals received per week, half are customized, a number that continues to rise.

As the close-knit team works to build the Chez Josef of the future, a new catering arm called Chez Gourmet is being added. It will offer full-service catering, from dinner or holiday pickups and deliveries to 10-person luncheons, said Wozniak.

“We’re rebranding ourselves and growing this business,” added Sparks.

Also on the horizon is an extensive, multi-faceted renovation effort, with the first aspects of that initiative due to be completed next spring, said Sparks, adding that the facility plans to have one capital project going on every year.

“And we’re committed to working with local contractors who are willing to work in off times, overnight, so as not to interrupt business.”

 

Giving Back, Moving Forward

One of the other commitments Sparks has involves giving back to the community.

For two full days just after the June 1, 2011 tornado struck the Greater Springfield area, Chez Josef chose to take on the task of helping to feed a few hundred people breakfast, lunch, and dinner at a local church, allowing the women who had started the process a few days to rest.

And during Hurricane Irene, the staff worked with the American Red Cross to deliver food to a few of the elderly-housing units in Springfield, said Sparks, adding that assistance to area nonprofits, in the form of special pricing for fund-raising events, is ongoing.

“One of my thoughts when taking on this role is that we have to give back till it hurts,” said Sparks. “It’s our task to give back and build relationships, and that’s one of the reasons this [ownership] transition has gone so smoothly.”

It’s all about teamwork, and there are no short cuts, added Sparks. “I tell my staff, ‘we wouldn’t cut corners on your day; don’t do it on someone else’s.’”

This is one of many sayings, or operational philosophies, that have guided the company for more than 40 years, he noted, while getting ready to get back to work. And they will continue to guide it through this next chapter in a storied history.

 

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Party Planner Sections
After Extensive Renovations, ‘the Jeff’ Is Again Open for Business

Robin Brown

Robin Brown, standing in the wine-tasting room, brings years of culinary and hotel-management experience to the newly renovated Lord Jeffery Inn.

Robin Brown, director of sales and catering for the Lord Jeffery Inn, located just off the Amherst Common and part of Amherst College, is still trying to master the proper way to say the name of this community.

That would be the way residents pronounce it: phonetically, it’s Am-erst — the ‘h’ being silent. She’s working on it and making considerable progress, though she admits that she can’t quite bring herself to call the inn by the name most in Amherst do: ‘the Jeff.” (The inn, like the town and college, owes its name to Lord Jeffery Amherst, best known as one of the victors of the French and Indian War.)

“I still just say it all out: Lord Jeffery Inn,” she said with a laugh. “I’ll get the ‘Am-erst’ soon; I’m practicing.”

Coming from the eastern part of the state, she brings 30 years of sales and catering experience to the Jeff as the second employee hired, just after General Manager Robert Reeves, during an extensive renovation that closed the landmark for an extended period.

The historic inn is owned by the Amherst Inn Co., an affiliate of Amherst College, and managed by the Waterford Hotel Group, and is a member of the Historic Hotels of America. The three-year, $14 million overhaul, the most extensive rehab since the facility opened in 1926, was completed late last year, and the inn reopened on Jan. 5.

Brown arrived in April 2011, enabling her to start her wedding and event sales from a clean slate. “I was temporarily put up in the dorm building, and this area [a new patio with perfectly set pavers that lead into the new, 160-seat ballroom] was a mud pit, and I had to walk across the boards to the door with my hard hat on,” she said. “I was literally booking weddings off of swatch boards, carpet samples, and artists’ renderings. I’d put hard hats on brides and bring them to the parking lot.”

She said she couldn’t bring the brides in, largely for insurance reasons, but, more importantly, because they tend to be very emotional.

“I would never have sold a thing,” Brown said, adding that, despite the handicaps, she did manage to sell the inn to those brides-to-be; this first full year, the Jeff will host more than 26 weddings, and her goal for 2013 is 40. Meanwhile, she has booked many other events as well.

It’s been a solid comeback for the landmark, which was closed but certainly not forgotten in the Amherst community. “I’m sure that there were some who wondered … but we’re open now, and look how elegant it is.”

