What Happens Before Dinner

What Happens Before Dinner
Words by Clair McLafferty
Photos by Andrew Welch
 In the restaurant world, the kitchen prepares a meal for the entire staff before or after meal service. Often what is served is a recipe a chef uses at home or a dish that the kitchen wants the rest of the staff to try. It’s just about the only time servers, bussers, kitchen staff, and dishwashers all sit down together to talk and eat. It’s a meal made for the work family, and it’s a meal that brings the family together.

At The Manship in Jackson, Mississippi, family meal happens on Tuesdays and Thursdays between lunch and dinner service. “It’s not a traditional fine dining family meal,” says owner and general manager Steven O’Neill. “They cook right at the end of the lunch shift, and all the servers and kitchen staff hang out at the back of the line as the dinner shift comes in.”

The unity and fellowship is important as part of the restaurant’s people-first philosophy. “We try to make sure that everybody is doing better for themselves when they work with us,” says Steven. “I don’t think that guests see how much we value morale and quality of life.”

Part of why Steven and chef Alex Eaton are so focused on their employees is that they have both been in the service industry since they were young. When Steven was 15, he began working as a busboy, and then graduated to waiting tables when he went to college.

As with so many others, September 11, 2001 changed the trajectory of his life. After seeing the terrorist attacks on TV, Steven dropped out of college to join the army. When he returned from his service, he went back to working in restaurants and moved up the ranks from server to bartender to management. Then the work started in earnest as he started to research opening his own place.

He found a space in a building across the street from a hospital and met Alex. Both are Jackson natives, and they found out that they had some mutual family friends. “When we talked about it, his ideas would drive the culinary aspect, and I would build a beverage program to match it,” he says. “My passion is whiskey, and our list has over 700 whiskeys from around the world. I’m also a level one sommelier, so we built a wine list with more than 300 labels.”

Then the restaurant name presented itself. It was most obviously named for the road on which it’s located, Manship Street, but the name’s significance doesn’t end there. Manship Street was named after Charles Manship, an architect who became mayor of Jackson after the Civil War. That’s not all. “If you look it up in the dictionary, ‘manship’ is a suffix meaning ‘to engage and excel in a competitive field or sport. We’re Manship because we want to be the best at what we do.”

For the five years it’s been open, the café has served up a seasonal menu with mixed influences, including Spanish, Greek, and northern Italian offerings cooked over a wood fire. “It’s not necessarily white tablecloth, like other places, but it has really high-quality service,” says Steven. “The food and quality rival fine dining, but at a lower price point.”

Working in the restaurant industry can be particularly challenging between the late nights, physical work, and constantly positive human interaction. For The Manship employees, the space’s proximity to the hospital means that the staff serves a good number of patients and their families coming in for a break. This means that servers see people at their best and at their worst. It also means moments that inspire them to keep working.

For Steven, one of those moments happened during The Manship’s first year. A guest came in to take a break from sitting with his terminally ill wife. “I could tell he was in a bad place,” says Steven. “He didn’t enjoy his meal, and I took care of it. The next day, it was still eating at me.” So, Steven called the hospital and was able to track down the patient to send flowers. “He came back the next day and said that that was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him. We’ve stayed in touch, and we have since become good buddies.”

“Even more important,” he says, “is keeping the lines of communication open and focusing on the guests and their experiences. At the restaurant, we enjoy the highs and lows of customers’ lives,” he says. “We get to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and engagements and weddings. We’re getting to share in the most important moments of people’s lives.”

The Manship | 1200 North State Street, Jackson, MS | (601) 398-4562 | themanshipjackson.com