Local restaurants can be important community assets, creating space for people to gather, food donations for local nonprofits, great first jobs for young people, etc. Cecily Maniaci has created all that and more with Toasted Owl. We talk about why she got into the restaurant business and how it serves to serve others.
Mentioned in this episode:
00:07 Intro: This is Do Good, Be Good, the show about helpful people and the challenges they face in trying to do good. Your host is Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom, a career do-gooder who also loves craft beer and a good hard tackle in rugby. Sharon speaks to everyday people about why they do good and what it means to be good.
00:27 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: Greetings. I’m your host, Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom. I am so excited to share this episode with you. Today’s guest is Cecily Maniaci. Cecily is the owner of a great local restaurant group, Toasted Owl. She is a very passionate local business owner really involved in our community here in Flagstaff, Arizona. That’s why I wanted to invite her here on the show to talk about how she got her restaurant started, and how she uses that restaurant as a vehicle for good.
00:56 Cecily Maniaci: My mother was very entrepreneurial, in the old days where it was completely different to have a business than it is today. She had restaurants up in the Grand Canyon, and she had a tourist agency that sold gifts and booked flights and gave out maps and all sorts of stuff. She started there in 1970.
01:16 ST: So did you live in the Grand Canyon?
01:18 CM: Yeah, we lived in the lovely town of Tusayan in a really cool double white trailer. And [chuckle] then, we had a house down in Scottsdale, South Scottsdale and we went back and forth. Long time ago, even when I was little, I think I had just a propensity to sign up for anything, to volunteer for anything, so I know I was always going around trying to raise money to save a cat or a dog, or do something at school, sell chocolate bars so that we could all have some wonderful experience at school. Always on student council, always and everything that had to do with giving back and helping out. It’s always been a big part of who I am and who my kids are.
01:56 ST: So you talked about saving a dog or a cat [chuckle] I know now, of course, you have… We’ll get into your owl theme and your…
02:04 CM: Yeah.
02:05 ST: But has animals always been something that you care about?
02:07 CM: I have always loved animals, really a cat person, but I have dogs right now. I love dogs, love cats, love birds, just animals. Because they say they’re just complete love, they give you love. They don’t ask for anything other than feed me, but other than that, they’re just a great addition I think, to everybody’s psyche and to everybody’s being.
02:27 ST: I don’t know if cats always give you love.
02:30 CM: Well, they’re very independent. That’s why I like them.
02:32 ST: That’s what I like about them.
02:33 CM: Yeah, yeah, they’re very independent.
02:34 ST: You have to earn their love.
02:35 CM: You do. That is very true, but I just like their personalities, because they are like, “I am this cat and it’s so nice of you to be here with me so… ” [chuckle]
02:44 ST: Yeah, my cat definitely makes you earn it. Yeah, my cat is half Siamese and half Himalayan.
02:49 CM: Oh, neat.
02:50 ST: She’s got the attitude and the voice of a Siamese, but she’s got the fluffiness of a Himalayan.
02:56 CM: Oh, I bet she’s beautiful. Yeah.
02:57 ST: She’s so beautiful, but yeah, she definitely… We joke about… Yeah, she’s sort of that classic mean-girl cat. Super pretty and would be super popular, but likes to take it out on other people.
03:10 CM: Oh, there you go. Yeah.
03:13 CM: Up in the Grand Canyon, when I was young, I did a pet babysitting service for all the people going on helicopter rides and doing different things they couldn’t take their pet on. And that was really interesting and fun too, because I’d like to say we had foreign cats and local cats and different dogs, and people didn’t travel with their pets as much back in the ’70s as they do now. Now, it’s just so acceptable everywhere you go. But there was a few back then, I thought it was neat. [chuckle] It’s like my first business so… Well, I always worked in an independently operated business for my family, then I went to college and got married and got a teaching degree, and worked in education for a while, started a business in San Diego with my sister, which was a coffee business, and I decided that… I had a small child at that time that she didn’t, so we said, “You take it and I’ll go be a mom.” So I came back to Arizona, then I just raised my kids for a little while. And about nine years ago, I moved up to Flagstaff.
04:14 ST: So what attracted you to teaching if you had all of this business experience?
04:18 CM: Because there’s something… I’m such a bookworm and I love high schoolers. I think they’re the best age. And it was a challenge that I thought you can go anywhere in the world and be a teacher. That’s something that’s really unique about it. I wanted to have the experience that if I decided not to be in business, I’d have something to fall back on. I could travel with it. I was a high school English teacher, which is like math, the subject that everybody loves to hate. It was really fun for me. For me, anybody I can… Get one person to read a book, or even read a comic book, I’ll be happy. [chuckle]
04:52 ST: Have you brought that into your current work at all? Do you have a book club for your employees?
