Most people are just figuring things out in their twenties, but not Nancy Batista-Caswell. She hit the ground running in the restaurant industry, opening not one but three different restaurants by the time she turned 35. Curious about how she did it? Follow along with her 5-Year Plan.
At 20, I was working as a restaurant manager and just finishing college. That was kind of my first real glimpse at the grind of the industry. I was working for chef Chris Schlesinger at Back Eddy. I loved what I was doing, but it was seasonal work. The restaurant was down in Westport, Massachusetts and it would essentially close in January, February, and March. There wasn’t longevity in the position, but I was learning a lot and it was great for my schedule while I was in school.
You know, I was probably really easy-going at 20.
I was just about a year into my first restaurant redesign concept. I had been employed by a large developer who had brought me to Newburyport and I had taken on a restaurant which had been recently purchased by that developer to add to his portfolio. While it was a historic landmark piece in Newburyport, the reality was that it was barely breathing. So, I took on the opportunity of relaunching and redesigning this restaurant for the community and the North Shore. It was my first manager position where not only was I learning how to operate a restaurant from the ground up, but also was deep into the construction side of it.
I was also about a year into meeting my husband—we actually met through that project. He was working on all the HVAC and plumbing work in the restaurant.
So at 30, I was just about to move my first restaurant Ceia across the street in Newburyport and blow it up in size. I was also on the verge of opening my second restaurant, Brine, which is a steak and oyster bar.
Ceia is a restaurant that’s designed around my family and my heritage. Really, it’s about the art of feasting and that kind of emotional connection and experience with food. The restaurant was excelling where it was, and I had the chance to triple it in size by moving it across the street. It was a great opportunity, but I was conflicted because I loved the original space of the restaurant. That’s why I ended up hanging onto the space—Brine now resides there.
I opened Oak + Rowan about a year ago. It’s definitely surpassed all of our expectations in terms of "best new restaurant" accolades from The Globe and USA Today. It’s exciting to open a restaurant in a new city and to also personally create a different home. I obviously grew my business and it’s been both exhausting and exciting to grow into a businesswoman.
If I had to give any advice to someone starting out in the industry, I’d say fail, fail fast and move on. From every experience, take as much as you can. People fall in love with things very quickly in our industry, and we also say “Okay, I’ll never do that again” very quickly. I think it’s important to find time to reflect on those experiences no matter what. I feel like often we carry failure with us, but it disturbs us more than necessary. Find time to invest in understanding why you failed, but ultimately, take the lesson from that experience and move on. Whether that’s move on and apply it to the next thing you do, or cut your losses from an existing project.
—As told to and written by Oset Babur for The Thirty-One Percent