Restaurateur's faith cultivates growth
After an afternoon spent driving around the East Cooper area in August 1994, Sal Parco ended up at Stella Maris Catholic Church on Sullivan's Island. A classic Southern thunderstorm filled the sky with dark gray clouds, lightning bolts and thunder.
Parco, the son of a hard-working Gloucester, Mass., fisherman and grandson of Sicilian immigrants, got out of his car and walked into the church. He was stunned by the beauty of the evening and the church.
"I took it as a sign," recalls Parco. "I felt like I needed to be down here."
Now the owner of nine restaurants in the area and perhaps most known for The Mustard Seed and Boulevard Diner in Mount Pleasant, Parco spent the previous 20 years learning the restaurant business from dishwashing to managing and owning.
Parco went to culinary school and college in New York and Florida. He worked up to 90 hours a week for 14 years in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., for a corporation that owned fine dining restaurants. He had a stint selling seafood in New England, and co-owned and ran restaurants in Detroit.
Parco was tired of working for others and not reaping the full benefits of his labor. Plus, "I wanted warm weather. Detroit was dark and cold."
He pulled up to the strip in Myrtle Beach. He got out, saw the ocean, felt the warm air, looked at the lush vegetation of palmettos, oaks and myrtles. While he liked that, Myrtle Beach didn't work for him. He decided to check out Wilmington, N.C. Nice, but too small.
Then he went the opposite direction and made the life-changing stop in Charleston.
Finding his Niche
Parco knew nothing about Charleston but was ready to take a risk. He went back to Detroit and told his partner he was leaving.
"I filled up my car with the basics: shorts, t-shirts and roller blades. A friend took the rest of the stuff — the winter coats and TV — to the Salvation Army," says Parco. "I didn't have a place to stay, and I didn't have a job."
Arriving in September 1994, he spent a month looking around for places to buy. He finally found a low-key location tucked away in Mount Pleasant's Sea Island Shopping Center, which at the time had not undergone a face-lift in years.
Parco's plan was to offer affordable, healthy, fresh dishes — focusing on vegetarian, fish and poultry.
Faith and Drive
In November 1994, Parco opened The Mustard Seed, named for the biblical parable comparing the kingdom of God to the tiny seed that produces a large plant. Parco had faith and channeled his entire being into making his restaurant flourish. His first crew consisted of a waitress, dishwasher and himself in the kitchen.
"I wanted to build slowly," recalls Parco, who arrived each day at 10 a.m. and left at 11 p.m.
Parco began building his reputation. Being used to big-city customers who rarely offered compliments, he was surprised at the friendly feedback. He recalls Andrea Sherman, his eventual wife, saying: "This place is so fantastic that I'm not going to tell anyone. I want to be able to get a table."
Eight tables went to 14. Next door, the beauty salon went out of business, and The Mustard Seed expanded into the space, which immediately filled up. Customers driving from James Island and Summerville pleaded with Parco to open restaurants in their communities.
Within two years, he opened one on James Island and has never looked back.
Today, Parco has nine restaurants: three Mustard Seed locations, two Boulevard Diners, Sette, Long Point Grill, Uno Mas and Village Bakery. Of the nine, six of them are in Mount Pleasant.
'An Easy Formula'
The restaurant business, many agree, is risky. Places open and close in the Charleston area every year.
But Parco has successfully combined his love of culinary arts with management and business savvy.
"It's an easy formula, but a lot of people don't hit it. A guy can be a great chef, but doesn't know a thing about business, and vice versa," he says.
His love of food began early in life, especially with the Sicilian traditions of pasta and fresh-baked bread and his father, Joseph Parco, bringing home fresh fish and lobster.
"Food was a big part of my life," says Parco, adding that the extended family often gathered for meals.
At the same time, his father persuaded him not to be a fisherman.
Joseph Parco earned enough money as a fisherman to buy his own 80-foot trawler and made a good living at the time, to support his wife and five children. But he would spend up to 10 consecutive days at sea, and the work was hard, grueling and dirty.
His father urged him to "go to cooking school, become a chef and maybe open a restaurant one day." That vision came into focus when Sal Parco became a teenager.
"There used to be a restaurant in my hometown overlooking the inner harbor and Ten Pound Island. It was great. I thought, 'I'd love to own this restaurant one day and be the chef.' "
Working for restaurants in Gloucester, Mass., helped Parco form connections to get into the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, where he received an associate degree. Despite that, Parco wasn't ready to start his life quite yet. He wanted to learn the business of restaurants as well, and headed to balmy Miami to attend Florida International University, where he received a bachelor's degree in hospitality management.
In Miami, Parco relished the warm weather and the fact that he could play tennis in winter between classes.
His experiential education developed from 14 years of service working for a corporate chain of fine dining restaurants, including jobs opening new restaurants.
During that time, he developed a recipe for restaurant success.
One key ingredient is customer service.
He also recognizes the need for managers and servers to have a specific character trait: genuine friendliness.
"I'd rather have someone with no experience, but is nice. You can teach the other stuff. You can't teach personality. You either have it or you don't," says Parco. "You might miss on the meal, but you can hit on the service."
Parco admits to being a "control freak," which isn't bad if your money is at stake, and calls managers at each restaurant each mealtime to make sure everything is running smoothly. He also jumps in the trenches at restaurants whenever needed.
The Pursuit of More
At the same time he has nine restaurants up and running, Parco is working to develop another part of his life.
"I'm learning to have more balance," says Parco, who is taking more time to play tennis, go boating and travel. Married in January, 2009, his wife Andrea has been an influence on finding balance.
"It's taken him 48 years to figure out that he doesn't have to spend every hour at work," she says, adding that she discovered the only way Parco truly "shuts off" from work is when he leaves town.
She says that Parco has endeared himself, slowly, to her three children, Ellison (who aspires to be a chef), Kolby (who shares Parco's love of sports) and Sophia (who just likes spending time with him). All three have volunteered for charity fundraiser dinners he has hosted.
Meanwhile, Parco is enjoying the balance between restaurant and family, including his son Michael and granddaughter Grasyn.
"I'm very grateful for everything I have. Charleston is great. I love the people and the area," says Parco. "My only wish is that I had discovered it years before I did."
Resource: Info. from “Restaurateur’s faith cultivates ‘Mustard Seed’
BY DAVID QUICK The Post and Courier Published on 12/16/06