Course of Action
New Ownership Has Ambitious Plans in Place for Chez JosefMarc 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.
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.
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]