By Douglas Karlson
One of the most popular and busiest restaurants on the Cape is Siena in Mashpee Commons. At the center of it is a very busy couple, Nick and Melissa Jankowski, the restaurant’s general manager and executive chef.
One of three restaurants owned by Graham Silliman of Cotuit (two sister restaurants, both called Tavolino, are located in Foxboro and Westborough), Siena opened in 2002. In the summer, the restaurant will typically serve up to 400 diners per day.
The menu and ambiance align with the restaurant’s motto: “vivere bene, magiare bene, socializare.” Translated: “Live well, eat well, and be social.”
“People know they can come here and have a consistently good meal,” says Nick, noting that location, atmosphere, and good food are the main draws. “The restaurant has a good vibe,” agrees Melissa.
Popular specialties include spicy seafood cioppino (a seafood stew), butternut squash tortellacci, and brick oven pizza. Nick characterizes the menu as “Italian-American, traditional Italian, and contemporary Italian.”
Melissa, a native of Bourne, joined Siena when the restaurant opened, working her way up with jobs as waiter, bartender, and bar manager before landing the general manager position in 2008. Nick joined in 2004 as sous chef, and was elevated to executive chef in 2009. They met at the restaurant and married in 2011.
Nick, who grew up in Plymouth, attended Johnson and Wales University in Providence, but began working in kitchen restaurants in high school.
Melissa credits their employees for the restaurant’s success. Team building, treating employees with respect, and a hand-on approach are critical when it comes to managing, she says.
“It’s important to lead by example. I would never ask someone to do something I wouldn’t do.”
One of the biggest challenges facing any business on Cape Cod is recruiting friendly, skilled employees. That’s particularly true for restaurants, where employees tend to be part-time and temporary. In the summer, Siena employs more than a hundred staff. Many are college students.
“The season comes so fast, there’s not a lot of time to train them,” says Melissa.
That makes employee retention all the more important. To retain staff, Melissa and Nick say they focus on creating a positive, enjoyable work environment. It also helps is you’re a people person, devoted to building team spirit, says Melissa. “Most of the people in this business are creative, passionate people,” she observes. “It keeps it interesting, and it keeps it fun.”
Her strategy has paid off. Many of the of staff members return year after year, and summer workers often recommend friends for jobs at the restaurant. Siena also relies on summer workers with J-1 three-month visas. Many come from Kazakhstan.
“That’s the hot spot now. They’re always great, they’re helpful,” says Melissa.
In addition to the team, the other key ingredient for success is the food. e menu at Siena changes seasonally in order to create variety and to make use of local fresh ingredients.
In addition to fresh food, Nick and Melissa seek to introduce fresh ideas to the business. They periodically travel to Italy in the fall for a week with the owner and his other key staff in search of inspiration. “We try to take what we learn on those excursions and apply it here,” explains Nick, who is clearly inspired by the Italian approach.
“They use what’s available in their backyard,” he explains. Siena does too, making use of local foods ranging from local shellfish to local heirloom tomatoes.
In addition to visiting Italy, the pair attend culinary conferences, such as a nationwide pizza-making exposition recently held in Las Vegas, where topics ranged from the best flour to use for pizza dough to how to make business more pro‑table.
“There’s a lot of thought that goes into every aspect of this place, from the hiring of employees to the recipes for drinks,” says Melissa.
To promote the restaurant, Melissa says she finds radio advertising to be the most efficient.
The restaurant is regularly mentioned on the Ed Lambert show, who likes to sample the cuisine.
Melissa does some magazine advertising, and also promotes Siena on Facebook and Instagram. Most of the social media promotion is organic, but some is paid. Siena is also active in the community, participating in local fundraisers through donations and sponsorships.
Despite the fact that it can be hard to get a table during peak times in the summer (reservations are recommended), Nick says the restaurant is always looking for ways to grow.
During the off-season, Siena offers a special four-course prix-fixe dinner every night except Friday and Saturday. There’s also a dinner and a movie package to take advantage of the fact that there’s a movie theater next door.
Advice for others thinking of the restaurant business? “It’s demanding, you really have to like what you do, you have to thrive off the craziness of it,” says Melissa. “And be prepared for the unexpected,” adds Nick. “The restaurant business changes from day to day, you never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes it comes out of the blue, in the middle of February.”
While it’s a challenge running any large popular restaurant, it’s all the more so for Nick and Melissa, who have two children at home, Avery, 8, and Atticus, 4. Luckily for them, when the restaurant is getting slammed, they can rely on grandparents who live nearby. “It takes a village,” laughs Melissa.
In their spare time, what there is of it, Melissa is learning guitar and likes long-distance running. Nick is happy with anything having to do with a boat and water. But their children are their main activity, so summer fun is usually found on the beach with children.
And who does the cooking at home? Nick, of course. “It’s a lot simpler,” he says. “Tacos, pasta, and mac and cheese.”