By Mike Lauterborn
(for Fairfield Citizen News)
Fairfield, CT – A common work ethic, stagnant wages and a desire for independence were the motivating factors that led two local men to launch Sea House Clambakes & Catering, a Fairfield-based food service business that has already booked dozens of parties for the 2011 season.
“None of my family was in the restaurant business,” said co-founder and Fairfield resident Marc Cehovsky, 42, “but everyone was a great cook. I was always in the kitchen and taught to make things from an early age.”
His partner, Jeff Seganos, 36, of Ansonia, had a similar tale. “I was just a ‘grill man’ like my dad and always liked the outdoor parties and social aspect of them.”
The two first became acquainted at Fairfield Warde High School, where Cehovsky teaches American History and Seganos is a dean and was a former math teacher. “We were always hustling for money, doing side jobs,” said Cehovsky, who got his first professional cooking experience at Swanson’s Fish Market, in Summer 2001. He worked as a crew member conducting clambakes at homes, corporate events, birthdays, etc.
Cehovsky told the fish market’s owner, Gary Swanson, that he knew a great guy that could help out. “Gary said, ‘Bring him on.’ The idea was that Jeff and I would partner up and do the clambakes together,” Cehovsky said. “Jeff turned out to be very good at them and ended up leading his own crew. We actually very rarely worked together in those first few years.”
The clambakes kept the two busy summer after summer for a decade, handling upwards of 60 parties a season. Then, two years ago, a unique set of circumstances made the pair start to consider their options. As Cehovsky explained, “There was turnover at Swanson’s, our teacher pay got frozen, my wife’s real estate sales slowed and we both had kids headed for college.”
“We recognized that we were very good at what we did and could probably do a better job on our own for all the amount of effort put in,” Cehovsky said. “And, at our ages, we said to ourselves, ‘If we don’t do it now, when are we going to do it?’”
Cehovsky added that his teaching position was good prep for being independent. “As a teacher, I’m master of my own fate, more or less, when I close that door. There’s something very satisfying about that,” he said.
The two closed out the 2010 clambake season with Swanson’s, left on good terms, took out a small business loan to supplement savings and formed their LLC. “Then we went about doing all the preliminary work,” said Cehovsky, “like getting a van, buying equipment and securing insurance. We made a massive list, as long as your leg, of things that needed to be done to get the business going, and have both been very active. Anyone catering has to be ‘serve safe’, so we had to get certified by the National Restaurant Association. We also had to get familiar with all the state and local food service laws.”
Though the business is registered in Fairfield, the pair maintain a fully functioning 1,000-square-foot commercial kitchen in a business complex on the Post Road in Milford, which they rent and will operate seasonally. They have forged connections with reputable seafood vendors from Maine to Canada, and created a tasty menu to serve parties of 25 to 250 people. This includes appetizers like clams on the half shell, steamers, mussels, Little Necks and steamed clams; entrees such as lobster, rib eye steak and swordfish; and sides like corn on the cob, potatoes and cole slaw. Pricing is generally $25 to $30 per head, depending on menu choices.
“It’s just the two of us, but we surely hope to add crew members,” Cehovsky said. “For now, it’s important to people that the company owners are showing up to cater their events. That’s what may separate us from other businesses in this category, as well as the fact that you can’t get the quality and amount of food at a restaurant that you would get through us. It’s a great deal.”
Cehovsky said he and Seganos are good friends and work well with each other, even reading each other’s minds. “Though there’s a lot more work to do, when you work for yourself, it’s exciting and raises your game. It’s your face and your reputation out there, and no one wants to make a fool of themselves,” Cehovsky said.
Seganos added that the catering business is a perfect gig for them. “It’s seasonal, falling mainly during the summer months, when we’re on break from school, and on weekends and nights. We’re going to look at holiday times, too.”
Cehovsky said people thought they were crazy to start the business during these uncertain financial times, but Linda Kavanagh, Director of the New England Culinary Group, a restaurant consultancy, said they are well positioned for success.
“Having a niche like they do is far more impactful as a caterer than saying they do everything,” she said. “More than just producing a good product, it doesn’t hurt to have the personal background with Swanson’s either. Their other jobs as teachers also give them likeability, which is an added p.r. component.”
Kavanagh added, “I’ve had six restaurants open in the last six weeks. Dining is the #1 recreational activity. No matter what, people want to have a party and will spend on that.”