Relatives roll up their sleeves at these local restaurants

Daily Hampshire Gazette. February 23 2015. Gena Mangiaratti.
India House, Sylvester’s and Roberto’s in Northampton and Mi Tierra in Hadley are four popular Valley restaurants started by couples who later drew their children into the business to varying degrees. For the owners of these restaurants, work, home and social lives are one and the same.

Their children grow up with customers and staff — and sometimes join the staff, either temporarily or for the long haul. Some of the children have been on the floor long enough to run the business when their parents take a rare vacation, while others help out between commitments at school and their own jobs. Whatever the levels of involvement, having multiple members of a family working at a restaurant helps lighten the workload and makes customers feel a little like they are dining at someone’s home.

What follows are accounts of four family-run businesses that are an important part of the area’s restaurant scene.

No prima donnas here

One summer when Amit Kanoujia returned from boarding school in India to work in his family’s restaurant, India House in Northampton, he thought he’d be delivering water and crackers to the dining tables. He got dressed up, following the example of his father, Omprakash Kanoujia.

When he arrived, the staff was short a dishwasher. So his father handed him an apron and ordered him into the dishwashing room, Amit recalled.

Now 30, Amit, who was then about 12, remembers protesting that he was not dressed for washing dishes. His father told him that he needed to learn everything from the bottom up.

“This is how I did it,” Amit recalls his father saying in no uncertain terms.

Amit went on to culinary school in Switzerland, and worked for the Taj Hotel group in Boston before returning home to work in the family business in 2010. He now lives in Northampton and is kitchen manager at the restaurant on State Street. He says he has found his calling.

“This industry is just so rewarding,” he said at a table in the restaurant just before the evening dinner rush, in a dining area that is warmly lit with a reddish hue and decorated with ornate Indian artwork.

Hospitality is an integral part of Indian culture, he said, so running a restaurant is a natural fit for his family. His sister Anjula Kanoujia, 27, who lives with her parents in Leeds, said working as a hostess and server at her family’s restaurant has taught her a different side of customer service, where she gets to know her customers as people. Some have been coming to the restaurant since she was a child, she said.

“It’s just amazing how time really flies by,” she said.

Now in its 30th year, India House has about 15 staff members. It was started by Alka and Omprakash Kanoujia, now 52 and 60 respectively. Both from Delhi, they met and married in the United States through a matrimonial ad in a newspaper, a common way to arrange marriages in their culture. Alka first visited western Massachusetts in 1982, when she recalls seeing the views and thinking they were spectacular.

Two years later, when her husband was looking for places to open a restaurant, his search took him to Northampton. They moved to the Valley and opened India House at 45 State St., where it’s been ever since.

“This is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Alka said. “I don’t think of it as work.”

It is possible for customers to meet every member of the family in one evening. They could be greeted and seated by Alka and Omprakash, have their order taken by Anjula, and then have Amit checking on their food. The family members say they regularly consult each other for advice and draw on each other’s strengths.

“Once we are in this door, we are professionals,” Alka said. “We are not moms and dads and children.”

Alka is not above bragging about her children’s skills. When her son cooks a rack of lamb, the presentation is so good customers wish they could just look at it, she notes. Her daughter’s warmth regularly lifts customers’ spirits.

“She really has a very charismatic personality,” Alka said. “It’s almost like the whole room lights up.”

Anjula Kanoujia said most of what she knows about customer service she learned from her mother. In Indian culture, there is a saying that compares a guest to a god. So even if her worst enemy were to come into the restaurant, she would still be expected to give them a good experience, Anjula explained.

“Food is very personal,” she said. “You can’t make every person happy, but you can try to at least do what you can.”

Young recruits

Even the youngest children, such as the daughters of life and business partners Jorge Sosa and Dora Saravia at Mi Tierra, find ways to pitch in at their parents’ busy restaurant.

Their 9-year-old, Estela, who helps out after school by taking reservations on the phone and seating customers, already has her own phone extension in their system.

“She wants to be part of this,” Sosa said, his face lighting up. “She’s very smart and I have lots of hope for her.”

