Amid grief after beloved grocer’s death, Serio’s owner hires daughter as new general manager
When Christina Cavallari died at age 57 in May, her husband, Gary Golec, knew the family business would carry on because his wife would have wanted that.
He just wasn’t sure how.
Over more than two decades toiling together at Serio’s Market, Cavallari and Golec worked long hours, regularly logging upwards of 55 a week. Cavallari was the face of the family-run grocery store; Golec stocked the shelves.
Always self-deprecating, Golec says his wife was the brains of the operation — and then some.
“She was the glue that held it together,” he said at the store the day after his wife died. “I was on the floor. I had the easy job.”
On May 31, hours after he learned his wife had died, Golec was at the 65 State St. store to prepare for its 8 a.m. opening. “Chris would have wanted me to do that,” he said.
This fall, Golec, 58, named a new general manager for the store, one he said would carry on where his partnership with Cavallari left off.
Golec’s daughter Jaimie, 35, is that person. She left a social work career to run the family business with her father.
“I was worried about him related to the business,” she said. So one day in August, at her father’s house, she broached the subject of going back to the store, where she’d worked in high school. She wasn’t sure how he’d take it. “I felt like I needed to put it out there.”
Her father was thrilled. A man of few words, he said he needed “no convincing at all.”
Back in time
Walking into Serio’s Market is a little like stepping into a bygone era. There are two cash registers and five grocery aisles. The produce section is small yet robust and in summer fills with local produce. The shop sells local milk, runs a meat department and deli and makes deliveries.
A far cry from today’s super-sized grocery stores, Serio’s has a homey feel. There are signs all around — some quite literal — that this is a family operation. On the day a Gazette reporter and photographer visited, a hand-scrawled list was taped to a back door: “DAD Bring produce rack to Jaimie’s house; recycle light bulbs; Gracie grooming.” A list near a phone in the back kitchen reads: “Dad to do ASAP: electrical, contact Mike, get quote on door buzzer, LED strips; replace floor tiles; basement organize, and so on.”
When the lunch rush revs up, both Golecs join other employees behind the deli counter. Gary Golec, in blue jeans, a blue Giants T-shirt and a green baseball cap, takes a sandwich order, asking whether the customer wants lettuce and spinach or other veggies on her stroller. Pickle on the side?
Jaimie Golec wears camouflage pants, a matching vest and black T-shirt with her long hair pulled back, a large cluster of keys hanging off a lanyard around her neck. She’s a fast talker with a distinctive, rapid-fire laugh.
As orders mount, it’s all hands on deck and for a moment the stress shows when Gary Golec expresses mild irritation. “Who’s doing this again? How many times do I have to tell you if you open the cheese, take off the wrapper,” he says.
His daughter says quietly, “OK, but Dad, you need to not say that stuff in front of people,” although nobody seems particularly fazed. Soon, he’s shouting, “Help who’s next please!”
In the back room, meat-cutter Matt Haller, who’s been at the store for 19 years, wears a red apron like most of the other employees. He said it’s been hard in the months after Cavallari died because everyone misses her and her role was so integral to the store’s functioning.
“Everyone’s stepped up,” he said, noting that former employees came back to help out.
He credited Gary Golec with helping staff members keep going despite their grief.
“He always said this store’s been here for 60 years — it was here before us and it will be here after us,” said Haller. “It runs itself. We’re just steering it a little bit.”
Amherst resident Michael Turner, 47, is the store’s chef, preparing home-cooked food from a small kitchen behind the deli counter. Like other employees, he said he was worried about Gary after his wife died, but he knew he’d be OK because everyone would pull together.
“Everyone’s just been dealing with it. Obviously, everyone’s sad, but we keep going on for her because that’s what she would want, to keep the store’s name and make sure customers feel like friends and family,” said Turner. “We know how she was, and we want them to come back to the store feeling welcome.”
Meanwhile, the lunch rush continued, with both Golecs making quick work of deli orders.
“Is everybody in good shape over here?” Jaimie Golec asked.
“Yes,” came the reply, to which she responded, “Awesome!” and then, as always, a booming “Who’s next?”
Runs in family
For the younger Golec, a social worker for 13 years, the change in career seemed natural.
“First of all, the restaurant business is in our blood,” she said in an interview in the cramped basement office, where she sat at a desk drafting an agenda for a staff meeting. Her father perched on an overturned bucket chatting with a reporter. Multi-tasking is everything in the fast-paced food business, said Jaimie Golec.
“I’m best under pressure, for real,” she said. “I thrive under pressure.”
