Going All In

In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, my grandfather Nick Demma ran a restaurant with his brothers called The Boat. During this time, when my grandfather was between thirty and sixty years old, a typical day would have begun in the one bedroom apartment above the restaurant. He would come downstairs at the crack of dawn to sell pepper and egg breakfast sandwiches to truck drivers, factory works and local farmers. At lunch time, it was fried capicola sandwiches and maybe some short Utica Club beers for the guys at the bar. The dinner crowd would come early on their way to the Vernon Downs harness track, and the same crowd would stop back after the races for drinks. The party would regularly last until two or three in the morning or later, when the last drunk would stumble out of the bar.

My grandfather would then walk back upstairs, sleep for a few hours, and then start frying pepper and eggs sandwiches at dawn the next morning, facing another twenty plus hour work day. He was all in.

I hear managers today who want to have something called a work/life balance. I have news for you – it doesn’t exist. Business is too competitive. For every Monday-through-Friday-nine-to-five manager out there, there are a hundred who will work fifty-hour weeks for the same pay. And for every fifty-hour manager, there are a hundred who will work weekends, nights, holidays, and offer around the clock remote availability for the same price. Who would you hire or promote?

Eighty years ago my grand-uncle Sammy built The Boat as a neighborhood hang out. Today, my father, mother, and uncle still successfully run The Boat restaurant very much like the generation before them, minus the over-nights and serving breakfast. Why did this small business survive for eighty years, when ninety-nine out of a hundred restaurants don’t last a decade? Of all the changes in business, some principles like hard work will never change. My parents are all in like the generation before them.

Managers who chase work/life balance will either never find it or they fail in business when someone willing to put in the effort passes them by. The old cliche about doing something you love and never working a day in your life is also nonsense. I say, find something you’re good at and work harder than anyone else doing it or someone else will take your job from you.

Now for some good news. Today’s managers’ hard work is certainly different than the hard work of prior generations. I think about my grandfather Nick’s twenty-hours-per-day schedule when I wake up early facing a fourteen-hour day. Fourteen hours of knowledge work is better than twenty hours of labor. I imagine my grandfather Nick would think about his father as he tried to peel himself out of bed in the morning. Maybe he thought, “At least I won’t have to carry bricks all day.” His father, Leonardo, worked as a mason’s assistant after arriving from Italy, and raised ten children on a laborer’s pay. Maybe Leonardo thought about his roots when he woke up in the morning. Facing a long day of hauling bricks and concrete, maybe he thought, “At least we will eat tonight,” thinking back on the famine and disease-stricken wasteland of Southern Italy he left behind.

Hard work today means showing up early, staying late, answering cell calls from the dinner table, signing onto Remote Desktop at night, and going to the office or at least being available on Saturdays, Sundays and some Memorial Days. You have to go all in to win in business today. But hey, at least you’re not haulin’ bricks all day.


In the photo below, my grandpa Nick is second from the left. On his right is his sister Rose, and some of his brothers are to his left. This is when they caught the swordfish that to this day hangs on the wall at The Boat.