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Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Keri Laman has a cafe by the river

March 23. 2013 3:05AM

THE TENANTS moving into the upscale Lofts at Mill No. 1 in the Manchester Millyard are the great hope of the Queen City, the young professionals who will draw more restaurant and retail business downtown and create a strong sense of place.

A place where the neighborhood lunch spot serves duck confit salad, bison burgers and mac-and-cheese bites made with brie.

Welcome to the Waterworks Cafe, a breakfast and lunch restaurant that opened three weeks ago at 250 Commercial St. in the historic Waumbec building. And, yes, it does have a view of the Merrimack River - it had better with a name like that and a sign that promises to "wet" your appetite. (They left out the "h" on purpose.)

Prospective tenants of developer Brady Sullivan's newly unveiled 110-unit apartment complex at 300 Bedford St. receive copies of the breakfast and lunch restaurant's menu with their information packet. It's as if to say, "It's a cool place to live. You're just a short walk from a latte and crab avocado salad."

With her first restaurant, Keri Laman aims to build a steady clientele of Millyard tech workers and UNH students studying at the Manchester campus (to whom she offers a 5 percent discount). And, of course, those new downtown residents. The Waterworks Cafe is a natural extension for Laman, who launched Tidewater Hospitality Resources in the Millyard in 2000 and three years later opened Tidewater Catering Group there.

Now Laman spends her days shuttling back and forth from her office and the catering company on the southwest end of the building to the northwest side where she opened the 3,600-square-feet cafe. The space, which last housed a children's museum, sports exposed brick, floor-to-ceiling windows and a decor that blends contemporary touches with the classic mill architecture.

"The biggest hurdle was trying to maintain the history, the classic beauty of the space while modernizing it in the necessity way and to code," Laman said Thursday at the cafe.

Black-and-white photos on the wall depict the 21st-century version of the millyard area, not the sweatshops of old. After all, they're not exactly doing piece work upstairs at the RiverStone Group, an insurance services company that has more than 200 workers. But even white-collar folks are pressed for time, and running up the road to grab something on Elm Street might not always be an option. And parking spaces in the Millyard are precious.

"There's a very cool mix of clientele, and where the heck are they going to go for lunch? You move your car and you're never going to find a spot," Laman said. "People were getting sick of the cold sandwiches or just being able to get a piece of pizza or something fried."

Laman spent seven months readying the cafe, which she aimed to be inviting to both folks who want to grab some takeout or business people who need a booth for a meeting. It's open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday.

"I tried to create an upscale counter-service style that enables people to ... if they want to sit down ... to feel very comfortable to do it but equally if you're on the run, call me ahead of time, come down and it'll be ready in two minutes, and you can go about your day," she said. "I'm trying to embrace the multi-levels of how people are experiencing their work day."

Laman and culinary director Johnny Wallace developed a diverse menu that includes entrees like homemade thyme potato gnocci and balsamic glazed salmon but still has a home for a turkey club and a tuna melt. Breakfast includes pear cranberry strudel and the Amoskeag omelet (with avocado, asparagus, tomato and feta cheese.)

"I'm a huge proponent of value," Laman said. "I want you to come time and time again not because you're trapped to come here but because you really feel your dollar is well-spent here. I'm surprising you with something you didn't think you'd get for that dollar."

The Boston University graduate, who studied hotel and restaurant management, has more than a quarter-century of experience. Her catering business includes contract food services for business and college campuses in Manchester, Concord and Nashua - which means she's now operating six kitchens.

Adding a restaurant will help keep her business strong year-round, since catering can slow down in the winter months when outdoor events dwindle. The Waterworks Cafe is also available for private parties and business events and can accommodate up to 75 people.

"The catering business is very, very strong. But as you can imagine, the portfolio of any company over time has to have balance," said Laman, 45, a New Jersey native who has lived in New Hampshire since 1997.

Having a mix of businesses also enables her staff to learn new skills and to graduate to more responsibility when they are ready.

"It's an amazing opportunity for the young people in the company to have their sights set on something else. Nobody is bored here. More proudly, I'd be hard-pressed to say that there's anyone in this company who only does one job. They're all cross-trained, which allows me to not lay people off. It allows people for promotion or for crossing over."

Mentoring her staff and building a team that can face the rigorous and unexpected challenges of catering - where control of the environment can be sketchy - drives Laman and keeps her engaged in an industry known for its high degree of burnout. She compares the various sectors of hospitality to medical specialties, and she's just added a new one to her resume. She seems pretty happy about that.

"To wake up and be able to say, 'I love my job.' That's a pretty cool thing," Laman said. "I wish everybody had that opportunity. Even my staff will say, 'Are you ever in a bad mood?' No!"

Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or

Food Manchester Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook

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