The opening of Tucker’s Restaurant in 1999 was the fulfillment of a life-long dream for chef-owner Michael Anderson.
In the20-plus years since, Anderson and his wife and business partner, Karen, have dealt with issues typical of those most entrepreneurs face — building a customer base, moving to new, larger quarters, and dealing with a seemingly endless succession of day-to-day operational problems.
In March of this year, however, they encountered a challenge neither could have anticipated — Gov. Charlie Baker’s pandemic shutdown order.
Always hands-on operators, the Andersons reacted to a new business reality in a predictable way. “We just continued to work,” Anderson says, “it’s all I know how to do.”
Like many other eateries, Tucker’s quickly pivoted to takeout, offering a selection of individual and soon after, family meals.
“We never closed,” he says, “and we started to do takeout; we didn’t know what else to do.”
During the early weeks of the pandemic shutdown — March and April — Anderson remembers that “people were very generous and there was a lot of community support. That was a good feeling.”
As the weather warmed and outdoor dining was authorized by Baker’s re-opening plan, Tucker’s further refocused its operational strategy.
“I got a tent in June,” Anderson said, “but it [outdoor dining] never really clicked. We worked hard to make it attractive, but it was really just dining out on hot asphalt.”
When indoor seating was approved several weeks later, Anderson responded by reconfiguring the dining room at Tucker’s. He took out several tables and made sure that the rest were generously spaced at least eight to ten feet apart.
The restaurant’s banquet hall, which had a pre-pandemic capacity of 120, was also rearranged for socially-distanced, a la carte dining. Anderson’s wife, Karen, who manages the front of the house, made a special effort to make the space as attractive as possible, and the room’s exterior doors are left partially open during business hours to enhance ventilation.
Operationally, Anderson had to make some hard decisions in order to stay afloat.
He managed to secure about $100,000 in CARES act assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program of that legislation, a cash injection that helped make up for the dramatic decline in business Tucker’s had experienced.
Thanks to that help he says he’s pretty much current on his bills. “We can ride it out until December” he states , but he’s definitely worried about what happens come January. “Hopefully there will be another stimulus thing,” he added.
The events of the past six months have decidedly changed the way Tucker’s does business.
He’s had to tighten his belt in a number of ways. Since March the restaurant’s kitchen has been a five-day-a-week, two-man operation, with Anderson and just one other cook handing all the back-of-house duties.
“At first we were open for dinner only following a Tuesday through Saturday schedule,” Anderson said “We tried Sundays, but that didn’t make sense financially. On September first we started opening for lunch, but lunch hasn’t picked up, and we’re in the process of rethinking that move,” he added.
Tucker’s has never worked with an extensive menu, and the restaurant’s current bill of fare limits itself to 10 individual meal options supplemented by a daily special or two.
Anderson began his culinary career back in 1982 when, at age 15, he started work at Storrowton Tavern in West Springfield. Tucker Cavanuagh, then the owner of Storrowton, and chefs such as the late Lenny Marquis influenced Anderson’s approach to restaurant operations which is about traditional American recipe favorites, with flavors enhanced by local sourcing.
Referring to his menu strategy, Anderson says “we keep it kind of tight and build (the menu) around items that can be used in several areas.”
Reflecting his training under his mentor, Tucker Cavanaugh, from whom Tucker’s takes its name, Anderson continues to rely on a mostly-from-scratch philosophy. For instance, his kitchen uses fresh split chicken breasts, fabricating them into breast cutlets for chicken marsala and chicken cordon bleu. Andersons reserves the breast tenderloins from the butchering process to use for beer battered chicken fingers and chicken potpie. The trimmings and bones go into the stockpot.
Desserts, sides, and salad dressings are all made in-house. As of last week, Anderson was still using last-of-season, Southwick-raised tomatoes to make a chilled gazpacho that he garnished with sour cream and fresh lime.
The level of business that Tucker’s is doing is slowly rebounding. Food sales in August and September were only down about 10% when compared to the same two months in 2019.
It’s the lack of function business that really hurts.
Tucker’s has done some off-site catering of small events – weddings, funeral lunches, and the like, but parties of 20 to 30 guests don’t make up for the volume of banquet sales on which the restaurant formerly depended.
Bar and beverage sales are also down. Though Anderson has been taking advantage of selling beer, wine, and cocktails to go, the demand isn’t strong. “People don’t order rum & coke to go,” he observes.
Family Meal packages continue to sell, although their popularity has declined a bit of late. Pot roast prepared in the style that Anderson learned back at the Storrowton Tavern remains the most popular of Tucker’s take-out family meals
Karen Anderson has been working on various promotional angles to build business, such as a take-out partnership with the nearby American Inn senior living facility.
The Andersons also have high hopes for a “Thanksgiving To Go” package they’re promoting. Priced at $99 and serving four, the package includes roast turkey with all the fixings as well as a second entree choice. A selection of sides and desserts will additionally be available.
Looking to the months ahead, Anderson observes that “it was tough before, but now it’s even tougher.” He’s not particularly optimistic about 2021, and he wonders how the experience of the pandemic will change the public’s tastes when it comes to dining out.
“What will people think of as ‘good food’ once this is all over?” he muses.
More information about Tucker’s Restaurant, including the operation’s current menu, can be found at tuckersrestaurant.com.
The establishment’s telephone number is (413) 569-0120.
The Irish House Restaurant and Trinity Pub at the Irish Cultural Center in West Springfield has announced a new schedule of dining hours. Starting October 29, the restaurant will be open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., with the kitchen taking orders from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The Irish House will also no longer be featuring its Thursday Prime Rib deal, but the establishment will continue to offer inside dining and takeout, including its Family Dinner Specials to Go.
Call the restaurant at (413) 342-4358 for information or to make reservations.
Casa Di Lisa in Feeding Hills is bringing its month-long celebration of its 20th anniversary to a close on Oct. 31.
Throughout October the restaurant has been promoting a fixed-price, $20.20 menu of dishes inspired by the Casa di Lisa menu of two decades ago.
Featured selections on this “Old School” Casa Anniversary Menu include cod Francese, sausage pizzaiola, veal scaloppini, and loaded chicken parmigiano. The one-price package also include soup, salad, side dish, dessert, and soda or coffee.
Cafe Casa, the establishment’s outdoor dining venue, will also wrap up operations for the fall season on October 31.
Reservations can be made online through the WaitList.Me link at the restaurant’s web site, casadilisa.com. For more details, contact Casa Di Lisa at (413) 786-1900.
Hugh Robert is a faculty member in Holyoke Community College’s hospitality and culinary arts program and has nearly 45 years of restaurant and educational experience. Robert can be reached on-line at [email protected]