Sarah Friedler is sitting in a turquoise restaurant booth just after a midweek breakfast shift. She gazes lovingly across the room to a row of barstools as she tells me about a favorite after school ritual with her daughter.
“I’ve been coming here with Harper (now 13) since she was little. We’d get milkshakes and grilled cheese when she got out of school. Half of my photo album is from in here. It’s so special. It deserves care. That’s why I want to keep that for people who are so loyal to it.”
Friedler is taking to heart this special place because now its day-to-day operation is in her hands. The Greenwich, Connecticut native turned Jacksonian is the new general manager of Brent’s.
Reared with “creative,” “eccentric” parents guiding her steps, Friedler, an avid music fan, pursued her own artistic ventures in college, some of those just to follow her favorite band, The Grateful Dead.
In 1994, she moved to Mississippi from her San Francisco Bay area home and took her first food service job with Julie Levenway’s ArtSeen CafÃ© on Mill Street. Later, Friedler, who was vegan, began working at Rainbow Co-Op’s High Noon CafÃ© when it was located in North Fondren, cooking under Steve Long. “A sous chef didn’t show up one day so I jumped in,” she says, “and Steve was generous with his knowledge.”
In the late 90’s, Rainbow moved into their present location and Long had moved on to begin Steve’s Downtown Deli. Friedler was offered the chance to lease High Noon and run it as her own. “So many chefs came through and I learned so much from them. As a novice, you can’t really say you know what you’re doing and you have to be humble. I learned what I know from people like Beth Browne, Julie Swisher and Steve.”
Friedler moved to New Orleans to start a family in 2002 and worked in food service until 2005. “We got relocated — to Jackson” she says after the city faced the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
For five years, Friedler worked as an admissions liaison at a drug and alcohol treatment facility, a different facet of herself that she says she didn’t know existed. A 2010 layoff eventually lead Friedler back to the restaurant business after a visit with old friend Steve Long, who she worked lunches with until seven weeks ago at his Uptown deli. That’s when Brent’s co-owner Jonathan Shull reached out via text about hiring her as general manager. “I met the owners and we hit it off,” she says. “(Co-owners) Brad (Reeves), Nathan and Amanda (Wells) and Jonathan are lovely — the nicest to work for.”
Friedler didn’t come in without some detective work. “I did a little secret shopping with my mom in town before I started. It was the day after Zippity Doo DahÂ®. We waited an hour and twenty minutes for food and I wondered what I had gotten in to,” she laughs. “But we had a lovely women (who is still here) who explained the busyness of the day before. As much as it was terrible, I felt like there was hope. The owners needed day-to-day leadership, and I was hopeful I could do something.”
Job number one (and two, three and four) is working on service – ticket times, food quality and consistency. “Good service,” she reiterates: “we’re working on not having to flag down a server to get your ticket when you finish. People are on time schedules here and need to get back to work. It’s about feeling cared for. Even if there is a little glitch, you often get a pass.”
A consistency in hours is another Friedler priority. “When I came here, it was hard to wrap my head around. We’re open 10am — 5pm Monday — Wednesday, Thursday 7am — 5pm, Friday 7am — 8pm, Saturday 7am — 5pm and Sunday 10am — 3pm. I’m working with our owners to see how we can execute daily breakfast at a breakfast time in the neighborhood. We’d love to do that in the future. Our hope is to firm up a more congruent schedule (Breakfast is available during the hours they are open. “Yes,” she tells me, “You can get pancakes at 7pm on a Friday night.”)
Sunday brunch remains popular with standouts like “greens, eggs and ham,” French toast and chicken and waffles, a “good reprieve from the regular menu.” Â Beer is still on tap with three choices: a local, a specialty and Miller Lite. And of course, the soda fountain continues to dish out popular malts and shakes, some with a new twist, like banana Nutella.
Real potatoes, local beef and hand breaded onion rings make for a “no-frills” but elevated product. And yes, the same egg and olive, chicken salad and tuna salad recipes they’ve used for decades remain. “We de-constructed for a while but the people spoke,” she declares. “It wasn’t broke so we didn’t need to fix it.”
Friedler’s plan for success revolves around the process, for sure. But, in the end, for Brent’s to see long-term success, her plan is to take it back to where it began. “I want to make Brent’s the place where people feel acknowledged, where they feel at home and welcomed. I want to preserve that. It deserves it. I’ve come here so long, and, never in a million years thought I’d work here. Brent’s deserves attention, and I hope I can make sure everyone is taken care of.”