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Episode #3: Opening a Restaurant Part 3 with Meghann Ward of Tapestry

For the last installment of this series, we talked with one half of the leadership team behind Tapestry, a restaurant outside Boston’s Fenway Park. Meghann Ward (a former healthcare employee!), who worked her way up from a kitchen apprenticeship to owning a restaurant with her husband, shares her secrets to staff training and avoiding food waste on her menus.

Tapestry restaurant owner, Meghann Ward

Hello, and welcome to the official Restaurant Insider podcast. Thanks for joining us. Thank you for joining us for this installment of the Restaurant Insider podcast. This is the third episode of a three-part series, all revolving around opening a restaurant. Our host Meghan sat down with another Meghann, Meghann Ward, a former healthcare employee, who made a leap of faith into cooking, working her way up from a kitchen apprenticeship to owning Boston restaurant Tapestry with her husband, Kevin Walsh. She shares what it was like to make that transition, and her secret to avoiding food waste on her menus. Here’s Meghan.

 

Meghan: So, in continuing to talk to restaurateurs about opening their restaurants, we’re here with Meghann Ward, who is chef-owner of Tapestry in Boston, a restaurant that she opened with her husband, fellow chef Kevin Walsh, just outside of Fenway Park, in 2016. Thanks for joining us today, Meghann.

Meghann Ward: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Meghan: Yeah. So, you have quite an impressive background cooking in restaurants, which we’ll get to in a minute, but first, do you want to tell me about what made you want to switch careers and get into the restaurant industry in general?

Meghann Ward: Sure. Gosh, this is really dating myself, but about 15 years ago, I was in healthcare, and I just kept spending all of my free time cooking. And then, I wanted to get a restaurant job on the weekend. So, I was sort of like a prep cook for different places that served brunch in my neighborhood, because it would just be a Saturday, Sunday morning. And I was so focused on cooking, whether it be for my friends or at these little jobs, that I just had to put more of my energy into that.

So, I decided, I think I was about 24, 25, that that was all I wanted to do. I couldn’t afford all these dinner parties, so I had to do it professionally. And I just took a chance, and I got really lucky. I got a job at a place that was a teaching kitchen, so I didn’t have to spend more money on my education. And it was a perfect fit. I really loved it.

Meghan: That’s awesome. So, tell me about the teaching kitchen environment, and how that helped make the leap of faith a little bit less scary.

Meghann Ward: Sure. Basically, I wanted to be at a place where it wasn’t assumed that I already knew everything, because, of course, I wasn’t able to go to culinary school. At that age, starting over and taking on more debt seemed kind of silly. And in those days, it was just sort of a different restaurant culture. It was for two reasons. One, the fine dining side of restaurants was still really prevalent. This is before the housing crash happened. So, instead of there being a lot of casual restaurants that were really chef-driven and had award-winning chefs at them, there was, in Boston at least, a lot of pubs, and then a lot of more fine dining stuff. So, there wasn’t as much variety.

The way that the kitchens were structured, it was sort of like an apprenticeship. So, the laws were different, or the laws were kind of ignored, I suppose. But everyone was on salary, so no matter how much you worked, it was almost like saying, “Okay, I’m going to give my free time to this.” Whereas now, everybody is paying by the hour. You can’t have everybody on salary.

Meghan:          Right.

Meghann Ward: So, because of that structural difference … It was totally fine with us, or at least, I felt it was totally fine, because it was an apprenticeship. If I’m going to say, “All right, this is my hourly wage, or this is my weekly salary,” it was OK if I was there 65 hours a week, because I’m like, “All right, this is the volunteer time for me to get the education part.”

So, it was everything from learning how to make an amuse-bouche, to butchering whole fish, to butchering whole animals. And the kitchen was set up to have a really large brigade. There was always two to three people in pastry, two people on garde manger, a fish cook and an entremet, a meat cook and an entremet, maybe a sous chef, an expediter. That’s a really big team. You don’t really see that much anymore, unless it’s a high price tag to eat somewhere.

And it just made it really easy to step-by-step learn things, because you’re learning how to build flavors, you’re learning how to butcher, you’re learning how to make sauces and prepare things before you learn how to cook the proteins. So, this restaurant … It was Radius, which has since closed. It was just really, it had a great system for learning the building blocks.

Meghan: Yeah. And so, how did that take you through your career trajectory? Can you talk a little about? So, you started there, and where have you gone since? I know you’ve worked at a Michelin star restaurant, and also under a James Beard award-winning chef. Tell me what that path looks like.

