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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]

Sections Supplements
Getting that Company Party off the Ground is Big Business for Area Event Coordinators
Jeff Daigneau and AnnMarie Harding

Jeff Daigneau and AnnMarie Harding of Max’s Tavern in Springfield.

Planning end-of-year events is a business unto itself for area
restaurants, party planners, banquet facilities, and others. Not only does it take time, money, and superb management to enter the holiday party arena, it increasingly takes the ability to offer an entirely new and creative set of amenities every year to keep the interest of the corporate set. This year, some area professionals offered their insight into everything it takes to ring in the new year in style

The clinking glasses, constantly swinging kitchen doors, and the bustle of wait staff as they serve entrées, clear dishes and take special orders are all a given at any holiday party.

But when the hors d’oeuvres are the same as last year, or the band’s set list sounds oddly familiar, corporate events held during the winter holidays can get stale faster than the dinner rolls.

This issue, as part of its annual holiday party planner, BusinessWest takes a behind-the-scenes look at the ins and outs of party planning, gleaning some information on the industry from area professionals – event planners, caterers, restaurant owners and managers, and others.

Together, they offer a feel for what their jobs entail, from management to menus, including what it takes to stay on the cutting-edge of the hospitality industry during the season that generates the largest amount of party-goers will be sizing up the party-planning prowess of a given establishment or individual.

For Ralph Santaniello, owner of The Federal in Agawam and his chefs, that might mean putting a holiday twist on their popular ‘spoon hors d’oeuvres.’ Rachel Bombard, catering sales manager for Max’s Tavern in Springfield, has been hard at work finalizing menus for this year’s party along with Max’s executive chef Jeff Daigneau, but is already mulling ideas for next year – things like bus trips, on which party-goers snack on gourmet boxed appetizers as they whiz around town.

For most planners, though, like Joy Roman, president of Positive Planning Inc. based in East Longmeadow, the actual booking of parties and research of current trends in food, drinks, party themes, and other incidentals, began months ago.

Many event planners were already in the thick of drafting specific menus and decorating schemes for a number of holiday gatherings when they spoke to BusinessWest. Roman, in her car with a license plate that reads ‘EVENTS,’ was in fact rushing off to find scores of perfect holiday gifts for guests at various parties, searching for a few that would stand out, while not breaking the bank when bought in bulk.

The breadth of those tasks alone gives a hard glance into the complexity of holiday party planning – but few, according to some of the region’s professionals, realize exactly how much time goes into plotting five hours of festivities in November, December or January.

According to Roman, who specializes in corporate events, event planners working both independently and internally at a restaurant or banquet facility are employed, in short, to take care of all of the “painful details” on the behalf of a client.

“Companies use me in order to facilitate one of their most important events of the year without losing company time,” she said. “There are a lot of logistics involved, from brainstorming to developing a theme or a menu, to arranging appropriate entertainment and working with a facility to get all of this off the ground.

“There are also a lot of intangibles that people don’t always take into account,” she continued. “Event planners have to be detail-oriented, creative, quick-thinking, and incredibly organized. They have to have excellent customer service skills and the ability to forge and maintain relationships with a number of different types of people in different industries.

“It’s my relationships with people that I think have kept me in business for 20 years,” she said. “And all of those skills ultimately factor into what kind of party you put together for your client – a fun, exciting, well-attended event, or a boring old holiday party that feels like a chore.”

The Party in Question

But she said it’s not all just phone calls and E-mails. On the contrary, she said anyone involved in event planning, whether it be an event coordinator, a chef, or a restaurant manager, is called upon more frequently than most to be spot-on when it comes to new, fresh, and creative ideas. She cited one client she has worked with for several years, which contacts Roman early on in the year and charges her with coming up with a theme for the company’s winter warmer.

That theme has to be big and bold and kept an absolute secret from the company’s employees, she explained, and also has to include accompanying decorations, centerpieces, gifts for attendees, music, a themed menu, and, in some cases, actors to pull that theme up into the next stratosphere.

An Academy Awards-themed event, for example, had Roman rolling out a red carpet, interviewing guests as they came through the door, and organizing an awards ceremony, in addition to dinner and drinks.

“Every decision is another stepping stone on the way to the event, so there is constant collaboration between me and the company’s representatives,” she added, noting that event planners are also not at the mercy of a given business to implement a slew of requests without adding their own professional input. “My job is to offer the expertise that makes everyone, including the company representatives who are planning the party, feel like guests at their own event.”

Sometimes that means overseeing the smallest of details – making sure music is being played at a good volume for conversation or giving the eggnog a little stir in passing. Other times, Roman explained, it’s putting years of experience planning events within the corporate set to good use by gently steering guests away from a few holiday party pitfalls.

“Setting an event up in such a way that people aren’t tempted to hover by the same people they sit right next to every day is one thing that’s important,” she said, citing round cocktail tables or serving stations as one way to keep the crowds circulating. “These are parties and times to unwind, but they’re still business parties, and therefore a strong networking component is necessary for these events to be successful.

“And it’s employees at all levels that need to be reminded,” Roman continued. “It’s the people at the top that give the party the ultimate personal touch, and I always mention that. Sometimes the CEO needs a little push toward the door and a reminder to greet his or her employees, not stand in the corner surrounded by a crowd.”

