It’s a Family Fare
Tucker’s Serves American Cuisine the Old-fashioned Way
There are a few jobs that define Michael Anderson’s professional career as a head chef, but one that perhaps has the most significance was as a dishwasher.
Indeed, while scrubbing in the sinks at Storrowton Tavern & Carriage House in West Springfield, Anderson said he gained what he called the “building blocks” for a long legacy on the other side of the kitchen.
“I felt such a sense of camaraderie between the cooks and the waitstaff,” he told BusinessWest. “There was longevity in that kitchen — people worked there for over 30 years; it wasn’t seen as a stepping stone, where people say, ‘I’m only a waiter until I go on to a different field.’ These people were invested in it, and this was their life.”
But it wasn’t just the culinary bonhomie that attracted Anderson back then. It was the famous owner, William Kavanaugh — or ‘Tucker’ to his close friends and family — who became a mentor to the budding chef. Such was the impression made upon the young man that he said, “I knew way before I ever had a restaurant that his nickname would be its name one day.”
That day would not be in the immediate future, although Anderson said that, from the time he first put together a résumé as a chef, he knew that owning and operating was his goal. After learning the ropes on the line at Storrowton, ultimately becoming executive chef there, he catered for a few years until the call came that Yankee Candle wanted to open its own restaurant at the flagship store in South Deerfield, and the company wanted him to run the kitchen.
Opening Chandler’s Tavern in 1995, he said, was a good dry run for an aspiring restaurateur. “That was a real eye-opener,” he remembered, chuckling. “None of us quite knew what to expect. And when we first opened, we got blasted; we were doing 700 lunches a day.”
The 45-minute commute wasn’t very appetizing to Anderson, however, especially with a growing family. “It was right around the time our first daughter was born,” his wife and co-owner, Karen, said. “He came home one day and said, ‘I quit my job.’”
The man who always wanted to own his own spot wasn’t hanging up his pots to dry, though: right down the road from their home in Westfield, Anderson had spotted a derelict building for sale on College Highway in Southwick. “It took me only a couple of days to know that this was the place for my restaurant,” he said.
Today, Tucker’s sits across the street from that spot, in a building created for the husband-and-wife restaurateurs. Sitting down with BusinessWest, the Andersons were joined by Karen’s uncle, Evan Mattson, who is retired from his job owning an insurance agency. These days, he does the restaurant’s accounting, is the host, and rolls up his sleeves to tend bar on occasion.
The walls are cluttered with framed paintings by the couple’s children, Paige and Payton, making this truly a family affair.
But, of course, people come for the food, and there’s good reason for that. Anderson’s skills on the stove were honed over a lifetime of cooking, but they also hold the legacy of those mentors he had from his earliest days in a professional kitchen. ‘Tucker’ himself helped out in the earlier restaurant across the street, as proud as he could be, Mattson remembered.
And while the man who helped shape Anderson’s career isn’t around any longer to see his namesake thriving, he’s not far away: his portrait holds pride of place just inside the front door.
“I feel like I’m getting old when I say that I do things ‘old school,’ but you have to spend a lot of time to understand how the business works,” Anderson said.
“At Storrowton, I was with these guys every night on the line — you can’t learn these skills overnight,” he continued. “It takes years. And I still do things the same way now as they did then. They stuck to what they knew, and they were successful.”
While a student at Holyoke Community College studying culinary arts, Anderson said that one of his teachers was also his boss cooking at Storrowton. These lessons gave him the understanding of cooking solid fare from scratch. “Seasonally or otherwise, everything is made from your own recipes,” he said of his style. “Just like the way things used to be done.”
This level of integrity attracted the attention of the powers at Yankee Candle when they tapped him to run the kitchen at their new restaurant, and today, Anderson credits that experience as a firsthand look on how to market one’s culinary creations.
“They never stopped marketing at all,” he remembered. “Every week, there was some sort of event — not just dinner with Santa, there were Teddy Bear Teas, specials of every kind. It was fully gung-ho.”
“We didn’t have a big game plan, but we got the financing together,” he continued. “Karen was still working at MassMutual, which was a good comfort, because making a lot of money wasn’t my primary concern; I wanted to cook good food and do what I love.”
Today, Karen — who met Michael when she was busing tables at Storrowton — serves as the events manager, front-of-house scheduler, and occasional bartender; on this day, she also pulled a shift waiting tables at lunch. She said it was easy for a few years in the first Tucker’s location to pull down both jobs, but she agreed with her husband that it wasn’t the final destination for their restaurant.
After six years in the original location, the pair invested in some developable property across the street. “We always knew that we wanted to have banquet facilities,” she said, “something that was only possible at the other spot when we weren’t open for regular dining.”
Spicing It Up
Mattson joked that his wife sees him less often now than when he was running his insurance agency. But helping to run this family restaurant gives him an equal measure of pride.
“I look at all the comments that come in,” he said, “and I can honestly tell you that, on a scale of one to five, very, very seldom are they less than 4.8, which to me means that people recognize that this is quality food, they appreciate our service, and they like the value that they’re getting.”
Added to that dining experience is what the husband and wife hoped to create from the beginning of their dream — a space for events in Southwick. Two banquet rooms seat up to 150 people, and Karen mentioned that they see all manner of parties, from weddings and rehearsal dinners to showers and retirements.
Taking a cue from her husband’s years at Chandler’s, she said that Tucker’s has garnished its lunch and dinner menus with a regular series of special events. A wine dinner — five courses paired with different vintages — is staged four times per year (the next is expected in September), a comedy night held at similar intervals, and an increasingly popular beer dinner, with different brews paired with food. The recently opened Westfield River Brewing Co. is going to be on tap at Tucker’s — one of only a handful of eateries to feature the brand — and Karen said the next beer dinner should have these local suds served up with the specials.
But in a tough economy, all agreed that customers are seeking value, even though the menu at Tucker’s, running the scale from burgers to filet mignon, offers dinners at all price points. Responding to that, she said that the restaurant has offered special deals through Groupon, and in the last year has been offering customers the chance to redeem Big Y’s gold and silver coins as a coupon good for half off one of two dinners or lunches, respectively.
“Think about it,” she said. “Gas stations redeem them for 20 cents off a gallon of gas, but what is that, around two dollars?”
The emphasis, however, is and always will be on the food — Michael’s passion, and the main ingredient for Tucker’s success. There will be one additional foray into commerce outside the dining room, however — to bottle and market the spices he uses in his famous butternut squash recipe.
The lessons learned in the kitchen at Storrowton are evident on the pages of Tucker’s menu, as he still likes to cook traditional, American-style dishes from scratch: Yankee pot roast, chicken pot pie, crab cakes, baked cod, sirloin au poivre, chicken cordon bleu, and many more. It’s honest fare served in a no-nonsense way, he said. “If I’m cooking fish, as one example, it has to be natural, some light seasoning — just a good, fresh product. Not too much stuff on it. Keep it simple.”
And that philosophy carries over to all aspects of the business, from a family who understands that there can be a lot of heat in the kitchen if you don’t do things the right way.
“I love to cook, but to be able to sleep at night, I want to make sure that people get what they order,” Michael said. “When regulars call me to order food, they don’t ask the price, because they know I’m not going to jab them. There’s a sense out there, maybe, that restaurants put the screws to you, but that’s not a lot of restaurateurs. There are a lot of those people who are honest businesspeople making good food.”
And across the room, the portrait of ‘Tucker’ smiled over the conversation — a lasting legacy carried on by the protégé who adopted his ideas and made them his own. In Kavanaugh’s lifetime, he was proud to see what his former dishwasher had become.