A glamorous setting—high ceilings, petite red lamps, banquettes—combined with comforting dishes like a baked rigatoni that still graces the menu made Eastern Standard a convivial, all-day dining destination—almost from the moment it opened in May 2005. The sophisticated brasserie, inside the Hotel Commonwealth, also flaunted a roster of well-made classic cocktails like the Americano, reflecting an elevated shift in drinking culture that would fast dominate the country.
Soon, Island Creek Oyster Bar (there’s now a location in Burlington, Vermont, too) and cocktail boîte The Hawthorne opened in the hotel, followed by oyster-and-beer haven Row 34 in on-the-rise Fort Point (as well as Portsmouth, New Hampshire), and Branch Line, a rotisserie in Watertown. Additional concepts, like Les Sablons in Harvard Square, are in the works for the ever-curious Harker.
Although he is an astute businessman, at the root of Harker’s culinary triumphs is something profoundly human: the seemingly simple but hard-to-pull-off art of engaging hospitality. The James Beard Award nominee for Outstanding Restaurateur trusts his staff and delegates, nurturing collaboration, progression, and, ultimately, empowerment.
Consider how Eastern Standard opening bar manager Jackson Cannon is now bar director for the group and partner at The Hawthorne, while Eastern Standard general manager Andrew Holden is a Row 34 partner. An expansive education platform is one such way of fostering this organic development.
“While we’ve seen growth in the number of restaurants, my focus has always been on staff education and guest experience. Success in this industry can be fleeting, so it’s crucial to have a clear-cut vision and knowledge that what you’re doing can lead to it, but never stop striving and challenging yourself,” Harker explains.
Witness the career progression of Molly Hopper Sandrof, who first started working at Eastern Standard as a host and today is the group’s director of people and staff development.
“Garrett encourages personal confidence in service, so that our staff can make of-the-moment decisions. That’s where our education and training come in. He understands that people come from so many different realms in the restaurant industry and learn differently,” she explains. “Some respond better to a hands-on bartending class, others to traditional notecards.”
A refreshing mix of interactive elements and old-fashioned book learning make up the educational program, which is fueled by both a dedication to communication among employees and customers and a pristine attention to details.
“Empathy is at the core of any positive restaurant experience,” Harker says. “An important aspect of social intelligence, empathy charges us to feel what guests are feeling and anticipate their needs.”
“It’s a powerful tool in creating a service experience that looks effortless, when in fact every detail is thoughtfully and carefully executed,” he continues. “It’s a philosophy that’s emphasized throughout all of our restaurants’ staff education and our overall culture.”
Creativity is at the heart of training programs, with Hopper Sandrof pointing out the necessity of intertwining business and play: “If you get too heavy-handed, it’s not so effective.” This means scavenger hunts and playing Jeopardy! are just as integral as studying maps and absorbing cocktail history.
Research projects bring staff members together on teams, where for a set amount of time they, as Hopper Sandrof describes, “cross-pollinate their skills on untraditional topics.” For example, a recent assignment had them delving into the city of Providence, exploring its cultural icons and neighborhoods. Those who choose to pursue fitting side projects, say, the Court of Master Sommeliers, are invited to forge tasting groups and study plans with the counsel of the wine director. The restaurant group, adds Hopper Sandrof, will then foot the bill of the test, because “it motivates them, inspires career longevity, and rewards them for work they put in independently.”