Sosa and Saravia opened Mi Tierra in 2005 in the Norwottuck Shoppes on Route 9. At that time, it was a grocery store with a focus on ingredients for ethnic cuisine.

After customers began asking for prepared foods using the ingredients, such as tamales, they opened a prepared foods section and eating area within the store, Sosa recalled.

As it became more popular, they closed the grocery section to make more room for seating, he said, and Mi Tierra opened as a restaurant in a larger space in the strip mall in 2009.

The restaurant operated there until a fire Oct. 27, 2013, destroyed a dozen small businesses in the strip mall at 206 Russell St., Mi Tierra among them. To keep the business afloat until they could find new quarters to reopen the restaurant, they sold their homemade tortillas made with local corn in a small commercial kitchen Sosa owns in Springfield.

“We are hard-working people,” Sosa said. “We do anything that needs to be done to make a living.”

Just over a year after the devastating fire, on Nov. 21, the restaurant reopened at 48 Russell St., the former site of Shiki Japanese and Asian restaurant. Mi Tierra now has 24 employees, half of them full time.

Sosa, 39, and Saravia, 43, live with their children in South Hadley. Both moved to the United States from their home countries more than 20 years ago, Sosa from Mexico and Saravia from El Salvador, and met some years later when they were both living in Amherst.

Estela attends Mosier Elementary School, and their 4-year-old daughter, Alejandra, goes to Brighter Beginnings day care. Saravia’s son, Ernesto Ayala, 23, and their siblings and nieces also help with restaurant operations.

When Estela is not helping customers, she does her homework. When Sosa is outside clearing the snow, his daughters try to build a snowman. He said he would rather have his children with him at the restaurant than home with a baby sitter, possibly spending time on the Internet.

“They learn what work means,” Sosa said.

Two restaurants for this family

Peter St. Martin and Maureen McGuinness, the husband and wife team who own Sylvester’s and Roberto’s restaurants on Pleasant Street, say the 80 people they employ between their two restaurants have become like part of their family.

“That’s what really keeps us going,” McGuinness said. “We’ve raised our kids together.”

St. Martin, 62, and McGuinness, 54, met in the early 1980s while both working at Judie’s restaurant in Amherst. St. Martin was a full-time cook and kitchen manager, and McGuinness was a part-time server while studying business economics and political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, from where St. Martin had already graduated with a degree in hotel, restaurant, and travel administration.

Meanwhile, St. Martin was dreaming of owning his own restaurant.

“I personally really liked the idea of being my own boss,” he said. As it turns out, restaurant ownership runs in his blood: His identical twin brother, Paul St. Martin, owns West End Pub in Shelburne Falls.

The pair purchased the 111 Pleasant St. home of Sylvester Graham, inventor of the Graham cracker, in 1983, and opened a small restaurant in the building that has grown steadily since. They purchased Roberto’s at 223 Pleasant St. in 2004.

The couple live in Easthampton and have two children, Christopher St. Martin, 26, who is studying at Georgetown Law, and Patrick St. Martin, 19, who attends St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. Both have worked at the restaurant, and still pick up hours when they are home on school breaks.

McGuinness said that having their own children working there has attracted other families with children, and that she enjoys being able to train young people for the workforce.

Jenna Farrell, 29, has been working at Roberto’s at different times over the past 11 years. She now works four nights a week as a manager and bartender. Her sister Stephanie Krawczyk, 22, has also worked there as a manager and bartender, and their mother, Deborah Krawczyk, has worked there as a server.

Farrell noted that it is a common idea that business should not be mixed with pleasure.

“That’s never really been a problem for us. It just brings us all closer together,” she said. “It’s just been really like a big family since as long as I can remember.”

David Thomson and Ann McEwen, owners of Riverbend Animal Hospital in Hadley, are longtime friends of St. Martin and McGuinness through the friendship between their son Mikey Thomson, 18, and Patrick. Mikey has also worked at Sylvester’s, and sometimes, when they haven’t had a chance to spend time with St. Martin and McGuinness, they dine at their restaurants.

“At the restaurant, it seems like it’s running smoothly,” David Thomson said. “But they’re really hard at work behind all of this.”