Once upon a time in 1991, while wearing a 1950’s diner waitress uniform and fishnet stockings, I met a bearded man who said I had “huge instincts” for the restaurant business. He respected my dream of being a writer –being a writer himself, so I agreed to give it a whirl for a year. My passion for hospitality was rooted growing up in an extended, East coast, Italian family of 13, and several years working at a Mom-and-Pop Italian restaurant. The Lettuce Entertain You management program elevated my core beliefs, values and early experience with a solid foundation of industry basics.
After five years of corporate burgers, shakes and meatloaf, we set off, together with our coworker Tania Craft, on a treasure hunt. We sought a different kind of wealth, ‘emotional paychecks’ like unfettered creativity, freedom to make independent decisions, and the ethereal joy found in service. [From “Wikipedia: service: the intangible equivalent of an economic good… The tertiary economy… Each service is unique.”] Just a few of dozens, those brief definitions only scratch the surface.
Recalling the early years of Cowboy Ciao brings to mind the priceless learning experience of actually getting open. Business plans, blueprints, permits, training manuals, construction; it was all new to me. We opened on the proverbial shoestring, with Peter’s lovable father-in-law Al Jacinski serving as General Contractor, and directing every pair of spare hands to help bring Cory Golab’s design to life. I loved getting my hands dirty as Al and Cory took us on a learning adventure of setting tile, mortaring brick, hanging sheet rock, applying drywall, faux painting and more.
Although I have been pulled in other directions during the two decades or so since I made that one year promise, Peter always found ways to help me grow, instead of go. When I protested I didn’t have the training and skills necessary to run a kitchen, he declared me the chef anyway. I muddled through, thanking my lucky stars I had hired Bernie Kantak, whose natural talent, formal training, and fearless experimentation quickly made him the ideal candidate to take over and evolve the menu.
Baking, however, was in my comfort zone, and in the tiny space that was the original Cowboy Ciao kitchen, baking saved me. A few months before we opened, I lost my mother quite suddenly. Baking kept me sane through the dark tunnel of grief that followed. I baked, prepped, cooked, interviewed, hired, ordered, inventoried, scheduled, planned, delegated, sang, served, schmoozed, and baked some more. Singing saved me too. It was a heart-and-soul connection to my beautiful Mom and her mezzo-soprano voice I had never head.
My view of service expanded. It came to encompass: sharing knowledge; teaching skills; leading by example, tempering criticism with kindness, expressing approval often, and never being too busy or too tired to listen. With a certain mindset, everything is service, including attention to, and appreciation for, those delivering the mundane, less glamorous support so critical to a smooth operation. Every role is important, but not everyone is up to the tasks involved in the uniquely demanding roles of hostess and dishwasher [rolling up ones sleeves and braving the dish pit is a great equalizer and reminder to stay humble]!
I came to understand the thrill of sensing talent and optimizing conditions for it to blossom, encouraging an easy rapport between the face of the house and the heart of the house, all for the mission of multiple, synergistic bouquets of experiences being arranged on any given night. Servers and bartenders guide and recommend; cooks take pride in precise plating; guests relax, enjoy and discuss dinner on the drive home or at the office the morning after. The respective teams put the restaurant and kitchen back together, and prepare to do it again the next day, some of them gracing other establishments to wind down with a cocktail or a cold one. But somewhere between the mise en place and the mignardises, magic happened.
Whether deep in the weeds in March, or ghost town lonely in August, our mandate for having fun worked wonders for morale, and made the trying times more bearable. That other bearded man, the guy on the cover of the wine list holding the glass between his teeth? With a proficiency for glassware destruction so acute it prompted a house rule of “create some chaos,” David Freleng was like our CLO –Chief Laugh Officer– through multiple tours of duty, over a span of many years. Many others also returned time and again, but perhaps most remarkable was the number of opening team members who stayed at Ciao for nearly a decade, or transitioned over to Kazimierz, Sea Saw, and Digestif.
These 15 years at Cowboy Ciao have been a memorable adventure. Whether in the kitchen, on the phone, working the room or a special event, I feel my most important role has been to communicate: to welcome, to encourage, to appreciate. Along the way, I’ve been an advisor, bartender, barista, big sister, brand advocate, cheerleader, coach, confidante, counselor, crying shoulder, den mother, devil’s advocate, detail diva, entertainer, experience designer, house mother, nursemaid, mouthpiece, plumber, promoter, sounding board, and upholsterer [upholstery, now that's fun, need to play with my staple gun again real soon].
People ask me if it was worth it, investing myself for so long. Absolutely. I touched many people and helped make a positive difference in their perception of their experience, and that is of paramount importance to me, along with a collection of handwritten notes received over the years. My definition of success is more aligned with the simple teachings of my Sicilian immigrant grandparents, than anything taught in college or the business world. Be kind, be fair, be helpful, care deeply. Oh –and of course, grow, buy, prepare, serve and eat only real food. ;)
It has been fantastic to witness the growth of the Valley dining scene over the past two decades. I’m grateful for guests and co-workers I’ve come to know as friends, and for cherished relationships with industry and community partners The Scottsdale CVB and Local First Arizona, and at many Valley resorts and hotels. I’m ecstatic about the food and beverage renaissance at Sky Harbor Terminal 4, and proud Cowboy Ciao will be part of the local flavor welcoming visitors to the Valley. But what gives me true joy is seeing so many former ‘Ciaosters’ take a Recession-be-damned attitude and either grow with other organizations, or act on their own entrepreneurial spirits. Some of those exceptional players I’ve been privileged to work alongside most recently include: Matt Diamond The Main Ingredient | Sean Tevik/Adrienne Donnelly Thomas George Estates | Eric Duffy Tenderbelly Pork | Tagan Dering/Frank Vairo Amaro Pizzeria & Vino Lounge | Payton & Shantal Curry Guerrilla Gourmet | Tracy Dempsey Tracy Dempsey Originals | Nobu & Sarah Fukuda Nobuo at Teeter House | Bernie Kantak/Andrew Fritz/Gina Moe/Richie Moe Citizen Public House | Pavle & Emily Milic FnB
Many are asking me, “Well, what’s next for you Marianne/Mari/@ciaomari?” To be honest, I don’t know yet. I am exploring a wide range of possibilities, and I’m wildly excited about several. Ironically, while many friends are packing their firstborns off to college this fall, I’m the one saying farewell to what for years I’ve teasingly referred to as ‘my firstborn.’ Whatever I do, wherever I go, I will go with all my heart. I’m curious to learn new skills, enthusiastic about meeting new challenges, and excited to welcome every moment in which I’m blessed with the chance to be the difference in the lives I touch.