Flanders Fish Market & Restaurant reels in honors

Kathy McGowan, a server at Flanders Fish Market & Restaurant, takes an order from Emma Mokler, left, and Louis Johnson on Nov. 12. (Tim Cook/The Day)
Kathy McGowan, a server at Flanders Fish Market & Restaurant, takes an order from Emma Mokler, left, and Louis Johnson on Nov. 12. (Tim Cook/The Day)

The Connecticut Restaurant Association is honoring Flanders Fish Market & Restaurant of East Lyme in two ways this year: the restaurant is being inducted into the CRA Hospitality Hall of Fame, and Flanders Fish server Kathy McGowan of Niantic, a 20-year employee, has been nominated for CRA’s Server of the Year Award, along with three other nominees. The public was asked to vote for their favorite server at the CRA website through mid-November.

According to Nicole Griffin, executive director of CRA, the Hall of Fame award is presented to restaurants that have been in business for more than 20 years and are viewed as Connecticut institutions. Demonstrating a strong sense of community is another requirement.

Flanders Fish Market fits the bill as a family owned and operated business since 1983, when Paul Formica and his wife Donna, who died in 2009, opened the award-winning fish market and restaurant. Giving back to the community has always been an important emphasis at Flanders Fish Market, from donating to soup kitchens to supporting regional schools to helping foster the health and growth of the local fish/shellfish industry.

“When Nicole called from the CRA to tell me the news, I was incredibly proud to be so honored by our peers, then overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude,” Formica says.

He gives much of the credit to Donna for where the restaurant is today.

“Donna was such a driving force of the business, as she was committed to providing the best possible service, which she gave out through love, friendship and a true interest in everyone’s well being as they walked through the door,” Formica recalls. “She was my best friend, a great mom and a brilliant business partner. When we lost her, Flanders Fish Market changed forever, our lives were left with a (huge) void, and the entire community felt it.”

But, Formica is grateful that all four of his children remain involved in the business in which they grew up.

“The hard work and service skills the kids learned through the store has served them well,” he says.

Daughters Hannah, who has a degree in business systems from University of Delaware, and Olivia, who has a culinary degree from CIA Hyde Park, are part of the day-to-day operations. Ali, who has a language degree from Fordham University, provides all the social media and advertising support, and Matt, who has a degree in finance and marketing from Villanova University, provides business-consulting expertise.

One thing that Formica says sets Flanders Fish Market apart from its competitors is “the variety, freshness and quality achieved by sending out trucks to pick up the fish and seafood we’ve been selling directly from the Boston Fish Pier since the day we opened for business on Dec. 23, 1983.”

“Anyone who sells perishables knows you have to start with the freshest possible source,” he adds. “The local lobster and fish industry has been challenged in recent years, but we are encouraged by the growth of the shellfish industry in Connecticut.”

Something that signifies the family feeling at Flanders Fish Market for Formica is that nine couples met at the restaurant over the years and married as a result.

“I presided over two of the weddings as the JP!” he notes. 

An exceptional server

In response to her nomination by the CRA for Server of the Year, Formica says of his long-time employee, who doubles as the restaurant’s baker, “Kathy is such a wonderful person on so many levels. She is so loved by the entire staff for her daily kindness and for all of the home-baked foods she brings in for us to nibble on during the busy days and nights. She is so loved by our customers for the gentle way she serves everyone, always with a smile and a kind word.

“She is the gold standard and an example for all of us in the hospitality industry through her hard work, customer focus and dedication to service.”

“It would be nice to win — I’m just excited and surprised to be nominated (for the award),” McGowan says.

She believes the key to a successful restaurant is teamwork and customer satisfaction.

“It’s important to take care of your customers, to focus on them, smile, make them feel at home, and work as a team with coworkers,” she says. “If someone comes in and had a stressful day, they want to relax and have something good to eat. If someone is testy and you give that back, it’s not going to work. You can focus on them and turn their mood around or you can make things worse. And if you can’t fix a problem, our managers are always right there.”

She lists more than a few reasons why the restaurant has retained so many customers over the years.

“People don’t have to wait, the food is quality controlled, the place is very clean, and the people who work here are very happy. We all work together and that’s what makes a restaurant.

“I’m not related, but they all treat me like family,” she adds.

IF YOU GO

What: Salute to Excellence Awards Dinner

When: Dec. 1; cocktail hour begins at 5:30 p.m., dinner at 7 p.m.

Where: Mohegan Sun Ballroom in Uncasville

Cost: Individual tickets are $130 for CRA members, $165 for nonmembers and can be purchased online at http://ctrestaurant.org/dinner2015

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