Down Main Street with Phil Groce —
Sixteen years ago, I interviewed Lee Smith on WRFR because of his soup-making at what was then, Second Read Books and Coffee, and more recently, Rock City Cafe. Now 44 years old, he has been working there in the kitchen thru it all for 24 years, including Rock City ’s transformation to an employee-owned company 2 years ago.
I was able to find an empty table off to the side as Lee emerged from the kitchen at the end of his work-day at 11:00 in the morning. Athletic in movement, trim in stature, hair tousled from taking off his chef’s hat, he grabbed a chair, and looked squarely at me, and said, “So, where do you want to start?” I knew then, there would be no cynicism here.
I reminded him that, before, we talked about his getting out of high school not having any particular direction and doing dishes, and then starting to make soup with Susanne Ward [the previous owner] helping with the recipes; and he was coming in early in the morning. How early?
“I start work at 3:00 AM and work until now, 11:00. ”What kind of sleep-cycle is that? “It’s kind of hard, because I do lots of other things, too. ” Such as? “I do landscaping during the summer, like mowing lawns and other outside jobs. I also referee soccer, umpire baseball and softball. ” I wondered if he was paid for that? “Yes, for high school and middle school, and Babe Ruth and soccer, not Little League. “I have to take tests to be certified to do all that. My wife and I, we also play softball together. And then there’s the kids’ things, like their playing ball and all, and the school stuff. And I think I’ m going to referee basketball, too, next year. My wife’ s a stay-at-home mother, but she works, too, during the summer, baking at home for a caterer. I don’t cook at home. ”
How much sleep do you get? “I really should go to bed by 5:00 at night, but with everything going on in the house, it’s almost always 8 or 9 . I don’t get more than 5 hours a night. ”I remarked that he didn’t look tired and dragged out today.“ Tonight about 5:00, I will likely feel that way.”
He seemed to be living not the same 24 hours I know. “I’ve always been organized, ” he replied. Is your wife organized, too? “No. But I got to say that maybe I’ m too organized, and lots of times I can’t find something I put away so I could easily find it. ” Maybe opposites attract? “Yeah, but it’s not a problem. ”Reminded me of our own household: I like piles, and my wife likes files.
I had known that his family goes back in Maine for generations, and I told him that he seemed to be upholding the Maine tradition of olden days of starting at the bottom and working the way up. “ That is the way I did it, and it wasn’t easy. I had no schooling about it. Nearly everything in school really didn’t apply to what I do. ” But your work ethic is good. “Yeah, I never miss work. In fact, I don’t think I have ever called in sick.”
Did you get that work ethic from home? “I remember my dad always working hard, at Bath Iron Works and even after that. He was always busy. Same with my grandfather. He was a rough guy, hard worker. I guess it goes back even farther than that. ”
I asked him that if a person had a good work ethic then ambition takes care of itself? “I never thought of it in that way, but I think that’ s right. I kind of take things as they come, not planning ahead. Landscaping, for instance, I have all the work I want, j ust through word of mouth. I don’ t really think about it. And now I’m the kitchen manager. I have to supervise the kitchen workers, including the bakers. The bakers have odder hours than me—9:00 at night to 6:00 in the morning. They also make the pastries for Rock City Roasters on South Main. ”
How is it different with employee ownership? “Generally, it’s even a better place to work, even though it was good before. But, now, I have meetings to go to. That’s new, and I am one of the decision makers. I do a lot of the ordering, make many of the soups, and now I‘m also helping with preparation in the kitchen and out front. ” I reminded him that, before, he liked being just in the kitchen, being alone and not dealing with customers. “Not now. I like dealing with customers, and they enjoy talking with the person who is making their food. ”
So, is that success to you? “Life is good. I’m a lucky person. I’m healthy. My family is healthy. There’s lots of work. Sometimes it’s a little hard to make ends meet, but I guess that’s success. But someday, I want to retire and be able to do more refereeing and umpiring. I really like that. You can do that, even if you’ re old. ”
How about retirement? Do you have something with the company? “No, they don’ t do that. But I’m one of the original 1 7 employee-owners, especially since I had been here so long. I don’t really know what that’s worth. I guess I’ll find out. ”
I felt that he was saying something about freedom, not being burdened with the shackles of ambition, but finding a good life as it comes, especially by being a good worker. To me, that was refreshing.
As I was gathering my materials, taking my leave, there was a neighbor of ours with his wife at a nearby table. He was eating what appeared to be a tomato -based soup.
I asked him if that was tomato soup? “It’s tomato alright, but it has lots of other flavors, too. It’s really good. ”
That said it all.
Copyright Philip C. Groce 2020