The Golecs explained the family lineage this way: Kasper Golec, Gary’s grandfather, opened the former My Place Tavern on Strong Avenue in 1938. His father ran it until his early death, after which his mother took over, and ran it until about 1982, when she sold it to the late Dan Yacuzzo, who opened up the Eastside Grille.
Meanwhile, on her mother’s side, her grandmother owned Sandy’s Chicken Kitchen in Florence and her mother worked there for many years.
Jaimie Golec is no restaurant slouch. She worked as a manager at the former Jim Dandy, on King Street where Shelburne Falls Coffee is today, when she was a 17-year-old Northampton High School student. She put herself through college working as cook, bartender, server and restaurant manager.
Golec left her job as a social worker at the Northeast Center for Youth and Families at the end of September to come back to the store.
A former Serio’s employee who’d gone on to teach school returned to help with some of Cavallari’s duties over the summer, but Golec knew that heading into the fall and winter, her father’s workload would mount.
Meanwhile, the Cavallari side of the family boasts its own grocery and food-service history. Joseph Serio, Christina Cavallari’s grandfather, started in 1906 as a fruit and vegetable vendor peddling produce door-to-door with a horse and wagon. A heart attack in his early 40s forced him to slow down, so he opened up a vegetable stand on the store’s current site. In 1950, he expanded it into the grocery store much as it is today. The store was devastated by a fire in 1984; it was rebuilt and reopened. During that time, the store was run by the children and grandchildren of Joseph Serio.
Gary Golec said after Cavallari’s death in May, her parents took him aside to say “The store is yours now.”
Josephine Cavallari, 86, who lives in Easthampton with her husband, Edward, said they buy all their groceries at Serio’s.
I wouldn’t think of going anywhere else,” she said. They deeply miss their daughter, whom they saw every day, but take comfort in seeing the store thrive.
“The store was her life,” Cavallari said, unable to hold back tears. “Her heart and soul were in it.”
She said when her son-in-law approached them about bringing his daughter into the business, they were for it because they knew how much work it takes to run the store.
“I don’t think he would have been able to do it alone,” she said. “My husband and I were happy that Gary was willing to carry on. I know that’s what my daughter would have wanted.”
Golec said in recent years, it’s been an increasing struggle to keep the store going.
“We were this close to closing the doors every month,” he said, holding an index finger and thumb inches apart. The store’s finances were in abysmal shape, he said, and cash flow was always an issue. Some months they paid hundreds of dollars in overdraft fees. Some weeks, he and his wife did not take their usual paychecks — $600 a week for him and $650 for his wife.
“That’s not a lot of money this day and age,” said Golec.
Today, including the two Golecs, the store employs 22 people, of whom about seven are full time or nearly full time. The store is open six days a week, though Sundays are half days, and closed on major holidays. “Somebody else can have that money,” he said. “People need a day off.”
For the Golecs, the goals for the store are simple. “If we can get this place up and running to a place where we’re making a decent profit, that would be my goal, but if we can pay our salaries and make a decent living, I’ll be happy,” said Jaime Golec.
Her father adds: “Yeah, if you can take care of your employees and pay yourself a decent living, you’re not looking to buy an island in the Bahamas.”
Father and daughter say the transition has been smooth.
“It just feels natural,” said Jaimie Golec, noting that she was on a first-name basis with staff before her return. “She didn’t come in as a stranger,” her father adds.
Jaimie Golec’s job is to run the store, hire and supervise staff, manage the books and handle other tasks Cavallari took on. These days she’s also ramping up the store’s presence on social media, including a new video featuring both Golecs on the social media site YELP. On the video, Jaimie Golec talks about how Serio’s customers are like members of the family, while Gary Golec says this: “This was a supermarket in 1950. Now it’s just a super market.”
Gary Golec believes his daughter joined the Serio’s team not a moment too soon. “If Jaimie wasn’t here, we’d probably be out of business,” he said. “If I had to hire people to do the things she’s doing, the business couldn’t afford that.”
Jaime Golec wants the store on a solid footing, without gnawing worries about cash flow and overdraft fees. She said she’s been combing the books to see where she can cut expenses.
Her father, she says, holds an encyclopedic knowledge of the business. “He’s like the resident know-everything-about-everything grocer,” she said.
Her father says versatility is necessary. “You’re running from cashier to meat cutter to deli worker to custodian to stocker, back door receiver and buyer,” he said.
Heading into a new year, the Golecs are optimistic.
Asked how it’s going, Gary Golec has two words: “Friggin’ awesome.”
His daughter says: “He’s always been a bragging dad.”