MANCHESTER, NH – After nearly 18 months in the restaurant business, Cornelis deJong has learned some things. Perhaps most notably, is that there are no perfect pathways to success. And so with little fanfare, deJong over the weekend took a bold turn toward something completely different in the local restaurant landscape, a change he hopes will help retain a reliable staff and improve guest experience, while shining a light on their “chef’s table” philosophy.
Building on a solid foundation provided by the culinary artistry of Executive Chef Angelina Jacobs, deJong has upped wages for all servers and back of the house staff to $15 per hour, and instated a “no tipping” policy. Creating a work environment where employees can count on a livable wage is something deJong hopes will stabilize an otherwise volatile industry – particularly for business owners.[Read “The Finer Print” here on Cabonnay’s website.]
“As we’ve gone through the last year and a half, we’ve had a lot of learning in terms of our customers and operations. The employee pool in this particular industry is very volatile. People who show up and work hard often only want to work Fridays and Saturday, when they stand to make the most tips. Meanwhile, those scheduled to work on slower nights, who rely on tips to make ends meet, end up working an eight-hour shift and maybe taking home fifty bucks,” says deJong. “It’s especially true for those working the back of the house – it’s labor intensive here. We don’t have a Cisco truck pulling up with frozen food deliveries. We cut and dice everything. Farmers deliver a whole cow and we take it apart.”
Last week deJong gathered his staff and let them know about the changes.
“We’re lucky to have Angelina Jacobs leading in the kitchen, and she’s kept a dedicated staff – and that’s what’s driving this. I’m far more interested in quality long-term staff that are passionate and want to make a career for themselves than I am to hire someone as fast as possible for the next shift and get them up to speed and maybe they stay for three months, maybe six,” deJong says. “This is an effort to correct that massive turn in staff and and instability which fundamentally effects the feel of a company and the culture, but also the customer experience.”
He says the new business model is a turn away from the established restaurant world.
“We are treating Cabonnay like a corporation, with different tiers of employment. There are growth potentials and raise opportunities, but on top of that, our food is unique. We have a custom product, and we believe that makes it possible to hire and retain staff that shares our passion. If you’re working at Cabonnay, it’s because you believe that there is a place for real foods, and a menu that changes all the time to reflect the best of what’s available,” deJong says.
The learning curve, while not unexpected, has been a bit of a wild ride for deJong, who entered the restaurant world to pursue a passion project after establishing himself in the global business and marketing realm. He and his life partner David Thompson took a chance on Manchester by investing millions in buying a building nobody wanted on Bridge Street and rehabbing it into something otherworldly.
The original vision remains: An urban restaurant and wine house/gallery with a metropolitan feel and rooftop dining deck. But it has required some refocusing, admits deJong.
“We take a lot of pride in what we’ve done here. We’ve never wavered from our vision – creating a one-of-a-kind sensory experience for our guests,” deJong says. Opening in Manchester was a deliberate decision – they saw a city on the rise with a high profile on the culinary map and expanding reputation as a magnet for young tech professionals and millennials who want to live, work and play in a city with lots of activity and options.
“When we moved here from Chicago we felt there was something missing in the dining experience, a space where fun things were happening – art, music, rooftop dining. If we did this in downtown Chicago, it would have been easy-breezy. There are versions of restaurants like Cabonnay there as well as in Los Angeles, New York, Boston,” deJong says.
“My background is in a very different place, but we invested in the restaurant business, hoping it would be a lightning rod for Manchester. If I wanted to make quick money, I could have opened a chain and followed a corporate model. Instead, we bought a blighted building and transformed it,” deJong says. “I get a little frustrated when people mention the ‘Cadillac [Motel] next to us. In any big city, it’s a narrow-minded view to think you can’t have a place like Cabonnay in this part of town. And look what’s on the other side of us – one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the city. Either way you look at it, the glass is either half-empty or half-full.”
