From across the cozy dining room, regular patrons of Bluffton's successful Mulberry Street Trattoria have grown accustomed to seeing the restaurant's executive chef/owner Joseph Sullivan hard at work. In the restaurant's well-appointed open kitchen, the "cool class" chef is focused and serious about his craft. He knows his clientele by name and what it is they like to eat. He regards them as "close friends who have become family." Sullivan's sous chef of ten years, the talented Heather Juel, follows suit, and the Sullivan family embrace her as part of the family, too. Working the front-of-the-house, Sullivan's wife, Elissa, and her mother, Ruth DeStefano, are vibrant, class acts, as well, and have a strong following of their own.
Sullivan's eldest son, Joe, who turns 18 in July, likes to work in the kitchen with his dad. (Who could blame him?) And, next oldest son, Chris (16), prefers serving. (Making him the brother with the tip money.) Even Sullivan's only daughter, Casey (10), and youngest family-member, Kyle (7), help out in the restaurant. "Everybody works," says Sullivan, and "the restaurant supports us all."
I've mentioned before that I grew up in a family of seven supported by our mom and dad's neighborhood Italian restaurant. Not unlike my own family's experiences, Sullivan expresses gratitude for the loyal following that has sustained the family business through a period ravaged by, what Sullivan calls, an "economic twister." Without a loyal customer base, such as the one cherished by the Sullivan family, less resilient family-owned businesses, especially those in the hard-hit food and beverage industry, cannot survive. Sullivan sadly reflects, "We lose as a family and as a community when a family-run business is not supported." Sullivan acknowledges how fragile the future for family-owned businesses is and expresses genuine concern for the families that may be "just hanging on." Sharing Sullivan's sentiments, mother-in-law Ruth continues, "The people in those families are connected to the community, and they stay connected. They support our community fund-raisers and events, no matter what. They support our school, sporting events, and volunteer in our hospitals and churches."
The next time you drive down the main thoroughfare where you live, take stock of the establishments that have come and gone and appreciate, as never before, the family-owned business that are here. Make them your "own." You'll love the folks who live there and even better, they'll love you right back.
Sue Ade is a syndicated food writer with broad experience and interest in the culinary arts. She has worked and resided in the Lowcountry of South Carolina since 1985 and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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