No matter the level of experience, everyone who applies at Broad Street icon Fast & French begins their career washing dishes. That's how Latonnya Wallace, Lawrence Mitchell, and Jennifer Bremer all started at the cafe, and now they're running the place. The group took over in 2011, when the original owners, Gwylene Gallimard and Jean-Marie Mauclet, retired. The trio didn't want the legend to fade, so they stepped up and took over the management. Eater asked the group a few questions about their journey.
1. Name and number of years with G&M.
LW: My name is Latonnya Wallace, so my Café name is "LaWa." I started working at the Café in August 1992. I was walking around downtown with a friend looking for work and saw G&M. I put in an application but didn’t get a call back, so a couple
... I have worked here for almost 23 years.
months later I went back, spoke to Gwylene, and was hired. So, I have worked here for almost 23 years. Throughout those years I have had other part time jobs and have wondered if this is what I wanted to do or be. It always turned out to be the happiest and best place, so I stayed. Jean-Marie and Gwylene ran their place like no other employer I have seen or heard of. It just always felt like family. They introduced me to many new things that I have grown to love, like the Arts.
LM: My name is Lawrence Mitchell, my Café name is therefore "LaMi" and scores of people know me by that name. I started working at the Café in 1996 shortly after I learned of its existence. I came in on a Saturday morning, Jean-Marie waited on me. He was completely abrasive, hilarious, and efficient all at the same time. It was like walking into an establishment that had been created by my subconscious and materialized seconds before I turned the corner of King and Broad.
JB: My name is Jennifer Bremer, so my Café name is "JeBr." I was hired in 1995, and have been involved with the Café in some capacity ever since, either as an employee or assisting Gwylene and Jean-Marie on one of their art projects.
2. What was you first position at G&M?
LW: Like most people I started at the dish sink. I was still in high school so I could only work so many hours. Within a year I started to train for serving. I was still in school so I mostly worked at night and on Saturdays. I became a cook shortly thereafter. It was such a great experience to learn to cook food other than the soul food that I was accustomed to.
LM: I started off as a dishwasher, as many of us do. I met with Gwylene after inquiring with Jean-Marie. I needed a full-time position and she let me work double dishwashing shifts until a position opened as a cook. In those days the Café was
... she let me work double dishwashing shifts ...
mainly run by these strong, intelligent, and sophisticated women. It was not an easy transition for me. I was rough around the edges and had essentially only ever worked for myself. Gwylene was intense and unlike anyone I had ever met. She was singularly motivated by Art, and I was intimidated and infatuated. However, I had never been more determined to prove my worth to someone before. Eventually I earned a key to the Café, and JeMa and GwGa still continue to inspire and influence me.
JB: Everyone at the cafe starts off as a dishwasher; that's just how it works here. I was then trained by Jean-Marie to become a server and eventually I became a cook. Being a cook is the height of responsibility here -- you work the longest hours, you come up with daily specials and soups, and also you get a key to the Café, which means we really trust you. It's something you have to work your way up to.
... Jean-Marie was a crazy Frenchman who yelled at everyone ...3. Why did you start working at G&M?
LW: I started working at G&M because I needed to take care of myself. At the time I was not living at home with my mother, but with my godmother, who took me in when I had nowhere else to go. I needed this job desperately. At first I wasn’t sure if I would like it or the food. But I was determined to give it a try. I figured someone else might call me out of all the applications that I had placed along with this one. I believe one restaurant did call me a few month later, but I had already grown attached. My coworkers were so nice. I still thought Jean-Marie was a crazy Frenchman who yelled at everyone and that Gwylene was tough. I also couldn’t understand most of what she said, but I liked it here.
LM: My father taught me to be a jeweler and we each had a shop in the two major malls. I loved the independence, buying gold and working with my Dad, but I dreaded the mall and it’s anti-culture. You could say I was a frustrated artist that hadn’t found my medium yet. My close friends were already working at the Café and I was eager to move in a new circle, develop new skills, and be judged in a new way.
Oh my God, you work where all the cool people work!JB: Originally I was a customer. My best friend worked here in a managerial position and was instrumental in getting me hired. Back then it was almost the only place in town that you could call a cool place to work. Now there are tons of cool restaurants in Charleston--places with good food and laid back, unique atmospheres run by interesting, even eccentric people. But back then it was like, "Oh my God, you work where all the cool people work!"