04:56 CM: It’s funny you say that. I did try to do a book club, they just stared at me with glossed eyes [chuckle] so…
05:01 ST: Nice. Did you ever go back into teaching or just…
05:03 CM: You know what, when I came up to Flagstaff, I put in for substitute teaching, but The Owl just took off, so it didn’t have time, but I still very much am passionate about teachers. I’m still very passionate about the unfair pay schedule for teachers, that really bothers me. I wished I had the power, or more power to do something about it, because that probably would be something I would definitely take on.
05:27 ST: I asked Cecily how she got started with Toasted Owl.
05:30 CM: Nine years ago, my mother became pretty ill, and of all of my sisters… I have three sisters, she said, “You know, one of you get to come up and help.” And at that time, I was the only one who could get out of my job teaching and go to the Grand Canyon. I did that, and I was up there and Grand Canyon’s really beautiful to look at. It’s an interesting place to live. I was just constantly looking for something to do. [chuckle] I started St. Mary’s Food Bank up there, and I did some other stuff, but I felt like, “Okay, I’ll travel down to Flagstaff.” And I got a little apartment here, ’cause I was like, “Wow.” You’re very isolated up there. I was like, “I need to have something around.” And moved to Flagstaff and had a little apartment, it was very nice. And then started the Toasted Owl and that just took off.
06:00 ST: And where did the idea come from for the Toasted Owl?
06:21 CM: I’ve always loved vintage furniture and I’ve always loved food, and owls were something I used in my classroom. And I loved owls from literature, they’re in every bit of literature. And then Harry Potter was a big deal when I was teaching so of course, everyone loved owls. So I just was walking down the street with a friend and he said, “Holly, you know, you should do a little business in Flagstaff.” And I said, “Well, what could I do?” And he’s like, “Not a lot of breakfast and lunch places up here.” So I thought, “I’ll do that.” Because I like being up in the morning, I’m not a late night person. So we walked down, literally walked down Birch Avenue and Birch Avenue Deli had gone, and I called up the person who was leasing it and I said, “Is this available?” And they said, “Yeah.” And that’s how it all began. [chuckle]
07:08 ST: I get questions, I’ve mentioned to a couple of people about the Toasted Owl, and a lot of people react to the name, so I get the owl theme, but how did the name itself come about?
07:18 CM: Well, it’s a little double entendre for Flagstaff. So you have… We had three hot plates, one toaster and a convection oven in the first Owl. So of course, at that time, all of my employees were my daughter’s friends who had come up to NAU, and of course, they were all laughing, “Oh, toasted, toasted.” You know, “Everybody’s toasted.” And that we only have a toaster, and we could put everything on toast, and it just became hysterical. And I said, “Well, I want something with owl.” Because I had all of these owls [chuckle] I collected, and so we were like, “Toasted Owl.” And it just stuck and it was unusual. And I toyed with, “Do I do Toasted Owl, or do I do Toasted Owl Cafe? Do I do The Toasted Owl Cafe?” And just Toasted Owl stuck. It’s been a great, really good name. [chuckle]
08:01 ST: It’s easy to remember.
08:02 CM: Yeah. Yeah, it is. And you know what, everyone has such a good owl story. People come in and go, “Oh, my aunt had that owl set up and that lamp or that chair.” And so I figured, owls are such a great animal. They’re fierce raptors. I used to tell my kids in school, “The owls are elegant raptors. You look at them, they’re beautiful, but if you mess with them, or you mess with their babies, they’ll rip your eyes out.” And the kids would always be like, “Oh, that’s so great.” [chuckle] We’re getting ready now to try to beat the Guinness Book World of Records of owl collection, which currently is 19,500. So, my goal this year is to beat that. [chuckle]
08:43 ST: Wow.
08:43 CM: We’re putting out a big media push, and we’re gonna try to get 20,000 owls so. [chuckle]
08:49 ST: That’s awesome.
08:50 CM: Yeah. Kinda scary. [chuckle]
08:53 ST: And how did the idea come to make things for sale in the shop as well, in the cafe?
