Highlighting five of Manayunk’s leading ladies working behind the scenes of our neighborhood restaurants.
By Leo Dillinger
Photography by JPG Photo & Video (jpgphotography.com)
and TERRYLEAHYFILMS (terryleahyfilms.com)
Women play an integral role in many Manayunk restaurants. From serving and bartending to curating events and managing the floor, they ensure their customers have memorable experiences while showcasing their passion through their work. They bring years of experience to the table. They pay attention to the fine details in their field while motivating their staff and treating their patrons like family. The women of Manayunk listed here go above and beyond to uphold their respective restaurants’ reputations.
If you’ve stopped into Manayunk Tavern over the last 11 years, chances are you’ve seen Adrienne behind the bar or waiting tables. In 2008, she moved to Manayunk and got a job working full-time at Zesty’s, but the tavern soon became her post-shift hangout with her coworkers. After a few months, she approached owners Joe Keough and Jeff Bender to see if they had any extra shifts available. They started her off working Saturday and Sunday brunches and was offered a full-time position shortly after.
One of the perks of Adrienne’s job is getting to work side-by-side with her husband, Joe Laguda, whom she first met while working at Zesty’s. Adrienne laughs at how some longtime regulars still don’t realize they are married as they work side-by-side in such a familial manner. She also loves her job flexibility that’s allowed her to travel and continue to pursue her 30+ year passion directing and choreographing musical theatre.
“The guys have been great. Theater has always been a part of my life. They would let me leave for a month and a half at a time,” Adrienne said. “I would bounce to New York, New England, or Maui to work on a show and come back to work whatever shifts were available.”
Working long days has become an industry standard, but no matter the circumstances, Adrienne continues to radiate positivity among her customers and coworkers. She won’t hesitate to converse with her regulars or welcome newcomers to the neighborhood, giving them an overview of all that Manayunk has to offer.
“I do feel there are days that I can get burned out and it’s harder to get past that eight-hour mark into the 10 and 12 hour day,” Adrienne said. “I think when some of those days happen, I just push through and have a laugh to try and lighten the mood.”
Adrienne’s advice for those entering the industry is to show strength through sweetness in order to get what you need accomplished and avoid the traps of hotheadedness that are so easy to fall into.
“It is just food and beverage. It’s not a life-and-death job,” Adrienne said. “There are so many things we all get so lost in and we forget about what’s important. Yes, I’m going to be upset if I give you bad service, but I’m not going to take it home with me and let it keep me up all night. There’s got to be some acknowledgement that you always did your best during the time you’re there.”
Eun-Jin “EJ” Ahn
(U.S. Hotel, Bernie’s Manayunk)
EJ has garnered plenty of experience working both the front and back of house over 11 years in the industry. As General Manager at U.S. Hotel and its new sister restaurant, Bernie’s Manayunk, she takes the skills she’s accumulated working in the kitchen and applies them to every facet of her role.
“I pride myself on being an efficient multi-tasker because of the years I spent on the line trying to juggle up to six different tickets at one time on my station while keeping track of somebody else’s and matching that time,” EJ said. “I feel like that has contributed to how I operate as a G.M. I try to juggle 15 things at one time and make sure that all 15 know they are a priority.”
While the company she represents may be new to Main Street, EJ is no stranger to the neighborhood. In 2013, she came to Manayunk to help Chef Moon Krapugthong manage Chabaa Thai Bistro and Yanako. After working at other restaurants, she found her way back to manage The Spicy Belly in 2016. Last year, she returned once again to oversee U.S. Hotel and prepare to welcome Bernie’s Manayunk in March 2020. Bernie’s will be the sixth restaurant EJ has opened over her career.
“Running a restaurant that seats 100+ people requires an operation that’s like a symphony,” EJ said. “Everybody has to come in at the right time and play at the right volume and skill. For me, the challenge is when somebody is out of tune or going too fast or they’re late, and making sure it doesn’t affect the general goal of the symphony. By either addressing the situation or letting it play itself out, the challenge is to make sure we’re playing the right tune every day that compliments everybody’s strong suits. It’s a team mentality.”
EJ has made sure to surround herself with a staff that cares, giving them an environment to showcase their strengths, learn new things, and improve on their weaknesses.
“I like to say that I don’t hire bartenders, servers, or line cooks. I hire people who have lives, who are making steps to move forward and make a difference in their lives,” EJ said. “The way I operate, I look at the staff and their livelihood and that contributes to my growth. I still have a lot to learn and grow and be challenged on. Being able to impact their lives as their boss, I feel like that, at the end of every day, is the reason why I’m in this industry. The hospitality industry doesn’t get enough credit for the blood, sweat, and tears that a lot of staff goes through to earn their money or make a mark or get promoted.”
(Jake’s & Cooper’s Wine Bar)
After 18 years in hotel management, Maureen felt it was time for a change. In 2011, she walked down to Jake’s & Cooper’s Wine Bar to ask for a serving job and has become a vital part of the restaurant ever since.
