Raynham’s Barrels & Boards Owners Share Their Story Ahead of Re-Opening
Walking into Raynham’s Barrels & Boards on Wednesday afternoon, there was a flurry of activity taking place in preparation of the restaurant’s impending re-opening. Workers were putting the finishing touches on renovations, the restaurant staff preparing to welcome customers back through the giant barrel of an entrance after being closed for nearly two months due to burst pipes and the damage they caused.
The final inspections have taken place, and the damage that forced the restaurant to shut down is now all repaired. Any day now, the restaurant will begin its new life with a bright future after being under a cloud of uncertainty just a short time ago.
“We’re opening this week,” owner Dean Saxonis said with equal parts conviction and relief.
It’s not just relief to finally be back in business after costly repairs and weeks of being unable to operate; it’s relief that a return to serving the public can help put behind a dark period in which the restaurant’s two owners were at odds with one another, and it was affecting the future of the establishment.
“There was a lot of speculation that we weren’t going to open,” Saxonis said. “We couldn’t speak for two reasons. One, the lawyers told us not to, and secondly, the other side took the social media page away from us.”
Getting Started With Barrels & Boards
Dean and Irene Saxonis were in business with longtime friend Dave Laghetto for the past two years, as Barrels & Boards became one of the most popular new restaurants on the scene. Originally, the Saxonises wanted to take a backseat and just allow Laghetto to run the restaurant as he saw fit; they were busy running other businesses, and although Dean Saxonis’ family had owned the building and its previous incarnations for 40 years, and both he and Irene had a lifetime of experience working there, they wanted to give Laghetto a chance to shine.
“We wouldn't have done it if it wasn’t for him. A restaurant takes a lot of time, a lot of energy, and you’re married to the restaurant afterwards. Where we’re at, we didn’t need to do it,” Dean said. “The building itself always would have been ours because my family wanted me to have it. We wanted somebody to come in here and make a business.”
A New Bedford Chef Shall Lead Them
The restaurant hired one of the rising young superstar chefs in the area, New Bedford’s Manny Hernandez. At just 29 years old, the Puerto Ricao native had already made quite the name for himself, becoming executive chef at New Bedford’s Waterfront Grille at age 21 before moving on to become the first executive chef for Middleboro’s Charred Oak Tavern, as it emerged as one of the region’s hottest restaurants. After a few years, he was looking for his next challenge and moved over to Barrels & Boards, and helped make it an instant success as well.
However, he found that under Laghetto’s management, he wasn’t being given the room he needed to fully execute his vision for the food.
“It’s very hard for me to grow and continue to get better at what I do when I have a wall in front of me that I can’t move,” Hernandez said. “I’m young. I’m not just looking to make a paycheck and be comfortable and go home. I want a challenge.”
Tension Grows Between the Owners of Barrels & Boards
There were other issues with Laghetto’s management, according to the Saxonises, including his refusal to give them access to the financials of the business when they became concerned about operations.
“When money comes into play, sometimes your head gets a little big and you forget where you came from and where you started, and you also forget that we’re business people,” Irene Saxonis said. “We run several successful businesses, we understand the finance part of it, so if you see certain things, you know it’s not going in the right direction. You see certain things and you always have to project, and that’s what Dean and I have always done, especially in the restaurant business. Just because you’re making it doesn’t mean it’s always going to be there.”
But they said it was Laghetto’s issues with the staff that led to them stepping in and taking over operations. Dean Saxonis spoke of arriving one day and “the place was like a funeral parlor” when it came to everyone’s attitudes toward work. He said there was a day when he pulled into the parking lot and the entire kitchen staff and bar staff were in the parking lot, ready to leave.
“There was a partner. We had issues with a partner. That’s on the back end, that’s the business part of it. People who are in business, it happens, but there are things people aren’t aware of,” Irene said. “But we did what we had to do not for ourselves, but we did what we had to do for the staff, for the people that work here.”
“If it wasn’t for this team, we wouldn’t be here, trust me,” she said. “We would have knocked this building down, put condos up, and had a great payday. See you later, we don’t have to think about anything ever again.”
They said at first, they tried to give Laghetto a chance to right the ship with the staff.
“We tried to make amends with everybody, tried to give Dave that chance,” Irene said. “We tried to bring everyone together and said, ‘Listen, Dave, you need to hear what these people have to say because it’s ugly, it’s really ugly, and these are your key people.' And he didn’t want to hear it.”
“He made it easy to get here, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t the right fit because now we are here,” Dean said. “And if we’re here, we’re going to do it right.”
Barrels & Boards' Broken Pipes and a Broken Partnership
After the Saxonises assumed control on January 3, the water pipes and water main broke shortly thereafter, causing the restaurant to cease operations on January 18 while repairs were made and a new floor was put in, both in the kitchen and in the dining room. Other cosmetic upgrades were made as well.
Laghetto, meanwhile, filed an “ex parte” emergency motion filed in Bristol Superior Court against Dean Saxonis, requesting that Laghetto be allowed to take full control of the business and that Saxonis not be permitted on the property out of concern that he “could erupt and cause significant damage to the restaurant premises, intimidate employees and harm the business and perhaps the plaintiff personally.”
The motion also indicated that the $100,000 Saxonis spent on repairs as a result of the broken pipes was not necessary.
“We ended up putting a fire resistant floor in,” Dean said, noting that while replacing the kitchen floor, it was found that there was significant fire damage occurring under the equipment. “So $100,000 in repairs and $75,000 of that was the floor. If you’re going to do that, you might as well paint, might as well change a couple pictures, might as well put a couple fireplaces in.”