Meghann Ward: Sure. At Radius, I decided that I wasn’t going to leave until I had gone through all the stations, and so I stayed until basically I had made sous chef. And then Kevin, who was my partner all those years, he and I decided that we wanted to move to San Francisco. So, for a little while, I worked at a butcher shop, because I really was into the whole butchery thing. And then I worked at a place called Michael Mina for a while, which is different now. It’s super fancy, fine dining stuff. And it was cool, because I had all those skills from Radius, where if they were like, “Okay, butcher this case of ducks,” I didn’t have to ask. But it was just learning more techniques that I hadn’t seen at a more building-blocks place. So, you have more confidence, for sure.

And then Kevin and I got wind of this place called Flour and Water in San Francisco that was opening up, and that was kind of the first place that I had at least heard of or been exposed to that was going to be real scratch cooking with an awesome chef, that was a casual environment with a low price point. Because, you know, the housing crash had happened. Fine dining restaurants were closing. So, there was suddenly things popping up, places to work, that weren’t available in the past. It was a really cool trajectory of San Francisco at the time. It certainly did happen to Boston, and is happening everywhere.

Flour and Water was the first time I had ever been exposed to Italian cooking, so that was really interesting to me. We got in all whole animals. All the pasta was made in-house. There was a wood oven, which I had never used a wood oven before, so it was Neapolitan pizza. So much incredible homemade pasta. All of the animals and everything were amazing California farms. It was like living in a fantasy camp.

We stayed there for about a year, and then we decided that we would like to come back to the East Coast. So, we were sort of trying to find our place back home, and found a couple of jobs, but they weren’t necessarily the right fit. And then Jamie Bissonnette had introduced Kevin to Ken Oringer, and so he and I decided to help him open up a restaurant called Earth up in Kennebunkport. And that was awesome, because literally, you have a garden of herbs outside the kitchen. We were across the street from a farm. The dude that has the lobsters would just come by. The girl who grew the oysters was our friend. And it’s just all right there, and you get to live at the beach, so that was pretty awesome.

Meghan: Amazing. That sounds amazing.

Meghann Ward: Yeah. So, we got really lucky. We got to travel a lot, because it’s a seasonal place, so in the winter, we went abroad. We went to southeast Asia. We went to Turkey. We went to all kinds of cool places.

Meghan:          Wow.

Meghann Ward: So, as we were growing as chefs, we realized that there wasn’t one cuisine that either of us were drawn to. Because we’re Irish Catholic people. It’s not a huge food culture. So, we just became influenced by all the people we worked for, and also the places we had been. And then we decided to move back to Boston, and I took a chef job at Coppa on the South End, and he took a pastry chef job at Clio, and since, he has become obsessed with doing bread and pastries. He’s incredible at it.

And I thought Coppa was so similar to my experience at Flour and Water that I had really fallen in love with. So, it was cool, and it was so fun to work for Ken and Jamie, because they show you all these flavors and things that you never would have thought go together, or maybe had never even heard of. And then I started to make steps toward opening Tapestry.

Meghan: Yeah. So, tell us a little bit about Tapestry. It’s a dual-concept restaurant. So, tell us what that means, and what made you want to open it in general, and what made you want to go that route.

Meghann Ward: I feel like I had been looking at spaces for so long that sort of what we wanted to do was highly influenced by the space. This space happened to be a really good deal, number one. Number two, it was sort of in a neighborhood-y location, on a corner, where the patio was kind of quiet, not on Boylston Street, where it’s a little louder. So, the outdoor space feels really intimate, and more of a neighborhood than the box store strip there.

So, it has two sides. Kevin, who really fell in love with Neapolitan pizza and cooking it, wanted to do a pizzeria in the front. So, we have a beautiful wood oven, and it’s all revolving around local beer, pizza, bar snacks, and then we have fun games. We have shuffleboard, and stuff like that. And then in the back, we wanted to do something that was a little bit different. The lounge is inspired by mid-century modern, like Miami décor. We have really cool velvet banquettes, and this mural of palm trees and stuff, palm trees, Cuban tiles. It’s a neat spot. The food, we decided we really wanted it to be travel-inspired, and all served family style. It’s sort of like, sky’s the limit of creativity in what we want to serve back there.

Meghan:          That’s awesome.

Meghann Ward: Yeah, it’s fun.

Meghan:          And so, because you’d been a part of a couple of restaurant openings before, what lessons did you take when you wanted to open your own space? Either lessons learned the hard way, or things that you saw go really well that you wanted to replicate?

Meghann Ward: Well, you know, it’s funny, because when you’re a part of a restaurant opening, which we had done three, you’re always focused on the kitchen if you’re the chef. And so, suddenly, it’s like, oh my God, all this other stuff is happening. I don’t know how to deal with it.