“When I first started here, I really fell in love with the concept of the restaurant,” Maureen said. “Everything we have to offer, we make ourselves. We’re constantly trying to improve and it’s something that we look at all the time. I can attest to what Bruce [Cooper] has done. He picked his lane 33 years ago and said, ‘This is what I’m going to be.’ And he’s stayed in that lane. I believe in this restaurant and I believe in what we’re producing from our kitchen.”
After those initial years building relationships with the regulars, Maureen’s role morphed into something more. She recalls hearing the news of the infamous water main break at the restaurant back in 2016.
“My first call was to Bruce and my next thought was, ‘Who was going to talk to the reservations that are booked to say that there’s a problem?’” Maureen said. “I ran down to the restaurant and started calling people to let them know. It was such a large project and it was just Bruce, myself, and maybe two or three other people. Sometimes, it was just Bruce and I sitting in the office upstairs slowly putting it all together until we opened. It was a nice moment where we really got to rely on each other.”
Maureen’s responsibilities range from accounting to placing orders to staff scheduling. She encourages her staff to not only stay educated on their menu, but to look at the philosophy of the restaurant as a whole and believe in it. Her goal every night is to “make it work” by preparing for any situation thrown her way and making the right decisions.
“I try to tell my staff that each day is a new day,” Maureen said. “You come in, you do a couple of things and get set up. Then you have a great service, you interact with your guests, you make them happy, and then you wrap it up and go home. In the service industry, there is always going to be a problem. You solve one issue and then another one pops up. You just need to be able to roll with the punches.”
Working in restaurants her entire life, Mel has washed dishes, made salads, ran events, bartended, waited tables…you name it, she has probably done it. In the last 20 years, she’s spent her time in Manayunk. While working at the Manayunk Brewery in 2007, she began a relationship with Brendan McGrew, the General Manager of Bourbon Blue at the time. The following year, Brendan had the opportunity to purchase the business.
“One thing snowballed into another,” Mel said. “He came home one day and everyone knows the story of him asking me if I would like a ring or a restaurant. It’s really different working from an ownership side to where it becomes yours. I’ve always taken pride in my work and put in the time, but it gets real. It’s up to you to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible.”
Mel jokes that the only typical thing about her day is that it ranges from 10 to 16 hours long. At any given hour, you’ll find her prepping for a catering gig, setting up for events, working in the office, managing the floor, holding down the bar, or running food. Although the restaurant has been a personal investment for more than 12 years, Mel finds her motivation and inspiration by continuously building relationships with her guests. Not only does she know her regulars’ names and what they drink, she can tell you the names of their kids and pets, their jobs, where they live, and when they’re taking a vacation.
“We have so many familiar faces here,” Mel said. “With us being a popular date spot, I’ve watched couples propose, then host their engagement party, and then the rehearsal dinner. The next thing you know, it’s a baby shower and a christening celebration. I feel like we’ve really grown up with these families that have been coming in week after week and year after year. To me, that is the best part.”
Over the years, Mel has learned the service industry is anything but glamorous. But with the proper mindset, you can still feel a sense of accomplishment.
“You have to have really thick skin and an above average work ethic. If you don’t, you won’t last very long,” Mel said. “It’s long days and long hours and lots of different personalities to balance. But it’s still super rewarding at the end of the day, even those extra challenging ones”
(Manayunk Brewery & Restaurant)
For Paris, the Manayunk Brewery has always felt like home. Over the last 19 years, she has worked on and off at her family’s business, spending the last five in her position as Sales & Banquet Manager. Overseeing all onsite events from weddings and birthdays to rehearsal dinners and corporate events, she motivates her employees to give her guests a day to remember.
“My biggest thing is surrounding myself with a good staff that cares as much as I do to make sure they’re taking care of the client,” Paris said. “I want them to see it through my eyes. I try to train them so they see what I see, whether a linen is crooked or a light bulb is out.”
Depending on the time of year, Paris organizes five to ten events per week on average. She’s your go-to person from the moment you first take a tour of the space to the final execution of the event, making sure everything runs smoothly and that her guests are happy. She treats every party that comes in as if it was her own family. Out of all the types of events she hosts, weddings are her favorite. The moment she sees a new bride walking off beaming, she’s assured her team did a good job.
“You have to have a passion for it,” Paris said. “If people see that you have a passion for it and people see that you’re willing to work with the team, they want to work for you. They want to be a part of what you’re doing.”
Paris attributes much of the brewery’s success to the strong, female managerial staff that she works with. She said it’s inspiring for a younger generation of women to see people like their banquet chef, Jessica, their floor manager Tracie, and their controller, Kristen, in positions of power. While it might not always be easy having her father, Mike Rose, as her boss, she couldn’t imagine working anywhere else or with anyone else.
“Working for a family business, you always want to strive to do the best you can because it’s personal. It’s not just working for someone,” Paris said. “I care about the details. I want this place to succeed. The positive feedback motivates me. I have a larger investment in this establishment.”