Spoon and Seed's owner says tough times pushed him to wear his business hat first, and the chef one second. The result —resilience amid a major tourism downturn, with a reimagined menu and a new staff management model built to face the upcoming summer visitor surge.
“I wish somebody could have documented everything that happened from March 2020 to this moment because it could be a high level, Harvard restaurant management class.” That’s the rumination of Matthew Tropeano, chef and owner of Spoon and Seed.
“It’s almost like I was being trained for this moment.”
For Tropeano, but also for fellow restaurant owners in Cape Cod, this moment is the return of crowds eager to escape and dine out in a post-vaccine, post-pandemic America, ahead of what Cape Cod officials have predicted will be a “banner summer season.”
It’s a surge that restaurateurs are eager to embrace, but for one major conundrum: a shortage of workers just as demand returns. Yet while most restaurant owners are lamenting their staffing fate — driving them to lure staff with signing bonuses — Tropeano said it was an opportunity for his restaurant to reinvent its business model this past year.
From streamlining the menu offerings to training employees so they can switch from kitchen work to dining room service in case of staff absences, and shifting table to counter service when needed, Spoon and Seed is able to better tackle the growing demand until more workers are hired.
“It’s like, man, you entered this business and you opened up your own shop so you can make your own rules — that’s why I did it,” Tropeano said. “So now has never been a better time to be an entrepreneur. Make up your own rules, do what you’re good at, show what you’ve got. That’s what I plan to do.”
In early March 2020, Spoon and Seed had 12 full-time employees and eight part time employees. It is currently back at three full-time employees, which includes Tropeano and his executive team, plus four that are part-time.
As business begins bouncing back, Spoon and Seed is looking to hire two full time restaurant workers this month — “able to help in the kitchen is a must, able to help in the dining room is a must,” reads the Facebook post. Each position pays $15 an hour.
It’s too early to tell how soon these will be filled, but as Cape Cod prepares to get flooded with tourists again, Spoon and Seed’s owner said the restaurant is ready for the challenge.
“The way we got ready is that we have continually been training, we constantly have good help and we changed the menu so that we can control things and we’ve made it so that if something happens today we will adapt tomorrow.”
A GRADUAL Transformation
Just like its rustic location near glass blowing companies, antique cars and a lumberyard — what Tropeano described as the meatpacking district of Cape Cod — Spoon and Seed represented a move away from the classic greasy spoon fare when it opened its doors in 2015. It offered a menu of locally farm-sourced meals, cooked from scratch and reflecting decades of Tropeano’s French and Italian cuisine experience, including eight years at La Grenouille in New York City.
Tropeano, who hails from Randolph, Massachusetts, outside of Boston, moved on to a less intense environment in Cape Cod, inspired by his multiple summertime visits to the area’s beaches where his first generation Italian-American parents bought a home.
When Covid struck and restaurants were ordered to close, Tropeano knew right away that he wouldn’t be able to keep his staff. What followed was a year of grit, resistance and pivoting in all aspects of his business — including an initial helping kitchen hand from his 72-year old dad and his mother, who moved from Italy to the U.S. in the 1950s.
“I was all alone, let’s just put it that way,” Tropeano said. “My dad stopped by to see how I was doing, and he stayed with me for three months; when I was crying by myself, my dad said to me hey, we need to get these things ready, let’s go, and ‘you know, when I was growing up in Italy in the 1950s, we used to do this. I was at my weakest in my life, ever.”
Encouraged by his cousin, who owns Primavera restaurant in Millis, Tropeano quickly launched a “Mamma Maria” pay it forward program giving customers the option to buy Spoon and Seed meals for busy frontline workers and for nursing homes — it kept the lights on until June.
Spoon and Seed then reopened to a whirlwind Cape Cod summer last year with fewer staff as the menu adapted to the circumstances. Fresh family-style take and bake dinners took over when crowds dwindled in the cold winter months, just to keep revenue coming in.
