|Alicia Smith, left and husband Michael, settle in at How's Your Onion?, Derry's newest eater, |
while waitress Cathy Simpson gets ready to take their order.
By CAROL ROBIDOUX
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY – Roz Hartley is truly the mother in invention – her son, Marc-Damien Hartley has been the brains behind the transformation of the family's once-thriving neighborhood grocery store into the town's trendiest new eatery.
“I didn't expect to be here at all,” said Roz Hartley yesterday, helping out behind the cash register, as needed.
But yesterday's soft opening of How's Your Onion? was a family success story in every way, said Marc-Damien Hartley, who is executive chef for the 48-seat restaurant, which serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week.
“We have just under 20 employees with a combined 260 years of experience – and that includes three employees with no experience,” said Hartley, who has been waiting for his chance to run the show after years of cooking and coordinating for other area eateries, most recently as manager for Outback Steakhouse in Connecticut.
Doors open at 5 a.m. every day except Sundays, when Hartley gets an extra hour to sleep in, opening at 6 a.m. – old habits are hard to break.
For 26 years Roz and Doug Hartley owned and operated JP's Superette in the very space that now features booth, table and counter seating accented in warm wood and berry tones. The walls display original artwork by his twin sister, Janna – the first in what Roz Hartley hopes will be a long line of local artists, photographers and artisans waiting to use the wall space as a gallery.
Marc-Damien Hartley, left, confers with cook Pete Mannarini.
When the Hartleys bought the neighborhood grocery store it was a bustling a full-service market. Their kids were right there, stocking shelves and helping out as needed. Over the years, business dwindled as the rural landscape filled up with chain supermarkets and drug stores. In the end, the superette served mostly earlybird customers who'd stop for coffee or a muffin and grab some lottery tickets, or a handful of regulars who were still coming for smokes, beer or incidental items.
In February the family took a deep, cleansing breath, sold off the remnants of the grocery business and and decided to bring in the sledgehammers.
In preparing to open a restaurant in a town known for its many other popular eateries, Marc-Damien Hartley relied on his passion for cooking and his six years of military training as an Army cook and pastry chef.
“We did a good organized training session with the staff, and for today, I wanted to keep staffing on the high side, just to make sure we took enough time with our guests, and with the food,” Hartley said.
His efforts were not in vain.
“We love it,” said Alicia Smith, who had been waiting patiently for opening day. “We live around the corner, and were watching the progress. They did an excellent job – the food is great and it looks very different.”
Bill Linsky, a Derry native, said he will probably still refer to the place as the “highway superette,” but he will have no trouble getting used to the cuisine.
“I had a Number 9 – scrambled eggs with cheese, home fries and an English muffin – it was all delicious,” said Linsky. His wife, Bonnie, said she had no idea it was opening day.
“I normally won't go to a restaurant until it's been opened for at least a month, until they get the kinks worked out – I didn't notice any kinks,” she said.
There's no "Open for Business" sign;
when the flag is flying, the food is flowing.
Hartley's seasoned staff has much to do with that – his cook, Pete Mannarini, spent years cooking down the street at Anthony's Cucina, which abruptly closed its doors in August. His waitstaff also has plenty of experience with customer service.
“I've worked at just about every place in town, and I just love it here,” said Cathy Simpson. “What I love most are Marc's ideas – he's covered all the bases and he really knows what he's doing.
At the heart of what he's doing is treating patrons as guests in a family business rooted in homestyle tradition said Hartley, going all the way back to selecting his restaurant's intriguing name.
“How's Your Onion?” is an expression that originated with his maternal grandfather, Alfred Giuffrida, who would ask that question as a sort of greeting – the family had been trained over time to know the right response: “Good enough to make you cry,” which has become the restaurant's catch phrase, featured on staff gear and coffee mugs.
"The whole experience has been exciting -- it came out better than I ever imagined; it's beautiful," said Hartley, looking around at the decor, all carefully coordinated by his sister, Janna.
Success will be simple, he said, as long as he stays focuses on what is at the heart and soul of this business plan.
"If you take care of your team, they will take care of you. If you hire the right people, they will do anything to make sure the business is successful, and that's what we have here," Hartley said.