Faneuil Hall Marketplace after revitalization.  (Photo by Gary Burke.)

Faneuil Hall Marketplace after revitalization. (Photo by Gary Burke.)

This post may be a little disjointed, but right now I’m thinking about one of the best jobs I’ve ever had — at Friends & Company, in Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

Today I want to tell you about the owner, Pam Carson, who took it in her mind to open a restaurant  . . .  even though she had no restaurant experience.  (Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it?)

There’s a hundred good stories from that time, as Pam struggled with her new business; this is just one of them  . . . an hysterical incident arising from a good, if uninformed heart.

But first, here’s the back story — how Pam got started — something that still amazes me.

So you want to own a restaurant . . .

Pam Carson already ran a very successful antiques outlet called The Boston Flea Market.  Once a year she rented the entire Hynes Convention Center for a three-day crafts exposition.  Pam’s annual “Christmas Crafts and Antiques Show” featured thousands of vendors, and drew over one hundred thousand visitors yearly, each purchasing a ticket as they walked through the turnstiles.

(What did it cost just to rent out the Hynes for three consecutive days and nights?  Pam Carson was no stranger to big-risk ventures.)

Somehow in her business dealings, Pam learned about a revitalization plan for Boston’s Faneuil Hall district — and that’s where she decided she should open a restaurant.

Copy of Old bulidings TwoBack then Faneuil Hall was a run-down collection of dilapidated buildings on Boston’s waterfront, and few people could have imagined that in a short time the rows of boarded-up warehouses would become one of America’s top tourist destinations.

One of those who couldn’t imagine it was the owner of the small, empty building Pam wanted to rent.

Pam rented two floors and the basement of a vacant property for something like ten times less than that space would be worth a few years later.  She got an iron-clad, ten-year eighty-page lease, with an option to extend.  She was looking ahead — big-time.

Pam hired architects, a construction company and restaurant equipment companies to help transform her new empty space . . . and then she hired Jerry Gilbert, a highly-respected and long-time fixture in Boston restaurant management scene.  (After Jerry left Friends & Company, he became president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.)

A little over a year later, the result was a brand spanking new two-level, two hundred-seat restaurant and bar with offices on the top floor.  She’d built herself a restaurant from scratch.


The learning curve . . .

Pam had never worked in a restaurant . . . never been a manager,  or served as a waitress or bus person.  She’d never gone to school to learn, and in fact prior to thinking about opening her own place, she really hadn’t spent much time in restaurants.

So what did she do about that now she was an owner?

She asked at lot of questions.

I’d taken over as general manager after Jerry Gilbert left (I’d been the assistant manager/bar manager a year earlier.)  Now every day when Pam and I sat down for a working lunch, we’d order food . . . and then she’d start.

“I’m going to pick your brains,” she’d say with a smile.

“What do you think about trying this?” she’d ask about some new idea.

“How can we eliminate the dead time between lunch and the night business?”

“What should we do to get our drinks out faster?”

Pam picked the chef’s brains, the floor manager’s brains, even the wait staff and bartenders were solicited.  Then she’d make her decisions based on what she’d managed to pull out of everyone.

Between all her ideas, and what she learned from others, Pam put together a one-of-a-kind place.

(One of the most interesting things about Friends & Company was that everything in the restaurant was for sale.

All the unmatching tables and chairs, the odd collection of booths, the variety of old lamps that lit the place . . . all the antique posters and memorabilia that decorated the walls . . . everything had a small price sticker on it somewhere.

Pam had furnished and decorated both restaurant levels with stuff from her Boston Flea Market.  People would meet for a first date at Friends & Company . . . then come back a few months or a year later to buy the table they’d met at.  People would have a great time at the bar, and at the end of the night take home some of the memorabilia that had been hanging on the walls.  Now back to the story . . . )

In the end, Friends & Company would serve over 600 people during busy lunches . . . turning every seat over three times each . . . and then there was the bar business, as Faneuil Hall became one of Boston’s hottest nightspot attractions.

Cover of Boston Magazine

Cover of Boston Magazine

Pam’s new place won so many awards that she didn’t want to put all the plaques up because she thought it detracted from her décor:  “Boston’s Best Hamburger,” “Boston’s Best Omelets,” “Boston’s Best Blender Drinks,” “Boston’s Best Juke Box,” “Best Restaurant Décor,”  . . . I honestly can’t remember them all.


But what about the problem of learning as you go (this is the funny part) . . .

It certainly wasn’t all beer and trophies for Pam at Friends & Company . . . along the way there were (quite) a few bumps in the road.

As smart as she was (maybe the quickest learner I’ve ever seen), there were bound to be gaps in her knowledge.

For Pam, it was a problem simply understanding her staff.  She really had no idea what their lives were like, or where they were coming from.

I remember one early meeting just before the lunch rush — a meeting to discuss recent policy changes — Pam offered a new idea.

“I’ve been thinking,” she told the gathered bartenders and wait staff, “That you all come in just a minute or two before your shift starts.”

