By ROBERT GOLD
March 10, 2013
In 1973, Vincent Catania opened the first Hearth 'n Kettle restaurant in Falmouth, with a mission statement of offering “wholesome, hearty food, family-priced … and congenial service in pleasant surroundings.”
The original location has since closed, but the mission has remained. And the business has expanded into the Catania Hospitality Group, employing more than 700 people. That includes hundreds at six Hearth 'n Kettle restaurants, located in Hyannis, South Yarmouth, Orleans, Plymouth, Weymouth and Attleboro.
Since the first restaurant opened, the company has employed a total of 30,000 to 40,000 people, said Bill Catania, president of the company,which includes the Cape Codder Resort and Spa in Hyannis, the Dan'l Webster Inn & Spa in Sandwich, the John Carver Inn & Spa in Plymouth and the Grand Cru Restaurant in Hyannis.
Vincent Catania and his wife Marie, along with their six children, ran the family businesses for several years. Vincent, widely known as V.J., died in 2010.
The family atmosphere has helped retain workers and keep them coming back, Bill Catania said. His siblings Steve and Debra remain in leadership roles as vice presidents. Several third generation family members work in the business.
“It's been consistent over the years,” he said.
As the company celebrates its 40th anniversary, the Times spoke with some longtime employees about their Hearth 'n Kettle stories.
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Stephen Higgins oversees the cooking operations at all six Hearth 'n Kettle locations as executive chef. He puts together a new menu twice a year, researching new recipes and products.
But when he started in 1983, Higgins was perfectly content making omelettes, French toast and other dishes.
“I wanted to be a line cook forever,” said Higgins, who started at the South Yarmouth restaurant when he was 21.
But the Catanias urged him to expand his repertoire after the company expanded into Orleans in 1987, and Higgins worked his way up to sous chef.
“I feel they nurture people,” helping them grow professionally, Higgins said.
He rose through the ranks to assistant to the executive chef, learning from Dick Catania, who held the top chef spot.
As executive chef and director of purchasing, he has seen customers tastes evolving. The restaurants now offer organic, locally grown, antibiotic free and hormone free food.
“I think people's ideas of food have changed,” he said, adding that staples like the Plantation Special (two eggs, bacon, sausage, toast and home fries) and Cape scrod remain the best sellers.
His job now extends beyond food. As head of purchasing for the entire business, he's ordering televisions, mattresses and more.
Still, Higgins can't help himself and in the summertime, when things get extra busy, he gets back into the kitchen and relives his line cook days.
“I'm not as fast as before,” he said.
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Ava Gorham spent her college summers visiting the Cape. So after graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she decided to find a job in the area and landed a waitressing position in 1978 at the Hyannis Hearth 'n Kettle, then located on Main Street. It was her first full-time job.
She hasn't left the company since.
“There is definitely a camaraderie with the people you work with – they encourage that,” said Gorham, now accounting manager at the Dan'l Webster Inn.
She moved to the South Yarmouth restaurant in 1984 and became an assistant manager. She met her late husband Bill Gorham, who worked in maintenance, while there.
Gorham still keeps in contact with some of her early Hearth 'n Kettle comrades.
And she counts the company's willingness to let her try a variety of jobs as one reason she's stayed.
“People need to change, they need to be able to advance, they need to be able to learn new things.”
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Lou Massi was 14 years old, living in Burlington when he was originally welcomed into a Catania-run business in the late 1960s. His mom worked at a Pewter Pot, a chain of New England restaurants owned by Vincent Catania. There was a vacancy for a dishwashing job, his mom called to tell him one day. Massi spent his high school years working at the Pewter Pot and, after high school, he took a job at the Falmouth Hearth 'n Kettle a few months after it opened.
He had dreams of becoming a world-class chef but he washed a lot of dishes first.
“V.J. didn't think my cooking skills were so special,” he said. Over time, Massi honed his skills and became a full-time cook.
In the early 1980s, he left for two years to be a chef on a private yacht.
“I was planning on being the greatest chef in the world and I realized that wasn't going to happen,” he said of his two-year stint.
So Massi came back to the Falmouth restaurant and became assistant manager. He gradually moved into new roles, including general manager. He became director of operations for Catania Hospitality Group in the late 1990s – the same position he holds today.
Massi said his story echoes the patterns of many staff members.
“A lot of people have gone over the years and had left and come back,” he said.