The Next Episode: The Chatterbox Café

Spilling the family beans for all the world to see.

Lynn Malone has had a struggle. She lost her husband to cancer five years ago in the prime of his life. With five children to raise on her own she decided to throw insurance money into a business that could provide an income stream and employ her two oldest sons. Taking the bulk of the money, she opened The Chatterbox Café in Windham in 2009. Not a good year for any new enterprise by any means, she managed to keep the place running. But time took a toll and her limited resources kept slipping away. The café was not making money even as the economy started to stabilize.

An enterprising employee, Courtney Quinn, decided to see if she could get outside help. She also had been with the café from the start and was witness to the decline. Looking on the Food Channel's website she found "Restaurant Impossible," hosted by Robert Irvine. This show was similar to Gordon Ramsey's "Kitchen Nightmares," where a chef comes in, orders off the menu, is disgusted by what he tastes and then finds out what is going on in the kitchen and beyond. Her e-mail was answered quickly and after interviewing both Courtney and Lynn, "Restaurant Impossible" sent out a cameraman to "scout" the restaurant. Three weeks later they were filming there.

After three days of film crews, in-your-face interviews, cooking instruction, menu changes and a complete interior design makeover in November, the show aired on February 22. All that was private was now public. The young mother and children were seen in tears and their naïveté exposed – painful, yes; lessons learned, priceless.

Lynn admits that the experience was positive. "I learned I had to step up and be a real manager." It seems an obvious revelation, but it's not easy for someone who has not worked in the business world to take charge and make demands. "I was just naïve," she relates, "I like people but I didn't realize that I couldn't trust everyone in the business world."

At first, oldest son Shane, 24, was the head chef. His cooking instruction was mostly from another line chef. If we are to believe the show, Shane did not salt and pepper his food, thinking people could add it at the table. Actually, he was probably ahead of his time on that but for now people do expect food to be properly seasoned when it arrives. Now he is also proud of the restaurant's "scratch" cooking. No more frozen burger patties or Sysco sauces. Fresh burger meat arrives daily and he sears it properly for a tasty burger. Shane has since turned the executive chef duties over to Jancie Silva.

Other menu changes include a New England Thanksgiving turkey meal on the dinner menu. Silva roasts a turkey and prepares all the fixings. A bonus is any leftover turkey makes a nice turkey sandwich for the lunch menu. You can see that the "Restaurant: Impossible" crew was trying to put a local touch on the menu, but the venison they added couldn't be sustained. Shane says the price point was too high and it wasn't popular.

The entire dinner menu was created by the show's staff as the café only served breakfast and lunch before. Eventually the family plans to to work a dinner shift on Wednesday through Saturday by closing the restaurant on Mondays and Tuesdays, traditionally slow times for most restaurants. That's a good decision that would maximize their time and resources.

Lynn had to close the restaurant for a few days after the crew left. Serving a full house was not something that goes smoothly without experience in the front and back of the house. The new limited menu helped and they no longer offer breakfast during lunch menus. Now they are able to handle the ebb and flow of business, from greeting customers with "Welcome to The Chatterbox Café" to getting orders out is a timely manner. Those painful lessons are taking root.

What does Lynn think was the most valued impact from the entire episode? "The whole process was very cathartic," she shares. "The whole grief process was brought back and though it was painful, we were able to bond even stronger and be more committed to making this restaurant work as a family." You can also tell she got a boost in confidence after the show. Although she doesn't take a salary, she is there most of the day, making sure supplies are ordered, the staff is covering all the tables and the clients are happy. She even bakes cookies or other treats that are part of the children's menu. It's hard for her to slip up; son Shane has taken on the alpha male role in the family and is there to remind her this has to work. He has his own family now too. Their investment, both financial and emotional, has to pay off.

Part of the show's intervention, so to speak, is to provide an interior design makeover. Lynn insists she didn't need a makeover since the restaurant was still fresh-looking – warm yellow walls, a huge well-built bar and nice tables and chairs gave it a welcoming look. But since it made sense to open for dinner on a regular basis, the crew took the $10,000 budget to give the space a facelift suitable for finer dining and at the same time make it more sophisticated. The yellow walls were painted in horizontals of dark blue and light gray and down lighting was added over some of the tables. Bench seating was softened with upholstered headboards acting as a visual backrest. The bar back was given a focus with glass tiles and a clever wine bottle storage solution using PVC piping. The part Lynn didn't care for was the "cheap-looking" floor tiles that replaced her carpeting. In fact, the tiles are peeling up in a few places and may have to be replaced soon.

The crew also repaired some of the kitchen equipment and took the time to give Shane a few lessons in cooking technique. Shane reveals that his time was limited since he was needed for the interviews that are packaged into the show. Most of his instruction – learning new menu items, using scratch recipes and ordering fresh supplies – was handled by Irvine's assistant chef. Seems Chef Malone has taken this all to heart and is now proud of his scratch kitchen.

For the moment, business is up. Whether it is just a stream of curiosity seekers hoping to watch a train wreck or a new list of regulars, time will tell. How long will the halo effect last? Hopefully long enough to convert the curious to continuing customers. NH

The Chatterbox Café, Closed Monday and Tuesday
Open Wednesday, 7 a.m to 3 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 7 a.m to 3 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m to 2 p.m.
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Categories: Features