A View From the Kitchen: Milestones

“It feels like the Roaring ’20s,” said a business friend, describing the booming economy in late 2007. For the first time, typical hamburgers began to eclipse $10 as steaks climbed to over thirty. Thirty dollars! Industry sales had been steadily climbing to new heights, and our first restaurant had just enjoyed a sales zenith. Cobblestones was still growing after 13 years! Who knew? In my revisionist memory, we celebrated after-hours, popping corks as flappers danced the Charleston. Let the good times roll in Lowell!

The experts were forecasting no end in sight, though a favorite uncle and dining enthusiast sagely predicted: “You are surfing on a restaurant bubble.” He knew. It was in this can’t-go-wrong environment that we finally found an ideal location for Moonstones, our second restaurant-to-be. We had fun, yet-to-trend ideas and a giddy momentum on our side.  

Just recently, two of Moonstones’ original employees teased me about how we had wooed pre-opening staff with this pledged benefit: While other restaurant employees would be working on Sundays, we would be closed.  Sundays had become sacred years earlier after my wife argued that I worked too much. I objected, before subsequently failing the “name your children’s teachers” quiz. Sundays became a respite for us all, straightaway, as week-ending light now glowed within the restaurant vortex! 

In the summer of 2008, we went on to assume seven-figure risk while opening Moonstones to raging business and rave reviews. We became the rockin’ and rollin’ Stones — with our “rare gem in the suburbs.”

Then, as bubbles do … pop! 

Out of nowhere came screeching tires and smashing glass — a crashing economy. Our restaurants began to regularly lose between 20 and 30 percent in sales. After the first down month, we responded the same way we had following those previous rare occasions. “It happens.” After the third consecutive down month, a trend was born. Aggressive response became critical. Holy shit.  

For 14 years, we had reveled in upside management. What fun! Hire more, prep more, run-run-run, high-fives and cheers! Up is up and the livin’ is “easy.” Though we worked physically harder, slumber came peacefully. But this thing now upon us was hostile. With three times the debt than just a year earlier, nights tossed and turned into a relentless mental exercise on how to remain alive. A hunt-or-be-hunted mentality took hold in seeking to protect family, staff, reputation and integrity. There were regretful casualties along the way — survival mode can thin the ranks. We reconceived the menu because “they say” comfort food and counterintuitive larger portions are the way to respond in hard times. We strategized strength versus dread while separating from others who wouldn’t. When both restaurant management teams were given the option, all but one of us voted to give up Sundays off versus the alternative job-sustaining pay cut. I recall that accord with equal fondness and regret as being one of power and solidarity in the face of sacrifice. Restaurant folk are warriors. Pirates. Ours don’t scare. It hurt, but we reneged on the Sundays deal. Desperate times …

Fast forward 10 years! Deep breath, life is good. Plans are now underway for a grand Moonstones celebration. Ten years is an accomplishment for any business, but for restaurants, the odds of failure trend high. 

Incredibly, Cobblestones will celebrate (gasp, I’m old!) 25 years next summer. But this one may be as sweet, considering “our baby” entered the fires of recession as a wobbly toddler. Only months old and having already risked bringing a stylish and uncommon (at the time!) small plates concept to the sleepy suburb of Chelmsford, we were just getting warmed up before clouds of doom began raining upon our parade.

As we reflect upon this milestone, we pay homage to the hundreds of incredible souls who have delivered us here. Our employees have evidenced daily commitment to each other and our guests across this span to success behind the leadership of one of the scant few original staff members, general manager Peggy McFarland.

We celebrate having created tens of thousands of meals and memories, maintaining the standard that has kept treasured “you” returning, the core reason we exist. Please join in as we begin to rewrite our menus for the next 10, with your help and votes! That’s the plan, anyway. With steaks now approaching the $40 mark, there ultimately could be some bubbles bursting beyond those of our celebratory Champagne. Let the good times roll on!             

Cheers to you. We launch our summerlong promotion on the first day of summer, Thursday evening June 21, with live music, complimentary hors d’oeuvres from menus both past and present, and a heartfelt “thank you” celebration in your honor! Details TBA at www.moonstones110.com.  We’d love to see you.

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