Innerviews: Devoted manager keeps Bistro train on track
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- She's the vivacious general manager of the Bridge Road Bistro, an energetic overseer committed to fulfilling the dreams of her beloved friend and mentor, the late Robert Wong.
Quick money and a passion for people sucked her into the hospitality industry. Shelving plans for a law career, she collected a slew of impressive credentials in restaurant work. Credits include Cagney's, Outback, O'Charley's, Red Bull and Budweiser.
She found her working home under Wong's wing at the Bistro. His sudden death a year ago devastated her. Tearfully, she describes that sad day, how she held the apron and coffee cup he left behind that morning and knew then, deep in her heart, that she had to carry on.
"I was raised in St. Albans. I grew up in suburbia, like Mayberry.
"My mom, Betty, was married to a James Dean type. He drove fast cars and drank, a bad boy. About 9 months after I was born, he flipped his Mustang convertible going about 120 miles an hour and perished.
"Mom was a widow at 18. She met my stepdad, Billy Adkins. He raised me. My stepdad worked at FMC.
"I wanted to be a truck driver. I thought it would make me a good living and I would see the world and drive this huge beautiful piece of machinery. Then my intelligence kicked in, and I wanted to be an attorney.
"Marty Burke was a teacher at Stonewall and Capital. As a little girl, I would look up to her. She was a career woman. She helped mold me and showed me how to be a savvy woman.
"My first job was at the Valley Drive-In Theater in St. Albans when I was 16. I wanted to work there because my mom worked there. My mom was my idol. Her strength meant so much to me.
"My next job was at River's Edge. I set tables. Right before I graduated, they made me a server. I served for about six years, all through high school and college.
"I went to West Virginia State. I majored in criminal justice and political science. I wanted to go to law school. I was fascinated by how you could protect the innocent and help victims.
"I heard about this upscale restaurant called Cagney's. I needed better money. I had to pay for my books through school even with scholarships and grants. I needed to help mom with bills, too. She and my stepdad divorced. So I went to Cagney's as a server.
"My manager asked if I wanted to be a cocktail server. I made crazy money. I was making $800 to $1,000 a night, and I was in my early 20s. The money sucked me in.
"I was at Cagney's about two years when I heard Outback was coming to Charleston. There were hundreds of us at this mass interview. I took an hour-long aptitude test. They hired me as a server-bartender.
"Within the first week or two, I was a trainer. This girl came in and out a lot. The proprietor told me she was a service tech, that she went to other states looking at Outbacks to make sure we maintained our standards. Within six or eight months, I got her job.
"I was in charge of West Virginia, Virginia and Ohio. I eventually opened 66 Outback Steakhouses across the U.S. That's where I learned most of my standards in this industry.
"After four or five years, I decided I wanted to own an Outback and stop being a road warrior. But things were getting static. They said they weren't building any more Outbacks.
"O'Charley's had some headhunters calling me. They sent me to Kentucky to an O'Charley's to see what it was like. It was different from Outback, more family-oriented. I went to O'Charley's in Barboursville, and about a year later, I opened the one here on Corridor G and spent another two or three years there.
"I wanted to be a general manager, but promises weren't kept. The regional girl for Red Bull North America would come in, and we would run contests for her and we always won them. She said, 'Sandy, I want to start a family and you would be perfect for this job.'
"They sent me to D.C. on this big interview, wined and dined me and put me up in the most beautiful hotel and brought me on board.
"I was in charge of West Virginia and Virginia, overseeing any restaurant, tavern or bar that sold Red Bull. They gave me a Volvo and a huge expense account. They even paid my pet insurance. It was one of the best jobs I ever had.
"My job was to go into accounts and buy drinks with Red Bull and get people introduced to that brand. About a year and a half later, the economy went caput, and Red Bull laid off about 5,000 worldwide.
"They wanted to grow the urban market. They wanted to transfer me to California or Texas. I have nieces and nephews, and I didn't want to leave them. And my dad was having open-heart surgery. The timing just wasn't right. So I declined.
"I thought I would shake up my resume and went to work for Rock 105 in sales. It was the hardest job I have ever had, ever.
"I think God was looking out for me, because I went on a sales call to see Dick Barber at Budweiser. I said, 'If you are ever hiring, please let me know.' He was letting someone go the next day. I worked at Central Distributing selling Budweiser for about four years.
"That's how I met Robert and Sherri Wong, helping them with their beer lines. My girlfriend was the Bistro's general manger. She wanted to start a family and asked me to apply for her job. I kept saying no, because I knew it would suck the life out of me. I would never see my friends or my family.
"It took her six months to talk me into it. Robert said he let my résumé sit in front of him for a couple of months. He didn't want to hire another woman because he didn't want me getting pregnant and leaving.
"He interviewed me 10 or 12 times. He called it courting, like dating, getting to know each other. I started in 2010 on Valentine's Day. I'd found a home.
"The day Robert died, we had just came off Memorial Day break. That morning, after we did a few things around the building, he said he was going to play tennis and would see me in a couple of hours. That's the last time I saw him.
"I got a call from the Tennis Club about 1 p.m. They said he had collapsed. They couldn't find a heartbeat. Sherri and the boys were in Myrtle Beach. I went straight to the hospital, praying all the way that he would be OK.
"I got there and ... I'm sorry for crying ... they pulled me into a side room to tell me he didn't make it. I had to call Sherri and tell her. I had to come back and tell the restaurant employees we'd lost our owner. I pulled everybody in the back of the room. We closed immediately. Everybody went home.
"I sat in Robert's chair and said, 'What am I going to do without you?' I held his apron that he took off earlier that day. I held the cup he'd had his coffee in. And I said, 'I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to keep doing what he would want me to do.' I just kept the train on the tracks.
"Robert would always tell me, 'Sandy, I trust you with my kids and my wife, if anything ever happens to me.' Those words kept ringing through my head. He and Sherri hired me to be here and keep his dream alive.
"Sherri called and said Robert had given the gift of life and she needed me to be with him while they harvested his organs. So I was with him in the hospital all night so he wouldn't be alone.
"Sherri was the love of his life and his soul mate in life, but he was my soul mate in business. We saw eye to eye. I have so much respect for that man. I feel he wasn't finished molding me, but I like to think he would be proud.
"We are growing the company. We have food and beverage contracts at the Columbia Gas building and the Tennis Club. We have our food truck roving around town like crazy. City National has asked us to design their kitchen and dining room. We have a new facility opening beside the Marshall Graduate School. And there are some other things I have in my back pocket.
"I feel comfortable here, like I can make a difference with the community and touch more lives.
"I love making memories, creating birthdays and anniversaries. It allows me to help people embrace every moment, because you never know when your last memory will be or with who.
"The hours are worse than I ever anticipated. I put in no less than 12 to 16 hours a day. But it's better now that I've got this amazing assistant, Detrick Propes. He's a different breed. He doesn't do things the way he wants to do them. He does things how Robert taught me and how I've taught him.
"A lot of us feel like Robert is here in spirit, looking over us. I always hear his voice in my head when it's decision-making time.
"I have a passion for hospitality. I feel great about my life. I've got a good person in my life right now. I'm looking forward to building a future with that."
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.