A View From the Kitchen – Oprah and Holly
“I live in the space of thankfulness — and for that, I have been rewarded a million times over.”
— Oprah Winfrey
(Borrowed by Holly for Stones Hospitality’s December newsletter.)
“She has a gift for making others feel special,” was how my partner correlated Oprah’s recent surprise visit to our restaurant with her overwhelming success.
The previous night, as Oprah appeared at UMass-Lowell’s Tsongas Center, Cobblestones’ phone rang, caller ID: “OWN.” Her peeps spoke to my peeps and reserved a “VIP private room.” Soon after, security descended, earpieces intact, while denying Oprah’s impending arrival. “Not our first superstar rodeo,” I mused silently while secret agent man did his thing.
Praise goes to UMass Lowell and professor Andre Dubus III for luring this megastar — her monumental thank you to his thank you letter for once touting his book “House of Sand and Fog” to her book club. Oprah’s appearance raised more than $1.5 million in scholarship money before she unexpectedly, incredibly doubled that amount.
Despite the discretion that security sought, the black Suburban arriving at Cobblestones drove a bar guest to scream: “Oh my God, it’s Oprah!” Game on.
Oprah’s incredible inspiration precedes her — her legendary messages of perseverance in being one’s best self resonate with so many.
Yet, with no TV cameras or stage, arriving “simply” as a weary diner, her true self was evident throughout. She chose to pose in the falling snow for pictures with adoring fans, then again in the lobby and dining room while ambling to her table.
(For those who need to know, she had the blackened shrimp with jalapeno butter sauce on grilled ciabatta — and tipped 100 percent of her entourage’s bill.)
After dinner, Oprah posed with me for our celebrity “Wall of Fame,” breaking any existing celebrity ice by pulling me in tight like an old friend as I clumsily wondered aloud if it was “OK to put my arm around Oprah?” In the end, she rejected security’s suggestion to use our private exit, noting the great many fans who had waited, some inspired to tears. “We’re going out the front!”
I immediately forwarded our photo to Holly — one of Cobblestones’ beloved staff members and a huge fan of Oprah’s. Regrettably, she had left for home before Oprah’s arrival.
I recall Holly’s hustle and attention to detail as a new server at Cobblestones many years ago. Also her absolute inability to get to work on time and rumors of late-night mess. She drove management crazy — so well liked and so apologetic with such tragic sincerity.
By the time Holly had joined our party-rich environment, I had graduated from post-work barhopping with staff, though stories reached my ears. It came as no great shock when our general manager and 25-year “tough-love den mother” suggested I speak with Holly. Robin’s battle-tested antennae sensed potential crisis.
The resultant, uncomfortable hour was among the most precious I’ve ever spent. I will forever remember the heartbreaking borderline desperation as Holly’s struggle spilled to the surface — one that many young people face in trying to form a future, party life an easy distraction.
Soon after, we created an experimental administrative position, seeking better use of her great intelligence, organizational skills and, in retrospect, her dogged determination.
Meanwhile, Holly began taking control of her life. “Sacrificing” nights, she began steadfastly exposing her best self, and over the next few years became something previously unforeseen.
That frightened cocktail waitress became a frighteningly detailed manager of functions, guest service and community outreach, feel-good social media, charitable contributions, menus, promotions … the extensive list goes on and on.
“Ask Holly” became a loving joke and the T-shirted theme of an award ceremony — “Stars of the Industry” — bestowed upon her by the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.
More importantly, beyond the tasks mastered, Holly’s evolution made the rest of us better, too. As her confidence grew, so did her influence: intellectually, strategically and humanly.
She proved inspirational in her humble morality and universal kindness — a Stones Hospitality model of sensitivity toward others and of perseverance in finding the strength to seek help. We preach it in our restaurants, from guest service to much more threatening life forces.
Holly has now moved on to pursue new horizons. I will struggle mightily without her — like a proud father watching his daughter move out.
On her last day, during tearful goodbyes, Holly soberly recalled a manager once telling her that we couldn’t fire her because we weren’t sure what might have happened. Her voice trailed off …
We instead turned to awkward, love-rich sentiments of shared gratitude. Words will never properly express the precious legacy we have created for one another. Or the gift that Holly will now unapologetically share with many others along her way, a forever superstar in our eyes.
Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, owns Cobblestones of Lowell and moonstones, in Chelmsford, Mass. Scott possesses a deep well of humorous and insightful stories, which are available on this website.