Meghan:          Right, exactly.

Meghann Ward: So, there’s nothing like being the owner. I think all my frustrations at anybody I ever worked for are now just sympathy pains, because it’s like, everything that can go wrong will go wrong, especially in a 100-year-old building.

Meghan:          Yeah. It sounds like there’s a story there.

Meghann Ward: It was just crazy. We couldn’t get the wifi for a month. We had to have the city approve us digging up the street so that we could get Comcast instead of Verizon, and it’s like, I can’t even believe we needed a letter from the mayor to do this. It was like, there was always something to the next level. It’s like, why can’t we just have wifi?

Meghan: Right. Why is it this hard?

Meghann: And it’s still this hard. Two years later, it’s still this hard. There’s all types of wacky stuff happening there all the time. You know, and also, Boston experienced this huge boom. I mean, a housing boom that has resulted in this huge restaurant boom, and it’s not as easy as it was. And I know this is my first restaurant, but I’ve seen my friends go through things. And it’s not like I’m saying it wasn’t always a risk to open up a restaurant, but it’s a saturated market at this point, because all these condos are not full yet.

Meghan:          Right, exactly.

Meghann Ward: So, the nice thing is that two years in, we have reliable business, and we’ve made a lot of friends in the neighborhood, and we have repeat business, and we have a lot of private event business. But it took a minute. It definitely took a minute.

Meghan:          Exactly. And do you think that there’s anything that you’ve been doing that has allowed you to get to that year mark, where other restaurants may not get that far? Do you think that there’s a little secret sauce you have?

Meghann Ward: Family. Family support is really the only thing I can say. If I was doing this without my family, I would have given up.

Meghan:          Right. Exactly. Yeah. Need that. Because the restaurant business, you never sleep. So, you need to have support.

Meghann Ward: And I mean, it’s not just family. My staff is my family. I mean, we’ve had people there for the whole two years.

Meghan:          Oh, wow. Nice.

Meghann Ward: And, I mean, they’re incredible. They’re incredibly dedicated. They’re excited about the project. They’re there right now, cooking and preparing for the Yankees game tonight. I mean, when I say family, it’s them as well.

Meghan:          Yeah. And speaking of the Yankees, I wanted to ask, because you are right near Fenway, how does that play into how you have to go about your business? Because a regular Tuesday could look different than a Tuesday where the Sox are in town. So, how do you plan for that, in terms of planning your menu, and your inventory, and just the foot traffic, and everything? How does that work?

Meghann Ward: It’s funny, because the first two years, I sort of felt like the Red Sox were not an asset to our business. But now that people know we’re there, it’s great. It’s definitely pushing business to be better every game. So, like any other restaurant in Boston in summer, it’s slow, because everybody wants to go away. So, we’re happy when the Red Sox are in town. We definitely are going to sell more pizzas than anything else, because people want something quick before the game, and we have the best pizza in the city, so it’s an easy sell. So, we just plan for it to be busier. Especially if it’s a 1:00 game before brunch.

Meghan:          Oh, yeah. That’s just mayhem. And as someone who, you’re so familiar with the kitchen and menu creation, just because of your culinary background, where a lot of restaurant owners might not be as familiar with the kitchen, what are some of your best practices for managing those food costs, and knowing how to measure inventory and things like that, that maybe a restaurant owner who doesn’t have that experience wouldn’t know?

Meghann Ward: I think the most important thing is to not have waste when you create a dish. So, if you want to … I’m trying to think. If you want to have a certain thing on the brunch menu, which we only serve brunch two days a week, you have to take anything that wasn’t used at brunch and put it into the dinner menu. You know what I mean? Cross-utilization is huge, because you don’t want everything to end up in a staff meal. So, we just try to have as little ingredients as possible, that are not shelf-stable. Like, if you’re going to use broccoli on something in the morning, use broccoli at night. Because you don’t know what people are going to order. So, really, it’s just trying to tie in things, so that there’s cross-utilization. And then it’s just checking the invoices to make sure that you are upping the price if the price goes up from the purveyors.

Meghan: Right, exactly. And speaking of your time in the back of the house, what are some staffing strategies or best practices that you’ve carried over there from your own experiences? You said your staff is like your family. How do you sort of foster that, and connect the front of the house and the back of the house in that way?

Meghann Ward: Well, we have an interesting dynamic, because we have a group of young chefs that most of them have been there a really long time, and they’re looking to learn, they’re looking to be in a positive environment, and they’re looking to get recognized for their labor. So, we don’t cheap out on our hourly wage, which is one thing that I’m proud to say, because we allow a lot of overtime, in order for them to be able to feel comfortable to get their work done, one, and two, just to be able to be part of a teaching kitchen.

