Jennifer Thomas returned to Boston after years spent working in management at restaurant groups across the country. Now she’s general manager at Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca in the Seaport. She came aboard in August 2017; not long after, owner Mario Batali stepped away from his restaurant empire amid sexual misconduct allegations. Thomas decided to stay on despite the drama.
“You know, as a woman, it puts you in a complex situation. Which way do you go? How do you feel? Are you a sellout for staying? I thought long and hard, and I really believe that Boston is Boston. It believes in its people, its community, friends, and families. The people who work in this restaurant work hard. They live in this restaurant. They are our families. I’m here for them,” Thomas says. “They deserve a strong leader.”
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? I must have been 5 or 6. My grandparents took me to “The Nutcracker.” I felt really big. We came to the big city and dined at Top of the Hub. I thought it was the coolest thing. The restaurant turned! I probably ordered meat. They used to call me “meat eater.”
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? If I could fix it, I’d be a millionaire! The talent pool, from management to dishwashers. It’s a challenge we’re all under. I’ve lived in so many places, big cities, and the challenge exists across the country. I don’t know how to fix it. The nature of the business is so transient. People like to bounce to the next shiny thing.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? I left to go to school at 17 and hadn’t been back home until August. I walked across the bridge [to the Seaport], and the landscape is 100 percent “new world” over here. Anthony’s Pier 4 was it!
What other restaurants do you visit? I haven’t ventured out as much as I would like to, but now spring’s coming. I go to a majority of places in the Seaport simply because of competition, proximity, investigating, that kind of thing. I’ve been checking out local competition and stuff. I need to get more into the city. I’m living in Revere, I have a new apartment right on the beach, and I can zip in and out.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: I want to work in restaurants? When I was a little girl, old enough to cruise around town, I had a friend in my neighborhood whose family owned a restaurant in downtown Turners Falls. We’d walk from school to the restaurant. It was the coolest thing! We could order whatever we wanted. We could act like we owned the joint. I remember thinking: I wanted to be able to order french fries whenever I wanted.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? They are two: I went to San Francisco when I was exploring living there. I was in Menlo Park to get a late dinner. We went to a Chinese restaurant that seated until 9. They literally vacuumed under our feet. Think of your mom saying “Up with the feet!” when you’re sitting on the couch. Years later, in Pittsburgh, my family came in. We went to an upscale steakhouse. The lights come on full blast, they put chairs on top of tables, and vacuumed. I asked, “Can we take our wine to go?” I don’t think you should be vacuumed out if you’re spending $300 for dinner.
How could Boston become a better food city? I’m not sure I have that answer. I love the old tradition that does exist in Boston. You have that classic, historical, deep-rooted, very proud community, longstanding North End restaurants, all of that, as well as some of the best cutting-edge chefs and James Beard winners galore. I think the progress and the acclaim is finally being noted. We just need to keep that balance. You can get stuck in the mud with the history. We need to continue to balance old Boston culture with new trends.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Proud. Focused. Fun.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? I do hate the sushi burrito thing, but everyone hates it! I think we can all commonly agree. And I don’t like the iPad trend of no service. Those restaurants are termed “full service,” but you’re taking away the server. I saw it tremendously on my last trip to New York. Every table has an iPad — the menu, ordering, payment is all done via the iPad. You have no server. You have a food runner and a buser. You get shortchanged on the personal touches, as well as being able to ask important questions about what dishes truly are.
What are you reading? Kate Edwards’s book “Hello.” It’s all about hospitality. If you have them at “hello,” like Jerry Maguire, you’ll have a loyal guest.
How’s your commute? I was blessed to have my sister in the area when I moved here. I was camping with her, in South Natick, for my first three months. I took an Uber to the commuter rail to South Station and then walked over. Now, the Blue Line gets me right here to the Aquarium, and I still have my little walk to decompress. It’s down from two hours one way to 40 minutes. And I love it!
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? Brussels sprouts. I don’t care what you do to them. I don’t like them.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? Being on the coast, you can’t have too much good sushi! I still hear people saying that there’s not enough. We need more. There’s never too much awesome sushi.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? Anthony’s Pier 4. I’d go after going to the Children’s Museum. I wish I could go back one more time, for old time’s sake.
Who was your most memorable customer? Not customers, but I saw Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell [at a restaurant in] Boulder. They were incredible, fun, and just normal people. We had a ball. My roommate and I worked in the restaurant business. I was a bar manager at the time. We rarely got out. I think their son was going to [the University of Colorado] at the time. I ended up having to go to the bathroom and all of a sudden, there she was. I was flabbergasted. She’s my height. I’m short. I was looking her in the eye, and I couldn’t speak. I love her! She stuck her hand straight out, defused the situation, and said, “Hi. Goldie.” I said, “Jennifer!” Off we went looking for the bathroom, giggling.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? I love Eastern Standard. Best mussels I’ve ever had in my life. My father and I fought over them.
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com.