Gracie’s Ventures Inc. will have plenty to celebrate on New Year’s Eve, including a milestone not many restaurants can tout – a 20th anniversary.
At the helm since its opening in 1998 on Federal Hill in Providence, Ellen Slattery has steadily built the brand while also mentoring the next generation at her alma mater, Johnson & Wales University.
“When there is passion involved, in some way, shape or form you’ll be successful,” said the 46-year-old mother of three of the ethos at Gracie’s.
In late November, Slattery announced the addition of Ellie’s, a French bistro-style neighborhood eatery on Weybosset Street in the capital. By adding the café to her two existing eateries – the 72-seat Gracie’s and 6-year-old breakfast/lunch/catering spot Ellie’s Bakery – Slattery hits almost every appetite style and craving out there.
In a way, she says, the new location will allow her the freedom to run three separate, yet similarly focused, operations without having to choose between white tablecloths and a casual hangout.
What’s your first food memory? My first memory of food, when I was a kid, was that I ate crummy. I ate mac and cheese and Oscar Meyer hot dogs and SpaghettiOs, peanut butter and jelly, and grilled cheese.
Are there any foods you don’t like? There isn’t much that I don’t like. There was one time we were doing a tasting menu and I was served brain. I wanted to try it [but] I just couldn’t get over the texture. I feel like, if prepared properly, anything can be delicious.
Did your childhood in New Jersey – and the state’s relationship to the food industry – help steer you in the direction of a culinary career? I don’t think so. My parents entertained a lot, so I would always help out and that’s how I got introduced to preparing food and [seeing] how food makes people happy. … That’s what I fell in love with.
I went to college for child psychology … [at] Northeastern. When I came up [to New England] and was introduced to the food scene in Boston, my interest sparked.
One of my friends got me a job in a [Boston] restaurant and that’s where it all started. I had zero experience; the chef there took me under his wing and showed me the ropes.
Zero experience, but a lot of drive? Yes.
You were 26 when you opened Gracie’s on New Year’s Eve in 1998. Were you scared? What inspired you to branch out on your own so young? I don’t remember being scared and I liked to take risks, especially back then; not so much now.
I used to go to the space where Gracie’s first started as a guest. One day, the general manager said: “Listen, I know how much you love this space, we’re moving down the street [and] nobody knows about it. I know you just graduated from culinary school. Let me know if you want to do anything here.”
That was how it started … [and] I just wanted to go for it.
When there is passion involved, in some way, shape or form you’ll be successful.
With an opportunity you might not have come across otherwise, did it accelerate your career growth? Definitely, that would not have been in my path for probably years to come had it not been suggested. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I really want to open a restaurant right now and I’ve done all this research and have a business plan.” I didn’t have any of that, it was … something that fell in my lap and I thought, “Can I make this happen?”
I always wished I had time to take business classes. That’s the advice I gave [Johnson & Wales University students at a recent lecture on entrepreneurship]. … I was [operating] on a wish and a dream that it would work out.
In the hustle and bustle of a dinner service, where would you be found? I love being in the kitchen. I love feeling that energy and being with the team.
On Friday and Saturday nights, I’m in the kitchen expediting with [executive chef] Matt Varga. … If I could be there every day, that’s where I would be.
How do you balance that desire with needing to touch all aspects of the restaurant? During the week, I’m usually working downstairs in the office.
Back at old Gracie’s, I was the host, I seated people, I would expedite food. … I was the manager, I was making cappuccinos, hanging coats, doing all the bookkeeping – we wore many hats.
When we moved, we hired a manager, which was great. I was still the host here at night and then slowly moved into the kitchen.
What was the experience on Federal Hill and what drove the decision to move to downcity? [The two are] completely different, like night and day.
We were like a gem in the rough up on Federal Hill. What we were doing was new at the time, people didn’t understand what we were trying to accomplish. … It took us about three years for people to understand what we were doing. [In that time] we had a lot of guests come in, look at the menu and, because we weren’t [serving] Italian, put the menu down and walk out. … We stayed there for [seven] years.
When we came downtown, it was nothing like it is today. I would look out the windows and rarely see people walking down the street. … Now, Washington Street and this whole area in downcity has become a neighborhood, a community.
What do you mean, “People didn’t understand what we were trying to accomplish”? We weren’t the classic Italian restaurant. At that time, a lot of people didn’t focus on farmers and didn’t focus on what’s available [locally]. There wasn’t a lot of seasonality in cooking. Now, you see it everywhere because you’re getting the best products at the best time. But, back then, there were maybe five or six restaurants that shared that philosophy.
And [back then] farmers weren’t even delivering. With a group of other [restaurants] we would take turns picking up products … and doing the delivery for each other.
How much of what you cook is because you’re based in Rhode Island and certain produce and proteins are available here? It’s almost entirely, [and] that’s one of the things we [teach] our staff. One of our guys is from Chicago and he hasn’t seen the fish we’re bringing in. He’s learning about halibut and lobster … and he’s breaking them down every single day.
Being able to [operate] in Rhode Island, and work with amazing food producers, is unlike anything else. … The farmers come to our back door every day. They’re harvesting, coming in here with their hands dirty and saying: “This is what I sourced for you today.” That just doesn’t happen anywhere else.
I feel blessed that I stayed in Rhode Island and didn’t go back to New Jersey. I love being here, I love the seasons. … The farmers care about what we’re doing and … [our connection with them] is because our state is so intimate. In New Jersey, I don’t know if that care and passion would be there.