4. What made you stay?
LW: I stayed because they were always so flexible with my hours. They were always encouraging me to try other things. They trusted my abilities enough to send me to North Carolina to run their other restaurant when it needed management. This instilled in me the confidence that I could do this. I also gained some friendships that I know I will always have. I also started to work with GwGa & JeMa on many of their art projects. Before G&M I only knew one kind of art form and had only ever visited the Charleston Museum. They exposed me to so much more, for which I am forever grateful. They really became more than an employer to me.
LM: The Café lifestyle is very addictive! For the first time I felt a part of a community
The Café lifestyle is very addictive!
making a difference in people’s daily lives! Even today I consider it an honor to work with such an amazing team and be a part of such an important part of downtown Charleston. I think it’s important to have goals and interests that are not food related when working in food and beverage. The dullest personalities you will ever encounter are career waiters and professional chefs. We don’t have either of those at the Café and that has contributed to the longevity of our employees as well as that of the business.
JB: The fact that I was in school and they were so flexible with my hours. Also, it's hard to leave a place where you're surrounded by so many inspirational people.
5. What made you want to take over?
LW: After a few years of working at the Café it became my dream to run my own place. I had been trained to do much of the administrative work a long time ago, so I felt like I could do it. I felt that it was definitely not time for this place to disappear from the community. I want the place to continue on as is, so that it can be a place for many more generations to work, eat, and meet
LM: The most motivating factor for me was imagining a world without the Café or a Café corrupted by greed or sterilization. I wanted to preserve the vision of the Café for the next generation of creatives and outsiders. Latonnya, Jennifer, and I shared management duties over a number of years that were considered the Café’s most successful years ideologically and financially. So, I knew that we could do it. We are three very different people with very different skill sets, but when combined we make up the foundation the Café needs to survive. This pressure to survive is never just on one person’s head; in fact, it is distributed throughout the employees and patrons of the Café. We are all interested in its prosperity.
The thrill of carrying on such a legacy.JB: The thrill of carrying on such a legacy. Also, I wanted to ensure that the cafe stayed exactly as it has always been.
6. Describe a favorite memory.
LW: Since I have worked here so long, there are many. My first memory is of chopping off my fingertip while cutting a green pepper. I had not been a cook for long, but I was put in charge of cooking the weekend special. I believe it was Chicken Basquaise. One of my coworkers called her mom, who was also once an employee, to take me to the hospital. I got there and they said it was cut too wide open to stitch it. My coworker found the fingertip and brought it to the hospital on ice. I thought that was funny. But they could not sew it back on. Eventually, it grew back. I still feel a
Fast & French is known to be the place to go during a storm.
little tingle there sometimes.
Another memory: Fast & French is known to be the place to go during a storm. We never close. I remember getting into an argument with my godmother because there was a snowstorm and Gwylene said that I still needed to come to work. My godmother was telling me not to go, but I felt an obligation to the Café and to Gwylene, so I was going anyway. Then there was Hurricane Floyd. Again, we were the only ones open and we were packed! Gwylene, Lawrence and I kept the Café open till the wind started to blow severely enough for us to warrant closing. We all managed to get home safely afterwards. We love our job so much we didn’t mind working. Our patrons appreciated it and still remember us for it. I also flew with Gwylene to France. This was my second time on a plane. The first time was the day before, when we went skydiving. I have so many memories from all my years at G&M I can probably write a book. Some are good, others are not so good, but I wouldn’t change a thing. They have been the best years of my life. Now I have more memories to build with my partners Jennifer and Lawrence.
The city was evacuated, yet we defiantly remained open.LM: We were open the day after Hurricane Hugo and have ever since remained the last place to close before any storm comes and the first place to open after it leaves. I worked back during Hurricane Floyd. The city was evacuated, yet we defiantly remained open. We lost electricity and we relied on the fondue pots to heat water for coffee and keep the soups warm. The Café was full of camera crews, foreign journalists and the stubborn. Finally an elderly customer left and the wind was so strong that it took several of us to push the door closed behind her. She had to be escorted home and we decided to close up after that. I grabbed a bottle of wine and a Saucisson and drove my car through the abandoned town of flooded streets and fallen trees to shelter. That night I lost part of my roof, a torrent of water descended on my bedroom and a tree fell on my car but I was back at the Café in the morning feeling like a survivor and proudly serving those that rely on us.
JB: There are so many great memories — it's hard to describe just one. The Café has been such a huge part of my life. When GwGa and JeMa were putting together the Charleston Alaska Challenge at the old City Jail I was hired to help and that was a particularly fulfilling time for me. My days were so varied and full of creativity and challenge! I was crafting with under privileged children, renovating the jail with a team from AmeriCorps, building a river out of oyster shells and cooking nights at the Café. It was remarkable to be paid for something I enjoyed so much.