Having a positive attitude certainly helps a lot, because it’s hot in the kitchen, especially in summer. It’s a little monotonous sometimes, because you’re cleaning the same pieces of equipment every night. And so, we want to bring them into menu development, and just have a fun learning environment.

The front of the house in our neighborhood is a little tricky, because we employ, I would say, 90 percent students. So, like, I have a bartender that’s been with us since the beginning, and our wine and HR director has been with us since the beginning. But as far as hostess team and servers, it’s really a six-month rotation, because their school schedule changes, or they’ve graduated, or they’re going home.

So, being laid back is key, because it’s not going to be perfect. Some of these kids have never worked in a restaurant. But what I try and do is just hire nice people, because I don’t really care if they make a mistake. Are they smiling? Are they kind? Do they apologize if something gets messed up? Do they respect the guest? Do they respect the kitchen? And they all do. So, I’ve just come to realize that it’s not going to be perfect, and as long as we have a lot of smiles, people are going to have to roll with the punches.

Meghan:          Right, exactly. And do you have any sort of training programs that you implement because the turnover is so quick? Like a quick, get you up to speed, this is what you’re going to be doing on the job, just to make sure that it’s as seamless a transition as possible when there is turnover?

Meghann Ward: Yeah. I mean, they’re very intelligent kids, so that helps. And basically, what we do is, we always have a lead server, a superstar server, and they’ll take people through a training, just steps of service, stuff like that. We will allow them to order everything on the menu until they’ve tried everything, because the menu changes enough that I can’t have menu descriptions, because they’re going to be obsolete. And I actually don’t like to put anything on paper because of allergies, and if someone says, “It was written here,” I don’t want to be held to that. So, I always want to have a dialogue, rather than a piece of paper. So, I rely on them to eat, take notes, ask questions.

And then our wine director, Ann Thompson, who handles everything that has to do with paper, people, and wine, she’s amazing. She has an incredible palate and incredible wine knowledge, and she finds the coolest, funkiest cheap wines. It’s amazing.

She holds wine class twice a week, so hopefully someone is either working a Wednesday or a Friday. And it just all seems to work.

Meghan:          Yeah. And do you think that by making your staff a part of the wine tastings, and ordering on the menu, do you think that that just also increases their desire to stay and be part of the team, and contribute a lot to the restaurant?

Meghann Ward: Yeah. I mean, we don’t really have anyone leave unless their life chances.

Meghan:          Right, they graduate, or something.

Meghann Ward: Yeah. And I’m more than happy for them to be moving on. We don’t really have anybody storm out. That’s nice.

Meghan:          Right. That’s great. That’s a good turnover. A good kind of turnover. That’s great. So, we’ve been asking our guests to tell us some of the craziest moments that they’ve had at their restaurant. It sounds like you have had a few, so what are some, in terms of opening a restaurant, that stick out to you as like, I can’t believe we made it through that alive?

Meghann Ward: Oh, gosh. I mean, it really usually comes down to this crazy building that we rented. I mean, the thing is really beautiful, but we opened up the walls, and it’s illegal wiring we had to replace. It’s like another $10,000 you weren’t planning on. The plumbing is falling apart. So, every week, I’m like, okay, what’s my list? And this is still going on.

Meghan:          Still going on, two years in.

Meghann Ward: Like, last night, I’m like, what’s my list that I need to call for repairs this week?

Meghan:          Right, exactly.

Meghann Ward: Like, the water boiler exploded.

Meghan:          Oh, my gosh.

Meghann Ward: And our water heater exploded. And then the other water heater exploded. Basically all in the same month. As soon as we got cranking, because the building had sort of been not used to its fullest capacity for a couple of years, as soon as we got cranking, it was like …

Meghan:          Just everything went wrong.

Meghann Ward: Yeah. But, you know, you just realize that’s part of owning a business, owning a business with a triple net lease.

Meghan:          Exactly.

Meghann Ward: And you just have to not get anxious, and say, okay, what can we do?

Meghan:          Right. Because is there anything that prepared you for the types of problems of having to dig up for wifi, or rewire?

Meghann Ward: No.

Meghan:          There’s no training for that.

Meghann Ward: I thought it would be a lot easier, let me tell you that. I know it’s Boston, and a lot of these buildings are really old. And when I worked at Coppa, it was an older building, as well, and older, charming, gorgeous building. But every day, it would kind of be like, what’s going on over here?

Meghan:          Right.

