By Nan Price, Content Manager MetroHartford Alliance

Serial entrepreneur Cary Wheaton is Founder and Owner’s Representative at Firebox Restaurant and Executive Director of Forge City Works.

Although she initially thought she wanted to teach or be a child psychologist, Cary acknowledges, “I was a very entrepreneurial person my whole life.” It was by chance that she entered the food service industry in her mid-20s—as a means of earning money to pay for school.

Finding Her Professional Calling

“I lied my way into a job as a waitress at a Tex-Mex restaurant right around the corner from Tufts University,” Cary admits. “When I walked into the restaurant I fell in love with it. I loved the comradery and I loved that it called on my social skills to be able to make people happy.”

Within six months, the owner promoted her to manager. In 1985, Chris Schlesinger, the brother of Cary’s best friend, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and was looking to potentially open his own restaurant. Cary jumped at the opportunity.

With no business ownership experience, the two put their heads together, wrote a business plan, borrowed money from their parents, and contacted a broker. They visited a space in Inman Square in Cambridge, MA and made an offer. Two weeks later, they were restaurant owners.

Building A Reputation

“East Coast Grill was ahead of its time. We were known as the first American bistro with an open kitchen and a wood-burning grill in the Boston area,” notes Cary. “We were open for 20 days when a food critic from the Boston Globe came in and reviewed the restaurant. He gave us five stars and we went from about 30 covers a night to almost 250 covers the next night,” she recalls.

The business partnership lasted 12 years. During that time, Chris and Cary started a catering company,

opened a barbecue restaurant and a fine-dining restaurant, and started a hot sauce company.

Every restaurant or business Cary was involved in has had a social justice tie in. “I was really committed to having a workplace that would take care of the people work for a long time,” she says. “We provided health insurance and promoted from within. We were always committed to providing opportunities to create a ‘longer-term family.’”

Embracing Change

 After 12 years, it was time for a change. “I decided I wanted to have a life that was more than just the restaurant world,” explains Cary. “I sold out my part and adopted my daughter from China. I was home with her for about a year and then my sister and I had an idea for another series of restaurants.”

The two opened Full Moon restaurant. The concept was a bistro-style restaurant with a kids’ play area. They ended up selling the second Arlington location, but the Cambridge restaurant is still open.

It was time for more change. “What people don’t know about the restaurant business is, it’s wonderful. and exciting because you have all these opportunities, but one of the reasons I kept opening restaurants is, for me, it gets boring after a while!” Cary admits.

Cary knew it was time to do something different, but she didn’t know exactly what. “When we sold the Arlington restaurant, I knew I didn’t really want to open another restaurant, but I needed to do something,” she says. “I decided to have my sister be the operating partner at Full Moon and I would go out and find a job. I was completely free because I had worked for myself for about 24 years.”

After meeting with a job coach, Cary started to consult with nonprofits who ran food-related businesses and help them add a social enterprise layer. She had some experience with volunteer work and being on organizational boards.

From there, Cary got a job working at a shared-use food incubator in Boston, which she says was a fairly new concept in the early 2000s. Once again, the Boston Globe featured a story about her efforts.

Coming to Connecticut

The Boston Globe write up caught the attention of the Melville Charitable Trust then-president Bob Hohler. The Trust had recently purchased a group of buildings in Hartford that used to be Billings & Spencer Co. and was trying to figure out what to do with the restaurant space.

“At the time, the Trust thought an incubator would be a great way to help people from the neighborhood start their businesses,” explains Cary. “But we talked through what the dollars would be and how challenging it is to actually run an incubator. I knew from experience.”

Bob sought out Cary and convinced her to take a look at the space that would become Firebox Restaurant. Then, the Trust hired her to find a restaurant operator.

“I spent six months driving from Boston to Hartford to tour the space with restauranteurs from New York and Boston I knew through my connections. This was right before the economic crash in 2007,” she recalls. “We couldn’t find any match. I finally told the Trust: This isn’t going to happen unless we do it ourselves. I could open this restaurant for you and we could provide many job opportunities and economic value in an undervalued area of Hartford.”

Cary created a vision of a bistro in Hartford people would come to as a destination restaurant. “I knew it would provide jobs for people because, from my history, I know that restaurants are often the first economic development engine in a community,” she says.

With her “whole life in Boston,” Cary committed to staying for a year to open Firebox. That was in 2007, and she’s still at the helm.

“I’m grateful I was able to convince the Trust to create a restaurant that’s become a positive driver in the community,” says Cary.

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