Tony Esposito enlivens students who drift into Frost Café in the daze of sleep deprivation. Standing beneath the suspended teardrop lamps and a vibrant tiled backdrop, he will caffeinate you through the 300 pages of reading you’ve been putting off.
Since the café opened in March last year, the café supervisor has endeared himself to Frost’s denizens with his free and easy conversation. But Barista Tony was not always a barista. After moving to Massachusetts from Buffalo, NY in 1987, he graduated from the Franklin County Technical School’s culinary arts program in 1995. Initially hired as a casual employee in Dining Services, Tony moved through a series of positions: the salad department, pot washing, Third Cook. He then became a shift supervisor at Schwemm’s before returning to Val as Second Cook Shift Supervisor.
It was an accident that made Tony the affable face of Frost Café. During the snowstorm of October 2011, a snow blower sucked in his right hand, severing the tip of his middle finger and damaging the other three digits. No longer able to wield the chef knife, he was out of work for four months.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do at that point,” he said. “I had two kids and a fiancée, who was very scared for me. I was very lucky to get this position.”
“But it’s actually been a very positive turnout. I love being in the front of the house. I get to know the faculty, staff, and students. I try to make sure that their day is a little better, instead of being a robot. Even though it’s a coffee shop, people are still human beings. You students work really hard, and even though I’m selling coffee, it still helps. I just want to be known as Tony, the guy who just makes you smile.”
Tony takes pleasure in the communal atmosphere of the café’s study space and the company of his dedicated student staff. It’s not just customer service for him, but friendship. As you wait for your coffee or pastry, you’ll often find Tony talking about his fiancée Molly Venne, the Assistant Catering Manager at Valentine, their 10-month-old son Aiden, and Tony’s 12-year-old son Darrien. He and Molly were friends for years as they worked together in Val before their paths lined up.
“Our lives in the past were a struggle, we struggled through some very difficult times,” he said. “Now we own a three-family home, we have reliable vehicles. But if I were rich, I wouldn’t have to get up every morning. If I were a millionaire, what would I do with myself? I’d be so bored, I’d go crazy! I’d be shopping all the time. So that’s why I have to get up, I have to provide for my family.”
Tony’s selfless support extends beyond the family and the workplace. As a member of the American Legion Riders Association in Haydenville, Tony makes it his mission to jet through western Massachusetts on his motorcycle and raise money for his community, be it a tag sale for breast cancer, a dinner to raise money for Christmas presents for children who don’t have them, or sending supplies over to Iraq. “If there’s anybody in need, if we can help them in any way, our club will—that’s our job,” he said.
Besides his family and the motorcycle crew, Tony is a member of a third clan: Dining Services. Working in close quarters in Val, their movements and moods fell in sync under the invariable pressure of preparing meals for the entire college population on time each day.
“You’ve got those uncles that annoy you, aunts that annoy you, but we’re still a family and we’re a well-oiled machine,” Tony said. “I mean, I’ve only been here for 17 years. There are people who have been here for 30 years. That’s a long time to be at a job.”
He believes Valentine’s quality of food and space has improved drastically over the years, largely thanks to the quality of the dedicated staff. Though Val was hit with budget cuts during the recession, forcing them to change their products, there are now extended hours, in addition to Grab ‘n’ Go, more vegetarian options, a pasta bar, and a brighter, more colorful interior. Schwemm’s has also come far under Rosa Gomes’s direction. Back in the day, there were no grill or fryer options—students could get a bagel melt and a milkshake, if they were lucky. Yet students still bash Val.
“What people don’t realize is, it’s very hard,” said Tony. “Chef Jeremy, Chef Howie, and Charlie [Thompson], our director, they’re very supportive, they’re trying to put out the best product. But if you have 1,600 people, it is nearly impossible to make those 1,600 people very happy. I think Val needs some recognition. They’re really hardworking people—not only the superiors, but also the little soldiers that are doing amazing jobs as well.”
“My fiancée and I were deciding between getting a work bench or a kitchen for our little baby. I didn’t want him to get a kitchen, because I want him to go to school and become a lawyer or doctor or something funny like that, because [culinary arts] is a very tough world.”
Tony wishes Dining Services had a little more positivity.
“We’re not here to teach you, we’re not here to do your laundry. We’re here to feed you, and without food, you can’t do anything else. I think on the list of priorities, the Physical Plant, the Campus Police, and the Val employees, we should be considered awesome.”