What you can learn from the owner of Pomfret’s famed Vanilla Bean Café
Barry Jessurun has operated the well-known Vanilla Bean Café in Pomfret for 32 years with his family. He has expanded his reach by adding more restaurants, where he was the lead designer and one of the main founders: 85 Main in Putnam, Dog Lane Café in Storrs, and Fenton River Grill in Mansfield.
He’s learned a lot over that time, not only restaurant-specific information but also things that apply seamlessly to other careers.
Jessurun has compiled all that in a new book, “The Drunkard’s Path — Self-Help and Guidance for Your Career Path,” which he’ll be signing Saturday at Bank Square Books in Mystic and in January at the Waterford Public Library.
Discussing the impetus for the book, Jessurun says, “I’ve been in the restaurant business for 32 years. Somewhere into my 10th or 11th or 12th year, I realized I really wasn’t running a restaurant; I was creating a space that allowed future workforce people to be trained and educated. That’s kind of what we were doing, and we were good at it. When we changed our focus to do that mainly, we got even better at it. And we got even better employees because of it.”
He notes that 90 percent of the people who start in the dining industry don’t stay in it; they’re going to move on to another career.
Since his sites tend to be cafes and limited service, Jessurun says, “We deal with teenagers and people in their early 20s (as employees) — high school and college kids, basically. They’re on a path, they’re going somewhere. So we just found out that creating a space where they wanted to be, educating them with things that would help them get to where they were going was going to get them to be a much better self in the moment and a much better employee for us. It took a little bit more time and investment, but we treated them as our main asset. … What we ended up finding out is they stay with us longer because we’re investing in them.”
A trio of themes
Jessurun spoke in a phone interview last week about the three underling themes in the book.
The first is that individuals work for themselves and the future they are working to produce.
The main conversation Jessurun says he has with his employees is “who they work for is not me. Who they work for is the self and the future value they’re creating. Where they can step into that mindset, they become better and they become self-mobilized. Our job is just to remind them of that.”
The second theme, he says, is that “we can only do this with language. Everything exists to use in language. That means the better we get at using our words, the better we get at creating the reality we want around us. So Vanilla Bean Café is a story that existed as a thought that became language, that became a story, that turned into action and became a thing. Our job to keep telling that story, to use our language as an effective way so it continues to be sustainable.”
And the third theme is what Jessurun calls selfish altruism. That means “I’m doing this because I want to, but all these other people are going to benefit because I’m doing this.”
Beyond those three themes, another element young people learn at Jessurun’s restaurants is not to take things personally. He acknowledges, “That’s a hard thing to do, and if you start it as a teenager and practice, by the time you’re in your 30s and 40s, you’re better off than most other people.”
By the way, the phrase “The Drunkard’s Path” in the book’s title is taken from zig-zag quilt patterns that are difficult to learn but open a larger range of possible designs — so a perfect metaphor for what the tome discusses. And, of course, Jessurun notes that it’s a “shock title. If you saw that in the career section, you would probably pick it up.”
Creating a culinary destination
Jessurun grew up in northwestern Connecticut, then in Ireland for a bit, back to Massachusetts, before his family settled in Pomfret in 1976. (He graduated from Woodstock Academy in 1980.)
Food and cooking were always an interest.
“My mom could make all kinds of stuff and have it ready at the same time. And it was all good. I really looked forward to doing that. We always found that when we went out, most often, we were all like, ‘You know, mom could have made this better at home.’ … So, as a family, we always talked about opening a restaurant. In fact, we moved to Ireland with the idea of doing it there.”
While that dream didn’t work out in Ireland, it did after they became homesick and returned to the U.S.
“When we moved to Pomfret in 1976, northeastern Connecticut, for lack of a better way of describing it, was a culinary wasteland. It was full of pizza joints and grinder shops, and a couple of pop-in restaurants … a couple of hidden, middle-of-the-road places. There was no easy-to-find, hand-prepared, high-quality food that you could get quickly and easily. So we always talked about trying to fill that niche,” he says.
In 1987, his parents bought the 19th-century barn that is now the Vanilla Bean Café. By April 1989, his parents had Barry, his brother and sister, along with some friends and the contractors they needed renovate the barn into the cafe.
“What we found out was that every neighborhood, every community wanted what we created. They were like, ‘Oh, my God, you need to open one of these in our town’ because everybody wanted the high-quality, hand-prepared stuff. They didn’t want McDonald’s, they didn’t want Subway. … (They wanted) what has become fast casual. When we opened, we were limited service, but this new segment in the marketplace became known as fast casual, with players like Panera and Chipotle.
“But we were fast casual before it was a thing.”
In creating the Vanilla Bean, which serves dishes like homemade soups, quiches and salads, the Jessuruns drew on, among other elements, their experience living in Ireland and England.
“We wanted to make it sort of a European dining experience — café culture,” says Jessurun, who is now president of Green Valley Hospitality, a restaurant group that oversees his four restaurants.
As for “The Drunkard’s Path,” Jessurun says the book is cross-generational; one 72-year-old who read it told him, “I wish I had a book like this when I was starting out.”
His advice might be focused on the young people who work for him, but it applies to all ages.
“Because I work with this teenager and early-20s group, my job is to speak to what they’re already listening for. They’re at a certain age and a certain culture. If I can speak to them where they’re already listing for something, they’re going to hear me better. I have to understand who they are,” Jessurun says.
“If you don’t understand and you treat everybody the same, like another employee, another cog in the wheel, well, that’s what you get — another cog in the wheel … You have to figure them out and create a place they want to be.”
Who: Barry Jessurun
What: Author signing
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bank Square Books, 53 West Main St., Mystic
Contact: (860) 536-3795, banksquarebooks.com
Also: Jessurun will appear at Waterford Public Library at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 12.