“The whole month of December and January, I was cooking in my kitchen alone,” Tropeano said. “Servers at that time were helping me peel potatoes, my parents were coming in and helping me make eggplant meatballs. It got done. And now those servers who were helping me — one of them is my front of house manager, and since then I hired a chef de cuisine.”
Like the gradual return of customers to Spoon and Seed, it was a gradual transformation to survive until this moment in 2021, never once closing the kitchen.
“To survive, you can’t be a chef anymore, you have to be a business person — because you need to figure out how your business is going to survive and then be the chef to do that.”
A STREAMLINed Business model
Spoon and Seed now focuses on promoting “holistic cuisine,” which Tropeano explains is food as part of your lifestyle and your health, still prioritizing taste but also embodying mindfulness.
The menu was reinvented, with meat also becoming increasingly costly, featuring 90 percent vegetables and 10 percent meat, which is dedicated to smoked bacon from New Hampshire and a corn beef hash that the restaurant is known for.
“Instead of having 25 items on our menu we might end up having four items, but they’re going to be awesome, they’re going to be fresh and they’re going to be handmade,” Tropeano said. “And when we run out, we close.”
Staff management was also reimagined. Alongside full time chef de cuisine Ben Reed, a bodybuilder and nutritionist, and front of the house manager Christina Straight, the new executive team has crafted protocols to remain agile during this phase when faced with any range of worker shortages — focusing on a limited, fresh menu while training staff so they can easily shift and take up different roles in case of worker shortages.
“I’ve been telling our management team, it’s like that movie ‘300’ — we know the Persians are coming, we can hear them coming, they’re miles and miles away, but we hear the ground shaking but we still have a little time to prepare,” Tropeano said. “There’s 10,000 of them, there’s 300 of us, but if we use our brains and we do what we’re best at, we will be successful.”
Restaurants that haven’t reimagined their menu offerings or adopted flexible management and training tactics will close and deal with angry workers, Tropeano said. Spoon and Seed’s focus is to retain the taste and the quality of the food and hospitality as high as possible irrespective of a new direction.
It hasn’t stopped its Cape Cod fame — Yankee Magazine this month included Spoon and Seed on its list of best spots to eat in the area.
A Return to American Values?
With the annual temporary J-1 and H-2B foreign worker visa programs delayed due to embassy closings or U.S. entry bans that remain in place, in addition to locals reluctant to rejoin the restaurant industry, there’s no telling where the help will come from to staff at least a quarter of the 20,000 summer jobs that the Cape Cod area usually generates.
In 2018, the last record year for Cape Cod, direct tourism spending in Barnstable County reached $1.32 billion and generated $133 million in state and local taxes. For the upcoming peak season, Cape Cod hotels and short-term rentals are already booking up.
Tropeano is specific that he wants a restaurant worker — someone who is ready to learn a variety of skills and pivot as needed, from waiting tables to helping in the kitchen and ultimately someone who cares about the story of Spoon and Seed a small chef-owned business.
Other local restaurant owners have been forced to slash their schedules or even delay reopening while awaiting temporary visa workers to start rolling in or while desperately seeking locals to fill jobs.
Tropeano said that when available, the foreign temporary workers were great for the larger Cape Cod area restaurants because they’re eager to work right off the plane. and they are grateful to be able to work and save money.
“They’re like what American kids were 30 years ago,” Tropeano said, noting that he started out at $10 an hour as a line cook at La Grenouille before being promoted to executive chef just a year later. Tropeano was just 24 at the time.
For Spoon and Seed, Tropeano envisions hiring someone who’s in the country for a more year-round experience that will prove valuable long-term.
“I want people to be proud of America again,” Tropeano said. “America is America because of the hard work put in, not because you’re too good for a job. And I think that people have forgotten that, you know.”
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Photo credit: Cape Cod is anticipating a major surge in visitors this summer — but it's also facing a major labor shortage. m01229 / Flickr Commons