When Coastal Connecticut Magazine met with Valerie Wiel Wilkins at the Stony Creek Market, she asked if she could be excused for a moment, saying “I just have to check on my kids.” When she returned (good news: all was well), she explained that she was checking to be sure that her staff didn’t need her help. “I call them my kids,” she explains. “Greg and I feel that the kids who work for us are like family.”
We met with Val and her husband, Greg, to talk about the secret of success for their 37- year- old restaurant and market. It turns out that it is not the secret ingredient in the crust (sweet potato) or Greg’s special recipe for Caesar Salad dressing. It is the young people they have trained and mentored over the years. As Greg points out, “some of our kids are second generation. One of our pizza boys teethed on the pizza crust when he was a baby.”
Val said that she tells “her kids” that “when you pass under the railroad bridge into Stony Creek, you are entering into a very special world.” Stony Creek is a unique waterfront community where many residents have known each other for generations. The market, with its waterfront-view front porch, is a meeting place, where neighbors and visitors gather beginning at 6am for coffee and news. Breakfast customers rave about their scones – and we can testify that the bacon, egg and cheese on a croissant is worth every calorie.
Whether you come for the breathtaking view of the Thimble Islands, the delicious food, or the comradery, the service is always welcoming and efficient. The young people who work the cash register, serve and prepare the food are enthusiastic and well-trained.
Val admits that the “hardest part of the job is mentoring and guiding the kids.” She tells them that she wants them to have fun, “but they have to work hard”. She explains that this is a family business – and so it can’t be “fun and games all the time.” Their first job is to make the customers happy and every customer is important. The training and the message resonates with the young people as they often return year after year. As Valerie says, “the kids are part of our lives for a long time.”
The young people learn how to run a small business. She tells them, “there are 500 things that you have to learn how to do. They are all small things – but you have to learn how to connect the dots when you prepare and serve food. This is way beyond multi-tasking.”
Greg says that the kids enjoy making contributions to the legacy of the market. Several years ago, he challenged them to come up with a name for a new pizza with gorgonzola cheese. The “winner” suggested that they name it after a new search engine he was using. The Yahoo pizza is still the most popular pizza served at the market.
Val’s nephew, Rob, has worked closely with the young staff for over 25 years. For the last ten years, they have worked together on a project that benefits the Branford Counselling Center. Throughout the year, a portion of their tips is set aside to sponsor a child in the Center’s “Secret Santa” program. Rob and the staff select a letter to Santa, purchase the gifts for the child, wrap and deliver them. All the organizing skills learned at the Market are put to good use!
Not all the kids at the market are local. Two years ago, Greg met a friend’s son, Dario, on a trip to Tuscany. Dario helped Greg cook pizzas in the firewood- fueled stove in a villa in a beautiful mountain village near Florence. That summer, Dario came to work at the market for four weeks and has returned for two months this summer.
So what happens to their young staff members when they graduate from school? Val and Greg say they have received many lovely letters – saying thank you for helping me to find my path. Some chose to start their own business because they liked it so much. Frequently, they stop by the market or their home near Medlyn Farm just to say “hi.” Val’s 97-year old Mom is a 15-year veteran of the market and enjoys getting updates of the kids she helped mentor.
With the exception of four days each year when they close, the Stony Creek Market serves breakfast and lunch daily from 6am to 3 pm. Pizza, with the delicious sweet potato crust, is served Thursday to Sunday evenings 5 pm to 9 pm from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Stony Creek Market is located at 178 Thimble Islands Road and can be reached at 203-488-0145.