“A lot of you seem stressed and rushed, and that might not be the best way to make sure our customers get great service.”

“So . . . ,” she continued, “I’m wondering if we might not all show up a little early. Maybe I’ll have donuts, and coffee, and juice set out . . . and we can all chill out a little, relax, and get focused on the business ahead.”

“Maybe we could do some group meditation to become more centered,” she said.

Copy of meditationCome in a little earlier?  So we can all meditate before a shift????

Maybe only those who’ve worked in restaurants can appreciate the staff’s reaction.

Everyone sat there dumfounded.  Some of them had their mouths open, their jaws dropped.  There was a stunned silence . . .

Having never lived the life, Pam had no idea how a day begins for servers.  She couldn’t imagine being that hung-over and burnt-out, struggling just to make it to work a few minutes late.  She didn’t know that some of them used every little trick in the book just to show up showered, and in clean clothes.

I felt my own jaw drop.  (“She didn’t tell me she was going to say this!”)  It was like something from another planet — meditate together before work?  We’re talking about daytime bartenders and wait staff . . .

Fortunately, Tony the chef saved the day.

“Well, I could see coming in a little early,” he said with a big grin, “ . . . If we were going to play some basketball . . . some hoops!!!”  Tony was a tall black guy who lived for basketball, always playing on the streets, always talking about the sport.

Everyone burst out laughing.  I’m sure some of them thought it was hysterical, and some probably just laughed because he’d broken a dead silence.

I used the disruption to quickly scrawl a note to Pam, then turned the pad toward her.

“Let’s talk before you push this . . . ,” the note read.

Pam glanced at it, and when everyone stopped laughing at the chef’s comment she said, “Well,  get back to me with your ideas.  See if any of you can match Tony.”  Then she smiled and continued with the meeting.

Later in the office when we talked it over, the idea was dropped.  Now Pam just made sure that she always greeted the staff with a good-morning smile and lots of  encouragement . . . no more talk of pre-shift meditation, or being centered.

Anyway, even with no prior experience Pam Carson was still one of the sharpest owners I’ve worked for . . . but I guess there are some things you only learn from having been in the trenches.

(There’s a new feature in the right sidebar . . . Cocktail Napkin Haiku.  For the real deal on restaurant haiku, I’d recommend checking out Brittney’s blog — Same Food For Every Day.  See you next week.)

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9 Responses to FRIENDS & COMPANY

  1. JT says:

    Nice success story! People who take chances sometimes succeed and sometimes fail, but we all must learn from our mistakes….We only live once and life goes by like the blink of an eye. So for anyone with a dream give it a try and most importantly listen to others thoroughly, ask questions, and benefit from their knowledge, and experience. That’s why we have 2-ears and only one mouth. I sure Mike you were a key component and friend whom she benefited from immensely. See you Sunday. JT

  2. Mandy says:

    The key thing seems to be was that she was willing to learn and take input from those with more experience.
    We had a manager come on last year who walked in not willing at all to listen to how we do things- always a recipe for disaster. Those who can check their egos and listen to what people have to say, can do better and win more loyalty from their staff members.
    The restaurant business is always such a gamble, it’s nice to hear a story of someone who was smart and came out on top.

  3. Llylak says:

    Hurrah for your friend Pam! This is a wonderful story about a woman with gumption and class. I went back and read the first part again, and enjoyed it even more the second time.

  4. MikeQ says:

    JT: Thanks for stopping by, my friend! It’s a deal … see you at the Blues Jam on Sunday … you play on stage, and I’ll tend bar.

    Mandy: That was undoubtabley Pam’s greatest strength, Mandy … she knew how to draw out the best from people working for her. Put her in any situation, and she’d make more of it than anyone could imagine. Thanks for reading!

    Llylak: She was one of a kind, Lly. There were times when she wondered out loud whether she should ever have gotten into it … but she never faltered. She was one very smart, very determined lady.

  5. Starbucks8294 says:

    A kick-ass woman. Good post.

  6. Susan P says:

    Love your stories about successful women in business! Hurray for Pam! She had a lot of courage to try all of that.

  7. MikeQ says:

    Starbucks8294: Glad you enjoyed it, my friend. And besides being a hot-shit owner, she was a lot prettier than your boss (from what I’ve heard.) 🙂

    Susan P: I’ve worked for some great owners, Susan … three of them happen to have been women. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  8. Chen says:

    I knew Pam 30 years ago. Besides the flea market and restaurant, she helped hundreds of children in Nepal get schooled. She and a friend also helped to educate inner city kids in Boston. These were the non material (and perhaps more important) things that she did.

  9. MikeQ says:

    Chen: Thank you for commenting … it’s good to hear from a friend of Pam’s. Yes, definitely her work with poor and needy children was really the most important thing in her life … I didn’t mention it in this post because of time, space and subject limits. I’m planning other posts on Friends & Company, and about Pam … and about the tragic details of the way she left us far too soon. With your permission I’ll be emailing you … I remember her Nepal efforts but perhaps you’ll be able to fill in some of the details the years have blurred. Thanks again …

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