08:58 CM: Because I’ve always, like I said, I’ve always loved vintage stuff, and you can become a hoarder when you start getting into vintage things, and you think, “Oh, I can’t let that go.” And I realized, you know what, the joy comes in not only buying it and keeping it for a little while, but also [chuckle] letting it go and getting something new. So I thought, what a perfect idea that you could come in, because oftentimes you walk into places and you think, “Wow, I’d really like to buy that. Is it for sale?” So I thought, this is perfect for me. I love to go out shopping for all of this stuff. We go to all different states, all different places, many strange garages. And I just thought, you know what, it’s great. It ticks all the boxes of having fun for me. [chuckle]
09:39 ST: That’s great. Do you have any particularly interesting stories of someone taking you up on the offer to buy things?
09:44 CM: Two days ago, we had people who were eating their breakfast, and then they said, “I really like this table.” And the waiter said, “Oh, you can take it home with you.” And she was like, “What?” And he goes, “Yeah, you can take it home for you. Everything in here’s for sale.” And she was like, “The table?” And he goes, “Yes.” So she bought the table, the plates, the cups, everything off the whole entire… We were all cracking up. And they had a truck, so they literally just picked it up and moved it out, and left and went to New Mexico. So, [chuckle] crazy stuff like that.
10:15 ST: I hope you’re enjoying Cecily’s story. To support this show, please consider buying a Do Good, Be Good shirt or sweatshirt. You can find the details at our website, dogoodbegoodshow.com, or at the Facebook page, facebook.com/dogoodbegoodshow. Also, if you rate and review our show in your podcast app, that will help other people find the show. Thank you for your help, now back to our conversation.
10:45 CM: It was… Took me by surprise, we opened the first Owl with five tables, and like I said, most of the employees were my daughter’s friends from high school. And they were wonderful because not only were they great to me, they were great about a very grassroots campaign to come to the Toasted Owl. They had all their friends and their family, and we had a very great little menu. We had one breakfast burrito, and then we flipped the items, like almost every week, we’d make something new. And then at that time, you could have bottomless mimosas before they changed that law. So we had bottomless mimosas, it was a big sale. [chuckle] And so we started with that, but it was funny on the weekends, because it was a bank, the whole bank was closed, and so on the weekends, we would take furniture and fill up the bank hallways.
11:32 ST: Oh, I remember that, yeah.
11:32 CM: And everybody came in and then we’d fold it all back up at the end of Sunday, and get ready for the bank to open on Monday. But, we just outgrew the spot. So we were closed, Toasted Owl was closed for about two months total, between the small one and the new one. So that was an experience too. [chuckle]
11:52 ST: Growing pains.
11:53 CM: Yes, but they were all good growing pains, and every day I walk into that place, I’m like, “I can’t believe this is here. I can’t believe I’ve developed this. I can’t believe how great it is.” So it is, it’s truly like, you pinch yourself all the time, going, “Is this real? Is it real?” The atmosphere of the Toasted Owl, which I’ve tried to develop, is just a really good, happy place to come. The patio is pet-friendly and the indoors are friendly, and I really… My staff has to be a generous, happy staff. So I think too, that I’m involved, really involved with my restaurant, so I think that makes a big difference too. Yesterday, one of the kids said to me, “I’ve never worked in a place where the owner actually works, like, really works.” [chuckle] And so I said, “Really?” And he goes, “Yeah, they usually just collect the check and leave.” And I said, “Well no, you can’t be a business if you’re not the business working in it.” So, I felt like, that was probably a good compliment I’ve ever had is that they’ve noticed. Sometimes I think they forget that I am the owner, and a lot of people think I’m just… How nice someone said to me, “It’s so nice that the people here hire older people to bus tables.” [chuckle] And I said, “It is, it’s so nice.” [chuckle]
12:57 CM: I think it’s funny that in Flagstaff, you don’t really dress up, so I’m always in owl T-shirts, so they don’t know if I’m the owner or just an owl enthusiast.
13:07 ST: I asked Cecily if her experience with teaching high school prepared her in any way for her work now.
13:13 CM: It’s hard to have employees because you obviously have an interesting dynamic. But I think because of being an high school teacher, it was probably the best training ground ever to run a restaurant, ’cause it’s like high school with ashtrays. I think that gave me a lot of confidence, but I think just like my own children, these are children who are growing up and going through different life changes. And I just get a kick out of hearing what they do and where they’re at, and what their plans are? And I always try to provide a safe environment and a good environment, and they earn a good living and it’s a respectable job. And I think too, that I listen, I try to listen and help when I can help, if they need help, and say, “Here’s some advice, you may or may not want.” I look at them as they are the reason why I’m so successful, so I don’t ever forget that. I say, “Thank you every day for all the hard work you do.” And try to remember birthdays, and try to remember all the significant details of someone’s life and be there to celebrate it. But I think they give to me just as much as I give to them, and it’s a good scenario, I’ve had a great staff, I’ve been very lucky to have some of the same people for four or five years so, which is unheard of in this industry.