In addition, the Saxonises said that while the restaurant was closed, they were also using their own money to help some of their employees with rent and tuition payments while they waited to get back to work.
“They didn’t ask us for anything, we did it out of the goodness of our heart because they needed it, and it will come back,” Dean said. “These are good people that work hard, and they’ll make this place what it once was. They’re going to make it even better.”
“The biggest thing was the employees. Nobody comes here for the owner,” Irene said. “It was the staff that made this place. It wasn’t Dean, it wasn’t Dave, it wasn’t even the GM at the time. It was really Manny in the kitchen. It was his kitchen staff. Without them, you’re not going to have Barrels & Boards. You can replace them, you might have another 99 (Restaurant), you might have another pub, but you’re not going to have that, and that’s what they failed to realize.”
Setting Their Superstar Chef Up for Success Is the Main Priority Now
“Manny busted his ass from day one, and he was promised that kitchen, that was his, and because of what he did, and his team, this place became a success, and it was up to ownership to make sure it continued in the right direction – and it wasn’t going to go that way,” Irene said.
“At 29 years old, what a talent. The staff, his sous chef Jordan (De Sousa), they all deserve those accolades, not anybody else,” she said. “We’re supposed to give them the stability and the tools to grow and keep going. That’s how Dean and I run our businesses. We never base it on us, we base it on our employees and what they do and give them that environment to flourish.”
In fact, the Saxonises have given Hernandez a 20 percent ownership stake in Barrels & Boards in addition to the freedom to execute the menu as he sees fit – and that’s going to mean a lot of unique ideas that will keep people talking.
“How can I innovate everything I put on the menu? You can’t do it with all of them, but if you can do it with a good percentage of it, that just sets you apart from everybody,” he said.
Hernandez famously engineered one of Charred Oak Tavern’s signature dishes, the candied bacon appetizer. People come from miles around to order the delectable bacon, hanging from a small clothesline, with the ramekin of butterscotch sauce for dipping. It is just as Instagram-worthy as it was delicious.
“It was a huge, huge hit. People would go for the bacon, and then everything came after that. The main attraction was the bacon," he said. "So I wanted to do it here as well – it was my recipe, my item – but wanted to make sure that people that didn’t know it was the same chef weren’t going to think we were just trying to copy Charred Oak.”
He drew inspiration from his native Puerto Rico, where he lived until he was 12 years old.
“My dad always had a kabob place in Puerto Rico, selling chicken kabobs and pork kabobs and pina coladas,” he said. “I remember as a kid, he would cook the kabobs for me, and I’d just brush them with barbecue sauce, put them with the bread, and sell them to the customer.”
He thought back to that brushing technique when coming up with his next twist for candied bacon.
“The idea came to put the bacon on a skewer, and like I did when I was a kid, brush the butterscotch on with a brush. Make the customer interact with the appetizer rather than just grabbing it with a fork,” he said. “Yeah, grabbing it with a fork would still taste good, but it’s even better when you interact with the food, when you have fun with it.”
That’s been the secret to his success, he said, since the time he first stepped into a professional kitchen at age 16 in New Bedford.
“My main focus is to have fun with the food, to enjoy what I’m doing, so the customers can feel that,” he said. “And for the most part, I think they have.”
Hernandez also recently made an appearance on a cooking show, Blind Kitchen, which can be found on the Very Local streaming app for smart devices. Not to give away any spoilers, but he won the competition and hopes to compete in more cooking challenges in the future.
“I’d love to go on Chopped one day, or Cutthroat Kitchen – but not right now,” he said. “I have a lot going on right now, but those are the kinds of things I see myself doing.”
In addition, he also recently started a TikTok account, @cookingwithchefmanny, where he posts videos of how he makes some of his signature creations.
A Re-Energized Staff Is Ready to Lead Barrels & Boards Into the Future
It’s not just Hernandez and his kitchen staff that feels set free now; General Manager Kelley Cataldo and Vice President of Operations Karen Donahue also echoed the sentiment that they feel they're ready to bring the best they can to the patrons of Barrels & Boards.
“The restaurant is a very unique place. There are not too many places around that offer what we do, as far as the ambiance and the feeling,” Donahue said. “People travel from all over to come here, they wait two hours to have dinner. That speaks volumes right there.”
The staff can also expect a long line out the door once the restaurant finally does re-open, if the comments on social media, which have been overwhelmingly supportive of the new direction, are any indication. Everyone inside Barrels & Boards is ready to look to the future without the burdens of the past.
“I just want to move forward from the negativity,” Irene Saxonis said.
The Restaurant’s Market Is Also Growing
In addition to the bright future of the restaurant itself, there are also big things in store for the B&B Market Place that is attached to the restaurant. When the former Honey Dew Donuts that was next door became available, Barrels & Boards purchased it, connected it to the main building and its kitchen, and started offering premium meats, seafood, desserts and more.
Upcoming plans include the ability to purchase hot foods on a takeout basis, and even the ability to pick out your preferred meat or fish from the display cases and have it cooked up for you while you wait.
You can even grab a frozen version of their signature pizzas to take home.
It’s just part of the innovation planned, as Barrels & Boards is now in the secure hands of the Saxonises going forward.
“My family’s been here for 40 years, and when it’s my time to go, my daughter will be here, my wife will be here,” Dean Saxonis said. “This place is not to be sold. It will go from generation to generation.”