For those who are fans and followers of the inn, gone is the darkness of millwork, the dated hotel rooms, and the musty smell. This elegant new Lord Jeffery Inn is everything an historic inn should be: a showcase of 1920s architecture, but with a present-day flair. For this focus on the holiday banquet season and local meeting facilities, BusinessWest takes an up-close look at the stately inn to see how the new fits very comfortably within the old.

 

Up the Ladder

Brown brings an intriguing résumé to the Jeff.

“Right out of college, I was working in the kitchen of the Ritz [now the Taj] in Boston — it was awesome,” she said, adding that there were many interesting career stops even before that. “At 15, I was a private, personal chef for a Virginia brewery company, at their summer home in Maine. The woman [owner] said, ‘no 15-year-old can meet my standards,’ and I said, ‘then let me work for you for a week, and if what you said is true, then don’t pay me,’ and a week went by, and she gave me a 50-cent raise.”

With degrees in Culinary Arts and Food & Beverage Management, she loves, and knows, a catering kitchen inside and out. And she and Dino Giordano, the executive chef, also know they are lucky to be a part of an inn and banquet facility that is literally brand-new, or at least as much as possible to stay within the Historic Hotels of America designation.

“I drive to work each day, and I still can’t believe how lucky I am,” said Giordano, as he looked at the kitchen, one of three at his disposal. “I’m used to hot and small, and this … this is just phenomenal.”

In addition to two full-size kitchens and one smaller one, 49 hotel rooms and suites were completely gutted, said Brown, adding that there is now a wide selection of room choices, with deluxe rooms coming with a sun porch.

And the meticulous attention to detail is apparent. Brown showed BusinessWest a variety of suites that have completely new bathrooms, but look as they would have in 1926. The bridal suite is one of Brown’s favorites. “Our brides can look out over the lawn and tent to see their guests arrive,” she said.

And many brides will continue to watch guests arrive for the entire event. It’s a definite trend Brown has seen, called the ‘on site’ wedding, where the ceremony and reception occur on the same grounds. “Years ago, you were expected to get married in a church,” said Brown. “Now, there is more creativity and freedom.”

And the layout for this new trend, as well as traditional weddings and corporate events, is one reason for the specific additions and their locations in the the Jeff.

Brown explained the extensive restoration to the property, noting that it includes additions to a 2,360-square-foot ballroom on the site of the former tent area. The ballroom roof is now a posh rooftop deck complete with a 30-foot-high outdoor fireplace. The newly positioned tented garden area offers a 40-by-80-foot tent that will seat 180, and is open from the end of April through October.

But one of the key elements to the entire renovation, said Brown, is the focus on environmental sustainability that features amenities such as organic bath products, an extensive recycling program throughout the inn, and the distinction of being one of the Pioneer Valley’s greenest hotels.

“We’re a green inn,” she explained. “The college has a definite commitment to sustainable design, so the owners are seeking LEED certification per their incorporation of several sustainable features such as 50 geothermal wells, which are each 500 feet deep and will provide environmentally friendly heating and cooling to the facility.”

The renovations, she continued, include more than $1 million in energy-efficiency improvements, most of which guests will never see, but all of which retain the historic look of the building. In addition, none of the elegant millwork was altered.

Once guests appreciate their first introduction to the newly painted inn — which is now white, as it was when first opened, according to Brown — the delightful aroma of farm-to-table cuisine is where she and Giordano feel they’ll capture even more fans.

 

Soups On

Stepping into the new 30 Boltwood restaurant, the former Boltwood Tavern, is like stepping into a contemporary wine-country kitchen. The dark paneling has been replaced by soft natural colors, the wooden tables and chairs replaced by comfortable and stylish booths, and a chic, new curved bar, a large fireplace, and contemporary chandeliers combine today’s designs with traditional New England architecture.

The restaurant offers a private, eight-person dining area, a 16-person greenhouse room with views to the stars at night, and a small wine room. The description of this new restaurant is the latest buzzword in the culinary world: ‘farm table’ or ‘farm-to-table cuisine.’

“Everything we do, we try to get locally first, and we are a part of CISA [Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture],” Brown told BusinessWest. “And certain times of the year, our chef will go to the farmers market on Saturday, with the clients that have the inn’s Farmers Market Package, and he shops with them and cooks for them.”

While the new restaurant is open for all meal periods, Brown said, one feature is the traditional Sunday brunch.