14:24 CM: We have one kid who’s graduating high school this year, and he’s just a rockstar. Every time I see him, I just wanna, just tell him, every time I see him, “You’re just an amazing kid. You’ll have a great life.” So we’re planning a graduation party for him, he doesn’t know, he won’t hear this. [chuckle] And, but he’s such a good kid. He’s gotten to the U of A Honors College, and he comes to work and has such a good work ethic. And he’s on track and in debate and all of this stuff, and we have the best conversations about MPR, about reading. He did a school project that he had to do, and he sat down and he said, “Hey Cecily, I need to know something about a big business situation that kind of went badly.” And I said, “Well, do you wanna do contemporary, or do you wanna do something from the past?” And I said… He said, “Oh, I don’t know.” And I said, “If you do something from the past, none of your friends will know what it is, so they’ll all be wanting to do here.
15:09 CM: So we talked about it and he picked Enron, ’cause I said, “Do some studies about Enron ’cause it devastated a whole lot of people.” And he goes, “Never even heard of it.” And he went home and he looked it up, and he goes, “Wow, you weren’t kidding.” And I said, “There’s actually a man in Flagstaff who I talk to a lot, who worked for Enron when that whole thing happened and lost everything.” And I said, “It didn’t just hit Texas, it hit so many people who had invested.” And so I said, “It’s important that you at 18, understand why certain rules came back, and why we started looking at things monetarily.” But I said, “But still, it still happens.” And it’s that, I think it’s that conversation to take time and go, “Okay, I really am interested in what you’re doing.” So I like that, I like to hear what they’re doing.
15:54 ST: Cecily supports local nonprofits by letting them host meetings and events at her restaurants after hours.
16:01 CM: I have two really great spaces, and I always think, “I don’t use them at night, so it’s a great place for people to be able to meet.” I also think you must give back to the community that gives so much to you. You must always be aware of what’s going on in your community to who needs what.” I like to give too, so if an employee’s kids have a chess tournament and they wanna go on a trip, then we’ll take a Saturday and I’ll say, “Here is 10% of whatever we do, you can do that.” And just little things, like things that people that I work… That work with me ask, “Oh, I wanna save this animal.” So I’ll say, “Okay, let’s get together and do that.” Lots of little things, ’cause I always feel that the big stuff has a lot of support. But it’s the every day little local stuff that is always… Even if it’s just food donations that makes a big difference. This year we did an in-house thing for several teachers, several 100 teachers, so that they could have breakfast burritos, and we try to… Just sometimes food’s better than money. [chuckle]
17:01 CM: ‘Cause everybody has a common ground there. My big thing is, is that I’d love to do something with the bird sanctuary, Northern Arizona doesn’t have a bird rescue center, and I’ve reached out and talked to some people about it. And I know they wanna have one and it’s hard to find the land and the people, and there’s so many logistics to it. So I’m hoping maybe as the city grows, we’ll get something like that. And Toasted Owl can be up there and help them out. But now, it’s funny, we just… The strangest things happen, that people send me hundreds of owls. A man from Germany, a soldier in Germany sent me a really good story, said he was running, running, running, found an owl that had been frozen in the snow. And so he took it to the taxidermist and had it stuffed, and then he wanted to know when I visit Arizona, which will be this year, “Could I trade it with you for breakfast?” And I was like, “Wow, how did you even find who I am?” So it’s unreal, how funny, and how it’s reached out to so many different parts. So we’ll see if he comes this summer and I have a big stuffed owl. [chuckle]
18:00 ST: Wow. I asked Cecily, what has been the secret to her success?
18:06 CM: A lot of love and a lot of support. Flagstaff has been a great community. My kids have been really good to me, my children’s friends have been really good to me, and I… Never a day that does goes by that I just think, “God, this could have never ever started, if I didn’t have those kids, and their funniness and their creative ability to say, Hey, let’s try this.” And we did it and it worked, so it truly does take a village to do anything.
18:32 ST: Wasn’t Cecily great? I’m so grateful that she could share her story with us. Thank you, Cecily, for coming on the show. To subscribe to the podcast so that you get each episode as soon as it’s released, search for Do Good, Be Good, in Spotify, Apple Podcast, Stitcher, Google Music, or any podcast app you choose. Music in this episode is Bathed in Fine Dust by Andy G. Cohen, released under a Creative Commons Attribution International License and discovered in the Free Music Archive, until next time, this is Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom signing off. [music]