Coastal Hospitality at the Heart of SERG
Author: Kitty Bartell | Photographer: Mark Staff Photography
Listed in Order from Left to Right: Chris Spargur, Alan Wolf, Tony Chism, Justin Warstler, Lori Craven, Nick Unagnst, Rob Jordan, Jim Loniero, Steve Carb, Brad Blake, Paul Norris, Nicole Cibelli, Tony Arcuri, Phil LeClaire, Mike Marignoni and Tim Onorato
SERG has set a new navigational beacon for their award-winning Hilton Head Island restaurant group, by which its present and future partners and team members will maneuver through this generation and on to the next. Much like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, their new Coastal Hospitality™ mantra will be seen, spoken, and executed across the group’s 10 restaurants, and among its 17 partners and 700-plus team members.
Steve Carb, founder and president, was first to envision Coastal Hospitality, designed as a compass with four directional tenets: Guest, Experience, Service, and Team Work. “Steve is at the top, locking arms with all his partners,” said Alan Wolf, partner and director of operations. “It’s not, ‘This is my vision, now make it happen.’ It is, ‘This is my philosophy and how we all got here; what can we do to continue and move forward?’” Coastal Hospitality brings together all the best information gathered over SERG’s 32-plus years into one clear message of how to always be improving and growing—how to put the guest front and center in their efforts to exceed expectations by creating exceptional experiences, providing exceptional service, and being valuable team members.
It all began when Carb opened Giuseppi’s Pizza and Pasta in 1982 with partners Tony Arcuri and Jim Loniero. They began offering not only delicious dining experiences, but a unique approach to building a powerful group of restaurants based on promoting from within, while encouraging team members to craft great work experiences and to build fulfilling careers. “None of this would have been possible without partners and managers actively looking for talent from within the company.
His [Carb’s] fingerprints are all over each one of our brands,” Wolf said. “His philosophy from the very beginning was, ‘We can open a Giuseppi’s, but we can’t do anything else unless we have great people.’”
Nearly every partner became a partner because someone within SERG noticed their particular skill set, worked to develop their talent and rewarded their efforts. Chris Spargur, partner in Skull Creek Boathouse, Poseidon Coastal Cuisine and Rooftop Bar, and Marleys arrived on the island in 2002 with the intent to bartend by the ocean for a summer. “Some of the partners saw my strengths, and when Skull Creek Boathouse came along, they gave me the opportunity to be a partner,” Spargur said.
Coastal Hospitality is second nature to Spargur, whether he’s infusing liquors, keeping up with their 20,000 followers on Facebook, or buying and merchandising the general store at Skull Creek Boathouse and Coastal Provisions (Poseidon’s retail shop). “We’re always trying to keep things new,” he said.
Mike Marignoni, general manager of Skull Creek Boathouse, along with Justin Warstler, catering manager at One Hot Mama’s and The Lodge, and Nicole Cibelli, front-of-house manager at The Lodge are not yet partners, yet they exemplify SERG’s commitment to identify and develop talent from within its ranks.
Marignoni understands that his team’s job is challenging and that creating a work environment where they are happy and invested in the job is paramount to exceeding expectations. “We’ll serve 1,000 people a night. Our servers are trained to tell you about 15 different fish and 15 different oysters. They’re going to be your storyteller for the two hours you’re there, taking you through a menu that’s eight pages long,” he said. “One of my favorite things is when customers stop me and say, ‘Your staff is having so much fun.’ It is work, and they make money, but we have fun.”
Marignoni was also given the opportunity to collaborate with Spargur and partner Rob Jordan in the development of Marker 13, Skull Creek Boathouse’s own craft beer made at Charleston Brewery.
Warstler’s talents were spotted by Orchid Paulmeier, partner at One Hot Mama’s and The Lodge, when he joined SERG in 2011 as a server. “As I worked with Orchid and saw her vision, she offered me this position and has taught me everything I know. I would like to be a partner one day in one of Orchid’s endeavors,” Warstler said.
Known as a craft beer guru, Cibelli was hired at The Lodge seven years ago. “Tony [Arcuri, partner] called me looking for a bartender at The Lodge.” With 36 beers on draft, Cibelli’s first assignment was to get to know each of them well. Living the Coastal Hospitality mantra, she has a devoted following of regulars and is expert at making visitors and first-time guests feel welcome.
Sixteen years, one wife, and five children later, Wolf is the quintessential SERG partner, having built a full life and career from his first job on Hilton Head Island in 1999 as a bar back. “When I graduated from Miami of Ohio, I said I wanted to live at the beach, and it turned into a career,” Wolfe said. “I went to Marleys and worked there with Kim [Keppel, partner] and Nick [Unangst, partner]”—the mentors who helped Wolf find his strengths and shape his SERG path. “What SERG creates is the opportunity for people to elevate from a management capacity to being a partner, which is exactly what Tony [Chism, partner] did at WiseGuys.”
“We’re continually trying to get better; whether from the food standpoint, the beverage standpoint, guest satisfaction or guest interaction—just every day trying to get better,” said Chism, managing partner at WiseGuys. With the restaurant from day one, Chism naturally connects with his customers in a very Coastal Hospitality way, “We have tourists who come back every year. You can’t believe it has been a year; it seems like you just saw them three months ago. You know their bottle of wine. You know what they like to eat. It’s just making those connections.”
Each SERG restaurant has its own vibe and culinary identity. Much of that comes from creative individuals like Nick Unangst, partner in Frankie Bones, WiseGuys, Poseidon, Marleys, Skull Creek Boathouse, and The Black Marlin, and former executive chef. “Steve is our visionary. He comes up with the concept and we start working on the menu profile. Exceeding expectations comes so naturally to us; it’s just the norm,” Unangst said. “From the back-of-the-house perspective, we try not to say no. If the customer wants it, and it’s within our power, we’ll do it.”
Beyond their culinary identities, it is the team members that bring each SERG concept together. “Each person has their specialty that they bring to the table to help the business grow,” said Keppel, partner in Poseidon, The Black Marlin, Skull Creek Boathouse, and Marleys. There is a clear “type” that sets SERG team members apart, she said. “They are people who definitely provide Coastal Hospitality, excelling in all avenues. They’re wanting to grow, they’re wanting to learn, coming up with great ideas, sticking with the business and working hard on top of it. I go in every day and look at what’s happening and try to make it better.”
The SERG award-winning restaurants include: Giuseppi’s Pizza & Pasta in Bluffton, the first Giuseppi’s Pizza & Pasta on Hilton Head Island, One Hot Mama’s, The Black Marlin Bayside Grill & Hurricane Bar at Palmetto Bay Marina, The Lodge, Skull Creek Boathouse, The Lodge, Frankie Bones, WiseGuys, and Poseidon. Each restaurant concept was the brain-child of Carb, and the result of brilliant collaborations with the partners mentioned here, along with partners Tim Onorato, Chris Moscola, Phil Le’Claire, Paul Norris, Lori Arcuri, Rick Meccariello, and Lori Craven.
“As we take Coastal Hospitality to our line-level cooks and our servers and our bartenders, we want to make sure they understand those four tenets as we have come to understand them as owners and managers,” Wolf said. “It should make us even more consistent when the guest walks in the door.” Coastal Hospitality has clearly always been at the heart of everything that is guiding SERG through this generation and on to the next.
For more information, please visit serggroup.com.