Behind the Counter at Mama Mia's

"[Mama Mia's restaurant is] a cultural spot for the area and the school," said Andrew Ng, a freshman who started this semester as an employee of the popular eatery. Indeed, as hundreds of students and residents take in the Mia's experience each year, most have discovered that it is a social highlight of Geneseo.

Katie Clymo, who was raised in the town and graduated from the College in 2004, can look back on eight years behind the counter of Mama Mia's. Though allergic to ice cream, she started working when part of the restaurant was operated solely as an ice cream shop, and though also allergic to pizza, she continued to work as it became a prominent pizzeria. Currently, she balances 50 hours a week as a manager and cook with two grad classes. "It takes a lot of work and dedication," she said. But after a hard day of work, there is no better company than her fellow employees.

John Fogarty, who graduated with Clymo, started in his sophomore year and rose to the position of manager as time went on. In years past, Fogarty has collected a number of stories, from broken windows to the handful of annual fights. Now married and looking ahead to a career as a policeman, Fogarty is enjoying his last semester with enthusiasm. Like most Mia's employees, his favorite aspect is the people, customers and colleagues alike. "Seven out of 10 customers know me by name," he said, "and half of their orders I know by heart." And according to Fogarty, "everyone who works here is just like a family."

Sophomore Mike Badding, who has been at Mama Mia's since his second week as a student, shares the sentiment. "This is the place to come at night; this is the social place to be," for people coming to the counter and the people behind it. Badding, who works from afternoons until closing at 3 a.m., noted the dramatic change in the restaurant's atmosphere from day to night. In the afternoon, families from the town come in for lunch and dinner, ordering from the full menu. "It's still busy," Badding said, "but a different kind of busy."

At night, the energy of the restaurant changes, along with the radio stations and attitudes. The excitement of the workers, looking forward to the end of their shift, matches the excitement of the customers, coming in from bars and parties. "Customer interaction is great," Badding said. Clymo described Mama Mia's as her "social network and escape," comparing it to the atmosphere of the television show Cheers. According to Ng, "if you're not really outgoing, you'll either become it quickly or leave quickly."

The turnover rate of new employees is somewhat high, but those who do make it through the first weeks of learning and adapting to the job stay for as long as they can.

Fogarty explained that people come into the job having perceived the fun dynamic behind the counter, not realizing that the lighter side of the job comes between the stressful pace. "It's hard work and long nights, but the people that work here make it worthwhile," Badding said. "When everybody enjoys the job, the job is enjoyable for you too."

For the employees of Mama Mia's, the fun is just beginning at 4 a.m., the end of their shifts. Workers usually congregate at someone's house, and their parties go on until 6:30 a.m., when the crew moves to the Geneseo Family Restaurant or Burger King. "A lot of people don't understand how you can give up a weekend night," Badding said. But Ng, after just a few months at Mama Mia's, can explain the reason without hesitation: "We're so close that the job is more like a family."