Giordano, hand-picked by the Waterford Hotel Group and classically trained in New York City, has a flair with gluten-free and vegetarian dishes, Brown explained.

“We’re working on our signature dishes,” added Brown. “We don’t want to just jump out of the gate and say we have a signature dish.” To that end, she and Giordano are looking for staff and guests to help identify their favorites.

And as the holidays approach, the institution of the farm-table menu will be coupled with new traditions, Brown said, that the inn hopes the community will accept. She points to Breakfast with Santa on Sundays leading up to Christmas, Holiday Tea in the library on December Saturdays, a giant gingerbread house in the new foyer, and holiday carolers outside the inn on specific nights around the holidays.

Overall, the Lord Jeffery Inn is creating new traditions on many levels.

 

Welcome Mat

Stepping her toes deeper into the Amherst area, Brown is serving with the Amherst Chamber of Commerce board on the programming and ambassador committees, and also serves on the newly formed Regional Tourism Council for Hampshire County, which helps to brand the county.

And while becoming more involved in the community, she is, as she said, making definite progress with pronouncing the town’s name like a local.

She still won’t call her place of employment the Jeff, but by whatever name it’s known, the inn is back, once again assuming a position of prominence in this proud community.

 

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Party Planner Sections
Restaurants, Banquet Facilities Optimistic about Upcoming Party Season

Center court at the Basketball Hall of Fame provides one of the region’s unique party environments.

Center court at the Basketball Hall of Fame provides one of the region’s unique party environments.

The past several years have been up and down for venues that host corporate holiday parties. On one hand, the recession has affected companies’ celebration budgets, yet most employers still see value in thanking their staffs for a year of hard work. As a result, area party bookings have largely remained steady, although many companies have scaled back on their size and cost. Still, restaurants and banquet facilities say the early signs are positive that the end of 2011 could be a merry season.

Early October is when things finally settle down on Memorial Avenue in West Springfield. For Jeffrey Daigneau, who’s busy booking holiday parties at his restaurant, Lattitude, they’re just heating up.
“We’re getting calls now. We probably have 15 or 20 parties already booked,” said Daigneau, who spoke with BusinessWest the day after the Eastern States Exposition — which dominates his street and hinders business for two and a half weeks — ended its 2011 run. “We haven’t gotten many calls with the Big E going on, but our busy season really starts today.”
Other restaurant owners and banquet-facility managers are reporting the same. So far, they say, business is looking up.
“Many companies feel parties are very important,” said Joe Stevens, owner of Hofbrauhaus in West Springfield. “They want to say thank you to their people who have been with them year-round — and we’re grateful to have them.”
He noted that the majority of companies that have booked parties have returned. “They want this certain Friday, this specific Saturday; usually, as they’re leaving, they say, ‘see you next year,’ and we just put them in the books.

Joe Stevens, with his wife, Liz

Joe Stevens, with his wife, Liz, says his holiday-party business at Hofbrauhaus has been bolstered by repeat customers.

“We’ve been blessed over the years because this place has been here since 1935, and most of our customers that have had Christmas parties over the years have stayed with us,” he added.
Newer venues are optimistic about a strong season as well, including Mill One at Open Square in Holyoke, which offers exposed brick, hardwood floors, and not much else in the way of permanent décor, allowing party planners to design their own night.
“It’s a beautiful facility from the 1800s,” said Michelle St. Jacques, property manager of Open Square. “It’s a blank slate, so we let people know that their event can be how they want it to turn out, without having the carpeting or wallpaper interfering with that.
“In addition, we have a selection of caterers to choose from, or you can choose your own, as long as they’re licensed and insured,” she continued. “We try to cater to individual wants. People can design their parties themselves in a very unique venue. They enjoy the fact that there are no set decorations that could interfere and conflict with their decisions. On the whole, people love it.”
For this issue, BusinessWest talks to several area dining facilities to get a feel for how they’re marketing the holiday season to area companies — and why they’re feeling good about the prospects so far.