Meghann Ward: But this has been almost a spooky set of problems.

Meghan:          Yeah. That’s pretty crazy. And you took over from Church, the concert venue.

Meghann Ward: Yeah.

Meghan:          Was that hard to transition from one sort of building to another, and make it into a restaurant?

Meghann Ward: Yeah. I mean, but we had anticipated that, because it was black poured concrete floors, black ceilings, black walls, graffiti everywhere. And we knew we were going to tear it out, so that part is fine. I would say that taking over for a concert venue was a little challenging with the neighborhood, because they expected to have to fight for their right to peace and quiet, because I’m sure, you know, when the show got out, there was smoking and loud talking and stuff. They like to say “no” a lot. But I think they’re getting used to the fact that we’re a pretty chill business. And not that I didn’t enjoy going to Church, but I don’t know if I would have wanted to live upstairs.

So, we just … it’s just a neighborhood restaurant. There’s not really ever a huge crowd leaving at once. So, I think they’re getting used to the fact that there’s been a change.

Meghan:          Right. And what is it like to try and get the buy-in from the locals who have been there, and also the new guests? Do you have a strategy? Is it focused on social media? Is it word of mouth? How do you sort of make sure that you get the word out?

Meghann Ward: We have to do all of those things. So, I have a great PR team. Nicole Russo does PR for us. We have a couple of guys that do our website, updating social media, and just help me with filters on Google, and all the things I didn’t even know existed. So we have, I feel like, just a really multifaceted team.

Meghan:          Yeah. You’ve got to be doing everything.

Meghann Ward:Yeah. All the things I don’t know how to do.

Meghan:          Exactly. But you learned how to cook on the job. It sounds like this is just the next step of everything.

Meghann Ward: The next 10 steps.

Meghan:          The next 10 steps, exactly. That’s great. Well, speaking of doing fun, new things, we also have Restaurant Insider Radio as part of our podcast, and we’re curating Spotify playlists for restaurant staff to listen to when they’re prepping, or when they’re closing up, or before the guests get there. So, we’re sort of asking everyone some of the songs or artists that you listen to to kind of get pumped up, or that your staff listens to to get through the day.

Meghann Ward: Well, it’s fun, because my brother lives in LA, and he used to have a radio show, and basically his entire free time is making playlists. So, he makes a lot of fun playlists for us. I think that the Spotify account is called Tapestry, or Tapestry Boston. But he has, like, 50 playlists on there that are really fun. The boys like to listen to a little bit of hardcore, but as soon as I get to work, I’m like, “Oh my God, is this the soundtrack to my own murder?” So, I usually shut that down. I don’t know. I’m kind of an old dork. I’ll throw on Creedence Clearwater Revival, and they’re like, “What the hell is this?”

Meghan:          That’s amazing. Whatever gets you going, right?

Meghann Ward: Yeah.

Meghan:          And does that shift when the guests are there? Do you have different playlists for that time, as well?

Meghann Ward: Yeah. You know, when we’re getting towards the sun setting, and the crowd getting a little bit louder in the pizzeria, we put on 90s hip hop. And then in the lounge, we do sort of, maybe Afro-Cuban music. It’s a variety of stuff, but just a little bit more lounge-y, a little bit more chill.

Meghan:          Right. That’s great. And so, before I go, I just want to ask, what’s next for Tapestry? What do you have coming up that you want to share?

Meghann Ward: We have a lot of fun stuff. On Wednesdays, we have a jazz band that plays. It’s free. It’s awesome. We’re getting quite a crowd. Very talented group of kids called Alonzo, Demetrius, and the Ego. I believe they’re planning on moving their career to Brooklyn in the next six months or so, so we’ll be featuring a new band. So, that’s always fun, if people are looking for something free to do on a Wednesday, and it’s in the lounge, so cool, chill environment. We have such a nice patio, it’s fun to spend summer nights out there. But I’m always looking forward to the fall. It’s the most exciting time in Boston.

Meghan:          Yeah, exactly. Well, we can’t wait to get there, and I’ll have to go check out the band, too.

Meghann Ward: Yeah, please.

Meghan:          Yes, awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us today.

Meghann Ward: Thank you.

Meghan:          I really appreciate it. Thank you.

 

We really hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at Boston’s Tapestry. This was the final episode in a three-part series, all revolving around opening a restaurant. We’ll be back soon with some fresh episodes. Restaurant Insider is a go-to resource for the latest in restaurant news and trends that you should know to help run your business more effectively. If you’re on the go, you can listen to us on Stitcher and Google Play. For more episodes of the podcast, articles, e-books, and other tools, check out RestaurantInsider.com.

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