Are you satisfied with the niche Gracie’s has carved for itself? I definitely think so, [but] we’re still introducing ourselves to new guests all the time – which amazes me.
We do a lot of nonprofit events … and I may be talking to someone about Ellie’s [Bakery] and they may not know about Gracie’s.
Why do you think guests don’t associate one Slattery brand with the other? We are finding the younger demographic … have heard about Ellie’s but not tried Gracie’s – or don’t even know of Gracie’s. I think Gracie’s is such a special-occasion place that the majority of guests may only come once a year to celebrate.
Do you fear that will be the case when your latest location opens on Weybosset Street? We are really trying to button up the marketing and branding … to make sure guests realize Ellie’s and Gracie’s are sisters.
How has Gracie’s mission benefited from 20 years in business? It starts with our guests. It’s really amazing how they … trust what we’re doing, what we’re preparing and given us this opportunity to be creative. Every week, we’re coming up with new tasting menus and there’s a lot of preparation that goes into that.
We understand, especially in this day and age, that to feel someone is taking care of you is pretty rare.
If we know there’s a guest who really enjoys sweetbreads, but it’s not on the menu, we’ll make it for them. If we know it’s someone’s anniversary, we will find a special bottle of wine. … We handwrite birthday and anniversary cards. We try to make the extra-special touches.
There are many different options for eating in the city. Are you ever concerned people just won’t show up? It’s always a concern and that’s why we push ourselves, every week. There was a big switch, maybe five years ago, where a lot of restaurants were going casual – no tablecloths – and we thought about switching up. The leadership team took six months to think about:
• Do we want to change who we are for the times?
• Are we just too old?
• Are we run down?
• Do we need to reinvent?
• Should we go casual?
• Are we too intense in this time?
Everyone [agreed] we need to just keep doing what we’re doing. There are people who have been coming to celebrate their anniversary for 15 years and we thought about what they want.
In the past year, the nation’s culinary industry has come under scrutiny, as major figures – such as Mario Batali and New York City’s Spotted Pig owner Ken Friedman – have either stepped away or been removed from their restaurants/brands after allegations of sexual assault surfaced. How has the #MeToo movement changed the industry? You can see a huge shift. [When I started] you would do whatever [the chef] said, no matter how they said it, even if they threw something at you or spoke to you inappropriately – you just did it. That’s how you were taught.
Opening Gracie’s there were even situations, chefs that worked here who were out of control with their language and how they were speaking to people – that’s something that we constantly work on.
Today, line cooks will not tolerate that behavior – which is great.
Your restaurant is three blocks from JWU’s downtown campus – which is yours and Matt Varga’s alma mater, as well as Melissa Denmark, Gracie’s executive pastry chef. What role do you play at the school today? We have a lot of students who come [to work] here from JWU and we do an internship program. Melissa and Matt are both heavily involved in training and being mentors. They try to teach [students the difference between school and the industry]. It’s completely different what they’re learning there versus being here and physically putting their hands in motion.
[At JWU] they have the best of everything, but that’s not the real world. … They’re on cloud nine learning about all these new techniques and crazy, madness stuff. Matt and Melissa do a good job of bringing them down to Earth and [reminding them] you have to learn the foundations first.
Do you specifically look to JWU when sourcing talent? We have friends at JWU … who know what we’re looking for and what goes on here. If there’s ever a time when we need someone, [the team] will reach out to JWU and see if they have anyone who would be a good fit. That’s worked out really well.
[Also] everybody in [the local culinary community] talks. If somebody needs someone, everybody is friendly.
That’s interesting because food in Providence is such a hot industry in terms of hiring and training. Is it ever difficult to get and keep staff? Hiring is challenging … it’s our biggest struggle. Luckily, right now, we’ve had the same team for a year.
That sounds like a long time. Yes, but before that, one of our sous chefs was here for five years and one was here for eight. We tend to have people stay for a while.
When hiring, we always say it’s a minimum of one year, but we never have them sign a contract. If they aren’t happy, we [want] people to move on. But it takes so long to train someone to [a certain] point, it helps to set up those expectations ahead of time.
Your third location, Ellie’s, will be a 1,500-square-foot breakfast/lunch/dinner, Parisian-inspired neighborhood café with an additional 1,500 square feet of on-premises preparation capabilities. What drove the new location? We’ve been struggling at Ellie’s [Bakery] because our production space is really small. Two years ago, we moved production to Hope & Main … as a Band-Aid. I had the choice of either closing Ellie’s because it wasn’t successful – our production is off-site, so we’re paying rent at two locations – or find a new home.
Originally, the plan was to move Ellie’s from Washington Street to the Weybosset Street location, but we’ve had so many people tell us they would really miss Washington Street. … It’s habitual, people will not travel … from Washington Street to Weybosset in the morning to get their coffee or their breakfast or their lunch because they don’t have time. We’re going to try and make both spaces work.
There are two floors [at the Weybosset location], so we’re able to put a production kitchen downstairs and move our production from Hope & Main.
When is it expected to open? It’s projected to open in spring 2019.
Will Ellie’s stick to the white-tablecloth-and-water-glass style of Gracie’s? No … there are no tablecloths. It will be super-casual. We want it to be a neighborhood eatery where people can pop in two or three times a week and it’s not high pressure.
It sounds like you found a way to win that conversation you had five years ago of, “Do we need to get rid of the tablecloths and act like other people?” by doing so in a different space from Gracie’s. Yes, I guess [we did].
Emily Gowdey-Backus is a staff writer for PBN. You can follow her on Twitter @FlashGowdey or contact her via email, Gowdey-backus@PBN.com.