They Shoot, They Score
“Right now, things are starting to pick up for the holiday season. We already have some bookings for December,” said Josh Belliveau, corporate event manager at the Basketball Hall of Fame.
That’s good news after a stretch of years in which employers across the U.S. have scaled back such late-fall, early-winter shindigs. According to Amrop Battalia Winston, a global executive-search firm that tracks a number of business trends, last year reflected the worst holiday-party slump in 22 years, with 79% of companies conducting some kind of celebration — lower than even the 81% figure recorded in both 2008 and 2009, at the peak of the recession.
Belliveau said it helps to be able to offer partygoers an uncommon experience.
“If you book your holiday party at the Hall of Fame, it’s a unique venue,” he said. “Our guests have many options — to tour the museum or do some additional fun things, like a scavenger hunt, shooting contests on center court, music, and dancing. We can even do [an electronic] sign outside the building, welcoming guests of that company. That makes it personal to employees who are attending. We think our facilities have the ability to provide that special atmosphere.”
Belliveau has booked a range of different groups, from formal sit-down dinner receptions to social receptions on the court, with hors d’ouevres, interactive play, and DJs and bands. “It’s a social atmosphere.”
Evan Mattson, controller at Tucker’s restaurant in Southwick, has seen the same variety of celebration styles.
“We do sit-down parties, we do station parties, we do buffets — we host all kinds of different parties,” said Mattson, adding that the facility handles gatherings of all sizes — “20 on up to 150” — and also conducts functions off-site when desired. Of all the options, he noted, “I think the station parties are becoming more and more popular.”
Stevens said there isn’t much Hofbrauhaus can’t do when it comes to party planning for groups ranging from less than 10 to more than 300. He noted that the facility hosts both formal sit-down services and cocktail parties with food stations and a cash or open bar.
“I’d say most people enjoy being served, getting waited upon, especially when it comes to the holiday season and businesses saying thank you to their staff,” he told BusinessWest. “Personally, I prefer a party where you can move around; I’m big into food stations and passed-around hors d’ouevres. I like to see people and circulate and not be confined to a certain table. But that’s just me.”
St. Jacques agreed, noting that many companies are getting away from sit-down dinners, and not just for budgetary reasons. “They realize there’s more interaction when people are getting up and getting food, passing by other guests, and that seems to be the trend, from what I’ve seen.”
She said Open Square is a good option for people who have very specific catering needs. “They can provide the food they like; some people like ethnic dishes and have to go to a certain caterer. You can’t get that at some facilities with their regular banquet staff.
“I think our venue is good because you can pick a theme and set the food choices,” she continued. “If you want to have an hors d’ouevres party, those are becoming popular. Cocktail parties are a nice holiday option without breaking the bank. That can be a good choice in this economy.”
Lattitude is making some improvements to enhance its party offerings, Daigneau added, including making the ‘wine room,’ where many functions are held for groups of 15 to 20, two to three times bigger; that renovation will be complete before the December rush of events.
But he said smaller parties are more common these days than large ones. “We do big Christmas parties, but what I’m seeing is parties of 25, 30.”

Looking Up?
That reflects the trends reported by Amrop Battalia Winston last year (this year’s survey won’t be released until November). In 2010, 28% of companies responding to the survey said their parties had become more modest — on the heels of the nearly half (49%) that downsized in 2009. Meanwhile, only 11% intended to hold more lavish parties.
In addition, company parties have increasingly become an employees-only zone. Only 26% of surveyed businesses planned to include family members, while 5% intended to invite clients and friends. The 69% of parties labeled employees-only was up from 52% just four years earlier.
Of those employers deciding to forgo having a party altogether, 55% said they did not consider it appropriate in tough economic times, compared to 27% who said a get-together just wasn’t within their budget. On the other hand, 37% of those having a holiday party said the primary reason was to celebrate a good year, 33% cited employee morale, and 29% said they wanted to project optimism about the future to clients and employees.
If holiday parties are, indeed, reflective of the economic mood, area restaurants and banquet facilities may be reporting some good news for the region overall.
“Some companies have done very well,” Stevens said. “Some have downsized their parties, but others have actually gotten too big for us; they can’t do their parties here anymore because they passed the 300 mark. It runs the gamut.”
Mattson said he’s optimistic about 2011 as well.
“They’re booking now. We have several booked already for December,” he told BusinessWest, noting that, even in a sluggish economy, many employers still want to thank their employees by making merry at what they hope will be the most wonderful time of the year.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]