By Anne Brennan
As an innkeeper, Ken Bogucki likes to say he only works half-days: 9 to 9 or 12 to 12.
Along with a sense of humor, multitasking is an apparent requirement. He sports a black chef’s coat, a habit and identity he says he’s retained from his considerable background as a chef. His role as Wooster Inn tour director quickly morphs into his role as sommelier. A couple breezes in, calls his name and heads straight downstairs to the chilled wine cellar, a nook between the casual pub and the tasting room of the inn’s lower floor.
Bogucki pours a taste of a Washington State wine. He suggests warming it up first by holding the base of the glass. After deciding on a different “big” wine, the customer selects half a dozen bottles and laughs, “this should last ‘til Tuesday.” With such a personal touch, you may think these wines cost a lot, but the inn’s selections are sold at minimum retail and costs are modest, about $15. The wine cellar is open to the public.
“There are very few people who walk through our door that I don’t know,” Bogucki explains. “I love what I do.”
His days usually begin with a walk around the bucolic property, which includes a heated tent patio that holds 200 people, assessing any damage. He updates the bookkeeping, pays bills and renews vendor contracts, such as the one with Certified Angus Beef, whose headquarters are in Wooster.
He also plans all the events, from weddings to summer “Party on the Patio” happy hours with live music, to wine dinners. The popular dinners attract 70-100 people and are scheduled through 2018.
Wineries send Bogucki their finest, and after he tastes them, he gives distinctive wines center stage on his menu – Bogucki builds the inn’s recipes based on the wines, rather than shopping for vino to complement the food. “I don’t want to feature wines that are in every grocery store,” he explains. The tactic works: “We usually sell a lot of wine.”
The wine merchants in town probably sell more, too, because some of them will say “Ken has it,” to entice a customer, he says.
Bogucki’s hospitality and his salesmanship likely account for the success of the inn, which he took over 14 years ago. Before he started, the inn had lost $650,000 in one year. This year, Bogucki expects to do $2 million in business. The challenge of meeting such demand is “like shoving a watermelon through a garden hose,” he says.
The inn originated in 1959 as a club for the College of Wooster’s trustees. Working in a college town means working with young people. Ken has two master’s degrees – in theology and counseling – that may account for his ability to retain staff. One of his most enduring is his executive chef, Benjamin Walsh, who has worked there for the past eight years, an unusual track record in the fast-changing restaurant business.
Wooster Inn is a family business. Bogucki manages the place with the help of his two sons. Chris, 26, is beverage and service manager, while Kenny, 31, is vice president of operations. One of his sons, Bogucki says, credits the dad’s patience for his success in keeping loyal employees: they’re all part of the family. “I manage them like I’m their father,” he says.
While he may be patient, Bogucki, who is gay, has a zero tolerance for workplace bullies. When he found out a kitchen employee was being harassed for his sexual orientation, the bully was fired.
He has to balance the hazards of HR issues with other people skills, or he’ll get “complaints.” “People get upset if I don’t get to their table [to greet them personally],” he says. But Bogucki also gets a kick out of the thank-you cards from guests, considering he charges people for everything, he jokes.
He looks fondly at a thank-you card he keeps on his desk. The card is from a couple who chose Wooster Inn as the venue for their fall wedding. It was the first gay marriage held in Ohio. “I cried,” he says.
Despite the hours and demands of his job, he’s never been one of those people who dreads coming to work. “It takes a certain kind of personality to do this job,” Bogucki says. “It’s an amazing life’s journey, to watch the growth of people. I’m honored to be able to do what I do.”