6 Life Lessons from Growing Up in My Family’s Restaurant

A love letter to Taylor’s BBQ and anyone who grew up a “restaurant kid.”

Published Feb. 10, 2021.

My childhood was spent behind the tall counters of Taylor’s BBQ, the restaurant my parents opened in Salisbury, Maryland, in 1995. They wanted to bring a true barbecue experience to the Eastern Shore. The restaurant's motto: "BBQ that's Taylor made." 

Most days, the line of customers reached the front door, and people would wait to place their order of a chicken salad sandwich on a buttery roll with salty Utz chips, a daily special of meatloaf and mashed potatoes, or just a simple slab of Southern-style “wet” cornbread. (Even Kenny Chesney was a fan.) Taylor’s was a talked-about place known for its simple, memorable food.

For 19 years, my family and I spent just about all of our time at the restaurant, until my parents sold it in 2015. Over the last year, I’ve thought a lot about how special it was to grow up there and how the lessons I learned are still applicable today. Here are some that have stuck with me.

1. Whether it’s with customers or friends, personal connection is the key to lasting relationships.

Running a restaurant is mentally, physically, and emotionally strenuous. For my family, it was the genuine connections we made with our customers that made it all worth it.

My mom was the expert in creating these connections with customers. With her loud, whole-hearted laugh, she always had such a warm, inviting air about her. She was able to find something in common with just about everyone she met, whether they were dining at Taylor’s for the first time or were a regular she saw twice a week. She knew you had to give some of yourself in order for people to trust you.

She taught me the importance of breaking down barriers and acknowledging other people’s humanity. That’s something I try to apply to my relationships, whether they’re personal or professional. These days, that means going beyond emails or texts and connecting by phone or, of course, over Zoom. I’ve seen—and experienced—how cared for and engaged this makes people feel. It’s the key to lasting relationships.

2. Quality is always more important than quantity.

Taylor’s didn’t have an extensive menu. My parents wanted to serve a small selection of offerings without watering down what made Taylor’s unique. This just meant that each menu item had to be a home run and, collectively, they had to cover every craving.

And they did, from the vinegar-dipped chicken wings and Southern-style “wet” cornbread to the mac and cheese and pork barbecue topped with creamy coleslaw. Our chicken salad was the best seller, though. People would buy pints and eat it right out of the container or order pounds of it for parties. (I know what you’re thinking, and sorry, it’s a secret family recipe!)

3. Food is an endless source of learning and entertainment.

I always enjoyed watching the rush of morning prep before the restaurant opened for lunch. Hot oven doors swung open as trays of meringue-topped pies would head in to be baked. Smoke crept in the back screen door from the large cooker rotating racks and racks of chicken. My late grandmother, Tuquie, would be at a prep table, precisely chopping carrots and celery for potato salad. I can still hear the tearing of plastic and foil to canopy every order, smell the butter from the fresh tee-rolls, and feel the rush of cold air from the walk-in door opening and closing. 

Everything around food—the smells, the flavor, the cooking process—made me curious and excited. And I feel the same way about it now as I did back then. 

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4. Always work hard.

Our lives were completely constructed around Taylor’s. The restaurant industry requires you to pour your entire self into it, and that’s exactly what my parents did every single day. Neither of my parents attended culinary school or had any previous training; they both were just talented cooks and incredibly hard workers.

It’s clear how this lesson applies to my post-Taylor’s life—and to the life of anyone who’s worked in a restaurant. We know hard work and what it’s like to spend late nights, long weekends, holidays, and birthdays catering to others’ special moments. My sleep schedule might be more normal now that I don’t spend so much time in a restaurant, but the skills I acquired from my time there—adaptability, teamwork, and attention to detail—have stayed with me.

5. Treat yourself often.

I never regretted any of the slices of chocolate pie I snuck from the dessert case, and I haven’t regretted any of the times I’ve treated myself since.

6. You can learn a lot from your chosen family.

Some employees would come and go, but the ones that stuck around became family. 

We had Mrs. Judy, who never failed to ask how you were doing. She cleaned each dish we went through every day. I would marvel at her muscles and hands of steel; she carried tall stacks of soup pots and pie pans with ease, pulled warm bread loaves from their hot foil tins with her bare hands, and cut and prepped just about every fruit and vegetable needed in a day. Mrs. Judy had a heart of gold and played such a significant role in our kitchen.

Then there was our manager, Mrs. Tina. She knew every recipe like the back of her hand. She could run the front of the house, bake all our breads and pies, and even handle our chicken cooker if my dad couldn’t get there. She was my parents’ right-hand woman, but my favorite part about Mrs. Tina was that she took the time to sit and watch the “cooking shows” I’d so proudly host in the back kitchen. I’d make cakes that were a little too tough and also probably a little too salty, but she would exclaim over how yummy they were.

At Taylor’s, we became one big family. It showed me how important chosen family can be.

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