The Right Recipe for Sharing and Caring
By Helen Susan Edelman
There’s food and then there’s community. And then there’s food as the springboard for community. In Laura Serway’s world, they’re inextricable. The 2009 graduate, who earned a bachelor’s in Business, Management and Economics at SUNY Empire’s Syracuse location, Serway has undertaken interconnected enterprises ranging from creating restaurants to raising money for The Q Center, a safe place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth, their families and allies. Together with Cindy Seymour, her partner in life, career and volunteering, Serway has become a major force for feeding her Syracuse neighbors, body and soul.
In the past, before she had even attended college, Serway was a Georgia-based corporate trainer for fast-food chain Wendy’s, working with 180 restaurants in the Northeast. In ’91, she realized that to move up to a more senior position, she would need further education, so the Syracuse native enrolled in Bryant and Stratton College for an associate degree. Even at graduation, she was already sure she wanted to advance further to support her professional goals, but needed to continue to work to pay her bills. When she learned that SUNY Empire students could receive credit for college-level learning outside the classroom, she enrolled at the Syracuse location.
“It was brilliant,” she recalls. “I could get college credit for my senior-level experience in the business world and it only took me a year and a half to get my bachelor’s. It was cool! I am a huge fan of ESC.” Now, she is seriously considering enrolling in the college’s MBA program.
Studying wasn’t Serway’s only focus. Starting in 2003, the dynamic Serway-Seymour duo began to build restaurants in Central New York, where they have launched several, each a success. Ultimately, they have come to roost in a red-brick Victorian landmark on Hawley Avenue as the co-owners of Laci’s Tapas Bar, which specializes in diverse appetizer-portion delectables. The establishment has become the magical and magnetic centerpiece of the Hawley-Green Historic District.
“We’ve had to do some educating,” Serway says. “People don’t necessarily know what tapas are.”
They also co-own nearby Laci’s Lunchbox, for light fare during the day, jar and sell their popular Laci’s Luscious Sauce, as well as operate Laci’s Real Estate, all under the Laci’s brand (named to blend their names, Laura and Cindy.)
“The restaurant business is very difficult,” Serway says. “When I’m in the dining room, it’s always show time. I’m on my feet all the time, building the ambiance, which is part of our brand, and promoting our motto: ‘Eat small, live large’.”
“Small” may refer to healthy portion sizes, but “large” is clearly a reference to the depth and breadth of Serway’s and Seymour’s generous involvement in the community. Through sponsored and hosted events, they have raised significant dollars – more than $70,000 – at occasions such as Laci’sAnnual Giveback Party, and redeployed the funds to support causes including The Q Center, David’s Refuge, a bed and breakfast for parents and guardians of children with special needs or life-threatening medical conditions, Priscilla Mahar Animal Welfare Foundation and the AIDS Community Resources Inc. The community nominates nonprofit organizations to be recipients and then votes for the winners. Serway is thrilled about the engagement and enthusiasm this has generated among her neighbors.
“People love to be involved and to contribute to causes they believe in,” she observes, gratified to have a role in facilitating the generosity.
In addition, Serway and Seymour personally support Susan G. Komen, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending breast cancer; the American Heart Association; Vera House, a domestic and sexual violence service agency; the Ronald McDonald House, which houses the families of critically ill children; and the Brain Injury Association.
Also, to grow and enhance the Hawley-Green neighborhood, they bought boarded-up homes to rehab, which now house new businesses, and they inaugurated a street festival.
“Our customers are about 80 percent female,” Serway notes. “You get to know your demographic and what works. We have sold-out nights when people can’t even get reservations. What Cindy and I have done through the Laci’s brand is create a platform for philanthropy.”
She is proud that Laci’sTapas Bar gets more Facebook “likes” than any other restaurant in Syracuse and that the community understands and backs the corporate efforts to feed the hands that feed them.
“Still, we have to make money to sustain ourselves, so we can continue to help someone else,” Serway explains. “We are multidimensional, we do a lot, we work hard at having the two ends meet in the middle and we’re having fun in the process. But we never open on Sunday or Monday. The extra money from more open hours does not interest me. I need time away, too.”
Laci’sTapas Bar also doesn’t cater, because, Serway pointed out, she thinks it’s harder to control food quality off site and doesn’t want to compromise her brand of either food or philosophy.
Laci’s Tapas Bar serves up scrumptiousness on a plate, to be sure, but underpinning the menu is another kind of sustenance, one of “community and conversation,” Serway says. “You put your cellphone away at the front door. My restaurant, my rules. Have fun, eat well. The good food is one reason to come back, but, when you look around, you see that’s not the only thing being shared here.”