On the heels of Amazon’s major announcement last week that it will be paying employees $15 per hour, deJong is taking a leap of faith that by shifting away from the existing restaurant culture of low hourly wages and reliance on customer tipping, he can build a reliable staff that exudes a sense of pride in a job well done.
“In order to continue on the success of Cabonnay and build it and have a long-term vision, we’re restructuring. It’s fundamentally about doing things our way, and we have the freedom to do that because we don’t have to listen to a corporate office, or have buy-in from other stakeholders. We get to do what we think is right and focus on quality staff – and on taking risks,” deJong says. “I would rather fail doing the right thing and challenging the status quo than succeed in following every other restaurant operating model.
Cabonnay will continue its “no cash” policy, with the addition of no tipping. Instead, a 12 percent surcharge will be added to all checks, relieving customers of the time-worn ritual of rewarding good or bad service with an additional hit to their wallets. In return, deJong expects customers to let staff know when something’s right, or something’s less than expected rather than “stiffing” a server who might have been having a bad day personally, or Yelping a negative review without talking to anyone directly.
“Does the public really think we show up at work and open our doors every day just to stick it to them? There’s a ‘gotcha’ culture in this industry that we have to move away from, and we’re aiming to create a culture where employees matter, where guests matter, and yet one in which we still live real lives,” deJong says. “We’re not drones for perfection. We are human beings, and if a guest doesn’t feel they’ve had a perfect experience, we want the chance to hear from them, and to get it right the next time.”
Getting off on the wrong foot with a first-time guest happens. It’s part of the growing pains any new business venture must endure.
“When we first opened we were misjudged a bit. We tried to create something special, but we are not a traditional fine-dining establishment by the book, with that ‘sit-down white tablecloth enjoy your foie gras‘ mentality. That hurt us initially, I think. Cabonnay today is focused on good foods from a great chef that are also hearty meals – I hate using the word home-cooking, but every morning our staff comes in, and based on the fresh ingredients available, they decide what kind of fresh pasta they want to make, and they start making it,” deJong says. “Our food is beautiful and delicious. It takes time to prepare.”
Pushing the reset button as holidays approach and a new year on the horizon means welcoming regulars to the new and improved vibe – and asking the public to give Cabonnay a second look, whether they’ve never been, or for one reason or another, never returned.
“We have a better sense of who we are and what we do,” deJong says. Executing this plan has taken months of preparation. Transparency is the ultimate in what deJong is aiming toward. Although tours of the kitchen have always been available, by November guests will be able to experience the chef’s kitchen with a tasting area. More arts-centric and innovative events added to the calendar.
But as always, food and fine wine are meant to be the star of the show. With an established list of accolades – MSN’s most beautiful restaurant in New Hampshire, NH Magazine’s best place to brunch, Well Seasoned Gourmond’s best new restaurant, Yankee Magazine’s best fine-dining experience, and a nod from the Boston Globe in a 2017 trend article about the rise of Manchester, deJong has confidence in what he’s created, and in the new direction for Cabonnay.
“The whole point of urbanization and revitalization and gentrification is taking things over time that have become irrelevant and giving them new life. Creating space for talented individuals to thrive – I’m proud of that. But I want my employees to be proud, and that’s a big reason why this model is changing. You cannot be proud working hard for your Tuesday shift and going home with 70 bucks; it’s demoralizing,” deJong says.
“It doesn’t matter how much you care about what you’re doing, or that you want to be different. We are victims to an old model that’s not relevant to our organization,” he says. “This is about trying something that makes sense for Cabonnay and, ultimately elevates everyone, from our staff to our guests.”
Cabonnay is located at 55 Bridge Street. Call for reservations at (603) 854-9955 or book a table online via OpenTable. Hours are Wednesday – Saturday, 5-11 p.m. (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.) and Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., all-day brunch. Closed Mondays and Tuesday. Click here for the current dinner menu and here for the new brunch menu.