Opening a new venture is a nerve-wracking experience, especially when the business in question deals with the culinary arts. Providing food for the hungry masses is never easy, you have to make sure that your menu is diverse enough to satisfy most palates while providing the right combination of nutrition and flavor.
The Plate is the new kid on Milton’s block. Owned and operated by Suzanne Lombardi, the location on Central Street has been open for four weeks and has already been the subject of virtual discussion about whether Nutella really does go with bacon in a sandwich.
Suzanne is no stranger to the expectations of new business. Having owned two food companies before, one of which was sold to Whole Foods Market (Tiny Trapeze Confections), her latest venture sees Suzanne stepping into the public gaze for the first time.
Always keen to discuss food, Patch sat down with Suzanne to talk about the joy of a good egg sandwich and the importance of community.
How would you describe Milton’s latest place to eat?
I call it a shop rather than a café. I don’t know why I have an aversion to the word café but I guess it’s because it’s overused and I tend to stay away from things that have been done before. We’re new and we’re trying to do something different. Calling it a café defines it in a way that it’s not ready to be defined.
Where are you from and why did you decide to open in this location?
I’m from Milton originally but I never thought that I would be back in a million years. This is my first retail store. I knew that there was a lot to offer in terms of food in the town and I was really stubborn in wanting to open here because I felt that what we were going to do here was going to be appreciated. I looked at Milton as a food desert in terms of the food that we were producing and we wanted to be in a neighborhood where we could have customers come in every day instead of once a week. So far that has been consistent; people have come and said thank you for opening here and one customer was grateful to us for pulling Milton into the 21st Century. I also love the idea of a ten-minute commute!
I looked for the right space for two years. I had real estate agents who wanted to put me in Roslindale or Jamaica Plain and I kept saying no. Milton really means something to me and in think that in the short time that we have been open that has been vindicated.
You have owned companies in this industry before but you were dealing with food on a wholesale basis. How have you adapted to retail?
With wholesale you don’t get that immediate customer feedback. We would always get accolades but to be in the open kitchen and see the same customer coming back for lunch is a nice experience for me personally.
You went to college to study sculpture and art history. How did you end up as a chef?
I got into a neighborhood (Jamaica Plain) kitchen when I was at art school and there was the same feeling as this place. It was my first kitchen experience and I fell in love with the kitchen. It was natural to me, the same sensibilities that you use when you create art is directly related to how you cook. To me, I was just trading in one studio environment for another. I’ve never looked back…I knew immediately that cooking was what I wanted to do.
The Plate is selling “handcrafted comfort food." This seems to be a very popular form of food at the moment, a return to a simpler style of cuisine?
Exactly. It’s about smokey tomato soup and a grilled sandwich. There are people who are happy to eat that every day for lunch and that makes me happy. There is something simple about comfort food; it crosses all cultural and economic levels. People cook because they like to feed others and comfort food strikes a chord with the current trend for nostalgia. It’s always been the way that I’ve liked to approach food, even with my other companies. I try to take classic American food and do it well.
Part of it is also a reaction to the mediocre food that a lot of fast-food companies put out. Let’s make a real egg sandwich on a homemade English muffin…fry the egg on a griddle a minute before it hits the muffin. That’s the real version, not one done in a factory!
How do you deal with customers that have become used to “grab and go” food?
We have to guide them through the fact that we are not a fast-food-restaurant. When I’m back there (pointing to the open kitchen), I’m curious as to what is going through their mind as they look at the menu. It’s been interesting to hear and see customers as we cook.
Despite only being open a few weeks, word of mouth seems to have spread through Milton. Do you think that your embrace of social media has helped with this?
It makes smart business sense. I am older than the social media generation and I didn’t use it in my last two companies. It has made a huge difference in getting people excited about our opening and highlighted the investment in the whole process. I didn’t realize that there would be so much interest in the start-up phase and what it actually takes to open a business. It’s been a great learning tool and one that we can use to show customers what we are producing. I wish I had more time to use it!
What is special about Milton?
I love its proximity to the city (Boston) and I feel that there is a diversity here that I really like. There is a strong community feeling, something that I have learned more in the last few weeks than I knew. In some ways, that might have made me more nervous about opening the doors if I had known how invested the neighborhood is in this area and I get the feeling that they have strong ideas and expectations.
As a new business owner yourself, what advice would you give anyone who is thinking about starting a business in Milton?
Milton needs more businesses that are small, personal and unique. We have our share of storefronts in the town taken up by merchants who aren’t doing anything for the community. They could be based anywhere but they occupy prime retail locations. There could be more innovative and unique businesses that would do well here. All of the local business owners have come in and made us feel welcome, that makes us feel good. There is strong core community of individually owned businesses that would be happy to see more unique merchants opening.
Is the first ‘Plate’?
(Laughs) You’re not the first person to ask me that. Right now, I really want to focus on this location and realize what it is we are going to be. There’s a lot more that we can do; we want to open a couple of nights a week and the community has said that they would like that to happen. At the same time, we can’t be everything to everybody. We have limited kitchen space but we seem to have struck a chord with our food that could easily go into other places.
We’re focused on being here; we want the food to be consistent, the quality to be great and to cook seasonally. We have only been open a few weeks but I do want to change some things. I am conscious that we are new; we will change…but a lot will stay just the same.