By Jenny Miller Sechler, CISA volunteer
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“If you want to be in the restaurant business for the long haul, you have to encourage loyalty,” says Jake Perkins, executive chef of Eastside Grill in Northampton and co-owner of Sláinte in Holyoke, summing up the operating philosophy of both restaurants. Indeed, the Eastside Grill has inspired such loyalty and adulation from its customers that it has been a mainstay in downtown Northampton since it opened in 1985. But for Jake and for Debra Flynn, the owner of Eastside and Jake’s partner at Sláinte, this loyalty goes both ways. Jake and Deb’s dedication to the Pioneer Valley community shines in the way they take care of their employees, support local agriculture and welcome their customers. And as an extra bonus, they serve lots of fresh, delicious food.
While Jake and Deb describe their entrance into the restaurant business as a slow process of inevitability, the words they use make it sound more like a calling. “It’s not something you plan to happen. It just happens. It finds you,” says Deb. Both Deb and Jake have been working in the restaurant business since they were in high school. Jake has been the executive chef at Eastside since 1996, and he stayed there after Deb bought the restaurant about 6 years ago. “I was lucky with Eastside,” Deb explains. “The systems were in place and they worked.” Even more than that, Deb and Jake said, “It helps that we like each other.” In fact, they found they worked so well together that they decided to open another restaurant together. Sláinte served its first meal on March 3, 2013.
Teamwork is a big part of both Eastside and Sláinte’s daily operations. “We have each other’s backs,” Jake says. Deb adds, “The staff takes ownership at Eastside. They are proud to be part of Eastside Grill.” The staff is invested in the restaurant’s and each other’s success. Deb describes how the whole staff at Eastside rallied to support a new staff member who was well liked but slow getting up to speed in such a busy restaurant. “Now he’s totally turned it around. He’s awesome!” As owners and managers, Deb and Jake know how important it is to make an investment in their staff, offering health insurance, vacation time, and a small IRA to all staff members. No wonder one of Eastside’s waitresses has been employed there for over 25 years.
Deb and Jake’s philosophy of loyalty and support is reflected in their use of local food. While being a Local Hero could be seen as a selling point for a restaurant in the Pioneer Valley, Deb and Jake speak of their involvement with local farms as a matter of common sense. “You want to spend your money in the community,” Deb says. “We don’t want to brag about this. That’s not what we’re about.” Jake echoes this sentiment, adding that the amount of farmland in the Pioneer Valley provides “sources for everything. You support the community and you get fresher foods.” Not surprisingly, the restaurant has been doing business with the same local farms since they opened, and spoke with affection for several of their local suppliers. They expressed admiration and appreciation for Boisvert Farms, who provides vegetables including butternut squash for Eastside’s famous ravioli, Mapeline Farm, who provides the restaurants’ milk and cream, and LaSalle Florists, whose beautiful freesia and dahlias decorate the restaurants’ tables. And they both shared their grief for Walter Popko, the owner of long time supplier Popko Farm in Hatfield, who died in December 2012.
Of course, serving a fresh product is important to Deb and Jake, and a point of pride for both restaurants. In addition to using food from local farms, the restaurants benefit from Deb husband’s, Kevin Flynn, interest in gardening. Deb and Kevin’s home garden provides the tomatoes for the restaurants’ comfits and relishes, cucumbers for their pickles, and berries and herbs that are used both in cooking and creative drinks such as their strawberry basil cocktail. Some of these herbs are grown on Eastside’s rooftop garden, which is currently brimming with basil. “It’s like southeast Asia up there,” says Jake. “It’s a jungle!”
Customers have come to rely on the signature dishes at Eastside Grill, which Deb describes as “untouchable.” Butternut squash ravioli, made with local squash, jambalaya, chicken étouffée, fried oysters, popcorn shrimp, and baked cod with lobster bisque are some of the tantalizing entrées that stay on the menu year-round. “We tried to change the menu in the past and the customers got really mad,” Deb says. To keep things interesting, Jake rotates new items into the menu along with the standards the customers have come to rely on. “You have to listen to the customer,” Deb emphasizes.
Deb and Jake chose to name their new restaurant Sláinte, the Irish word for “cheers.” The word, according to Deb, embodied the spirit of the atmosphere they wanted to create in the new restaurant. It is the same atmosphere they have successfully cultivated at Eastside Grill, a place that always serves your favorite dish, and a place where, as Deb proudly states, “everybody knows everybody,” and everybody is welcome.