Kicking the Nosh up a Notch

Putting a few finishing touches on a plate of new hors d’oeuvre offerings available at Max’s for the holiday season, Daigneau concurred with Roman that several variables contribute to the success of a corporate holiday party, and the attention to detail and creativity of those working behind the scenes are of the utmost importance.

“It’s all about spotting trends and fulfilling requests to the best of our ability,” Daigneau said. “And everything is moving toward a tailored approach; people are becoming less shy about asking for special orders, special menus, or different types of events, instead of booking a date and assuming that every party has to be the same every year.”

That creates an interesting culinary testing ground each holiday season, Daigneau said, which he can use to gauge the popularity of new appetizers and entrées, or to get a feel for some of the trendy types of cuisine that people are gravitating toward on a given year.

He added that holiday parties also provide unique marketing opportunities – as new menu choices or creative serving methods are rolled out at corporate events, often a buzz is created that generates new business for an establishment.

“Food doesn’t have to be boring to appeal to a large crowd,” Daigneau said. “Whatever anyone can come up with, I’ll do it.”

And a trend toward special requests, Daigneau said, is challenging those in the industry to flex their culinary muscle. He has recently created event menus that include a wide variety of items, including cigar-smoked duck and tender venison, as game has seen a surge in popularity. He noted that he has also filled several requests for vegetarian or even Vegan menu items, to cater to people with food allergies, or to augment a pre-planned drink menu, choosing foods that complement various wines, beers, martinis, or other cocktails.

AnnMarie Harding, special event planner and director of Public Relations at Max’s, added that menus have become the central attraction for most businesses planning their holiday parties, and creative dinners and cocktail parties are being organized this year over a wide range of price points.

“It’s becoming less important to throw a lot of money at a party in order to make it a huge, gala event,” she said, “and more important to get to the heart of the company throwing the party and reflecting its business and their employees. The menu is the biggest part of that; different types of people in different types of industries will ultimately enjoy different types of food. Some people expect a steak waiting for them. Others want to see something they’ve never seen before.”

Bombard agreed, noting that as clients become more comfortable making special requests for their events, they are also paying more attention to the subtle nuances that make an event stand out.

“I think in the past, people wanted a great party, but they didn’t really know how to go about planning one,” she said. “That’s what people who plan events for a living are for, and lately it seems that businesses are more ready to use the skills of event professionals.”

Just as she is keeping one eye on trends for next season as she fine-tunes this year’s events, Bombard said businesses looking to plan a smash gathering should do the same, and it doesn’t have to take an exorbitant amount of money or time to do so with the right approach.

“What I tell people,” she explained, “is to get a magazine and start tearing out pictures of things you really like. Chances are you can have something like it at your party, and the more ideas we have to work with, the easier it is for us to secure great quality food, keep costs down, and stay simple.”

The Early Bird Gets the Wassail

That’s not to say that event planning is a cakewalk for anyone, however. As special orders and tailored menus become the norm, Daigneau added further that work hours in the kitchen and the banquet room rise as well. Just one event could require a 22-hour work day to prepare, organize, and implement, and that’s with preparation beginning up to a week in advance and a staff of up to 20 people.

“And that’s with more than one party going on in one night most of the time, not to mention that the holidays are the busiest time of the year without corporate business,” he said. “But it’s our job to make holiday parties happen. My only advice to businesses of all sizes is to start planning as early as possible.”

That sentiment resonates in the party planning world. Event planning is an interesting study in corporate organization, and those involved firsthand with party planning say those companies that start early with an idea of menu options and event size, time, and place in mind are those who usually leave their event at the end of the night pleased with the outcome. Those who start late are those who leave wishing they’d spent more time preparing.

“Corporate parties require a lot of planning and attention to detail throughout the year,” said Santaniello, who finds a constant challenge in the changing tastes of the public – what dishes were hot last month at a Federal-catered event, either on or off-site, could receive a chilly reception at a function today. “But when it comes to holiday parties, often people forget that they’re competing with every other company planning a party for the same few dates. There are only three weekends in December before Christmas (and Hanukkah begins on Dec. 26), and it’s much harder to get the details buttoned up.”

Santaniello added that a major staff investment is also required to coordinate corporate events, in addition to regular business, during the holidays. Not only does event planning during the winter months require careful organization on the part of the planner and the company staging the party, but also strict management within the business handling the party, so not to overtax employees, overstretch the operating budget, or cause other aspects of the business to suffer.

“We’re already busy at that point,” he said. “It’s very important that our staff knows that it’s going to be hard and there’s going to be a lot to do, but that their role is an important one in getting it all done. Managing time is one of the most important skills we put into play here. We have a great team and everyone is in charge of something – the finances, the menu, the catering … everything has to be in place, or it’s just not going to work.”

With proper management, though, Santaniello said he has seen a party in every room of his restaurant as well as a few off-site events staged without a hitch over the course of one evening.

“That’s a long day, and anything can go wrong,” he said. “The delivery guy could not show up and you’ll run out of chicken. The rental company could send the wrong number of tables and chairs.

“But,” he added, as he placed one of The Federal’s holiday platters on a table – something new this year, a brimming antipasto created in response to several requests for authentic, Italian fare – “if you pay attention to detail, and to what people want, you’ll build a reputation for offering consistent service with the promise that every event will be a little different, every time.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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