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The Anchor Interview With Foodservice East

The Anchor View

Read below for the full interview The Anchor had with Susan Holaday of Foodservice East:

Did you meet your financial goals this summer/fall?

We were thrilled with the volume of guests that experienced The Anchor. The 2019 season brought well over 100,000 people to the venue over the course of the year. This type of audience engagement was one of our primary goals, which is multifaceted: to build an inclusive culture for both Boston residents and visitors alike, to establish and continuously improve upon trendsetting activation and to create a world class public gathering and special event space. Overall, we found that we had great success with each of those aspects. Achieving our financial goals were simply the byproduct of establishing The Anchor as a beautiful venue, spearheading over 300 free public programs and events and orchestrating our valued community initiatives. In short, we focused on doing the right things for the project and are incredibly happy with the outcome.

What do you plan for the new year?

In the simplest of terms: we had so much fun in 2019 and established hundreds of new relationships and friendships. That type of interpersonal connection has guided us in learning more about what the greater public wants and needs. Our on-site team placed a strong and intentional emphasis on conversation with guests and gathering feedback. We have over 700 comments on what people would like to see in the future or want us to continue doing. This will guide any future programs and events. Further, we leaned on Anthem’s experience in public realm activation to observe how people interacted with the physical space. Everything from pedestrian traffic studies to seating styles and arrangements to bicycle pump or lawn game usage. We’ll leverage that empirical data to optimize the venue and utilize all the great anecdotal feedback to establish new styles of events and programs. We’ve already decided on minor tweaks to the ratios of our existing programs.

Another area that we will increase is The Anchor’s community engagement. Based on several metrics, we provided an outlet to over 20,000 youth and/or families in 2019. Yet we think we can touch even more people. This engagement ranged from Charlestown families in the housing communities enjoying a free movie or paint party, to our curated educational and recreational youth field trips with our community partners. By the fall of 2019, we had a (very) significant number of new youth, family and elderly community partners that want to collaborate. This is the most fulfilling part of The Anchor: the proceeds are reinvested in initiatives that aspire to provide exposure to new activities, ideas, people and – the place itself. Anthem has been spearheading community and youth programs like this for a decade. The impact on a teen or pre-teen, of experiencing something different, even if just for a single-day, is astonishing. The same is true for other age groups. As a result of The Anchor’s success, we can replicate our proven engagement formula for new audiences from every area of Boston and beyond, as well as increase the frequency and style of outings and programs. This community focus is exactly what the City of Boston envisioned for the space and exactly what we like to create.

Any winter activities on drawing boards and what did you learn from winter 2019?

The Anchor Winter Garden Concept, which was unveiled during the 2019 holiday season was an incredible success. In general, we truly appreciate all of the positivity and love that we received from our events to the our lighting and décor – my team deserves the credit for executing such a wonderful scheme. All summer long we received a good amount of positive feedback to outright praise for our lighting and other design elements that helped create the best environment. Yet during the winter, we received an overwhelming amount of praise for our Winter Garden décor specifically, which was entirely hand crafted, fabricated and curated. Visitors were truly in awe of our multi-tree display, our giant candy canes, and everything in between. Normally I wouldn’t comment so heavily on our lighting and décor, but in total it took over 400 man-hours to establish the winter theme and prepare it for everyone’s arrival. We are all extremely appreciative, not just of people’s reception, but actual care for the display. We had a few ornaments and other decoration pieces damaged in a windstorm, yet it was the neighbors that actually fixed them! It was so truly humbling and heartwarming.

Likewise, the live music, children’s craft events and other holiday programs were a hit. The biggest hit was our capstone, Cookie with a Cop event, featuring a live reading of The Polar Express by Boston Police Commissioner, Willie Gross. We welcomed youth and public school groups from both Charlestown and Dorchester as well as families stopping by on their own to enjoy the reading. Another dozen police officers, of all ranks, were present to interact with the kids as they decorated holiday cookies, meet with parents, and overall made the event so beloved.

We learned a lot from this first winter, too. If we were to launch The Anchor Winter Garden in the future, we’ll know better how to keep the crowds longer as well as add new event concepts for both adults and children.

What was the hardest part of opening and how did you work through it?

Overall, there were many challenges that came with opening, with one of the largest being the volume of time that we had. Typically, we would want at least 12 – 18 months to launch a venture as elaborate as this with so many overlapping components and all of the steps needed to succeed. Even still, we managed to launch The Anchor in two months. The difficulty lied in the constant and simultaneous responsibilities. The entire Anchor team was working, easily, 15 hours a day, every day, for the duration of those two months. There were more than a couple of overnighters too. In addition to lack of time, we were also working in an incredibly complex venue that required more work than just setting up and opening the doors. We had physical improvements to the venue: woodwork, plumbing, masonry, painting and a multitude of other renovations to complete. Additionally, we then had décor, lighting, seating and other aesthetic aspects that we had to design, create and implement. We then had a team of 30+ individuals and had personnel training for each.

After that we had to delve into the entire hospitality element: think menus, suppliers, vendors and the deluge of administrative duties that come with that. Then of course we had to establish a brand, which came with media, marketing, social media and other critical components. We also planned an ambitious public event calendar which ended up containing a total of 324 free community programs and events.

Finally, there was the community engagement process which necessitates coordination with dozens of partners and their schedules. Overall, this felt like a year of work sandwiched into a few months. With the most important element lingering: there was not a lot of lead time for the word to circulate that we existed.

Normally all of these different phases would segue into each other. In this case, they were all happening at the same time. Yet, we did in the end, launch timely – thanks largely to the tremendous support on both the public agency and private industry sides. Everyone worked together toward a common goal, perhaps in particular all of the public departments were more than ready to be helpful. Not only did we pull together one of the most interesting venues in the region, but we exceeded our goal in the number of public programs that we produced.

What will be different in the new year? Any plans to extend the season?

That is the number one request that we receive. People, and I mean hundreds if not thousands, want us to extend our season through the fall and earlier in the spring. My hope is that whatever future plans The Anchor embarks upon will include an answer to this request. Based on sales data and foot traffic, I think we hit the hours per day right on. However, the feedback is right in that we could be open for a longer season. Plus, the success of The Anchor Winter Garden validates that The Navy Yard in the colder months does not need to be desolate.

Other changes will include an answer to the second most requested upgrade, which is consistent and more diverse food service. We are hard at work this winter on various scenarios to improve on food service. Moreover, our operations team has been meeting about 20 hours weekly since November to not just improve food, but to line up future events, programs, public art and community engagement.

Who were your customers – Charlestown and Navy Yard residents or people from outside the area too?

If this question were asked to The Anchor’s on-site team, they would immediately comment on the large volume of regulars. There are at least 100 regulars that we know like family now. Most of these folks are in The Navy Yard and from nearby in other areas of Charlestown. There is another layer, beyond what would be considered a regular, but more so a frequent guest that are numbered in the thousands. Our sales data helps us track real stats that give a great snapshot of activity. There are thousands of repeat patrons from both inside and outside Charlestown that visited us over ten times each. Overall, we were visited by every zip code in Boston, over 70% of the zip codes within the 128-belt, from all 50 states and over 40 countries. The Anchor has firmly been established as a destination for locals and tourists alike.

The numbers tell a compelling story and we are so appreciative for it.

How long did it take to come up with the idea for Anchor and what prompted it in the first place?

As much credit as we receive for the immediate and large-reaching impact, a great deal of that praise belongs to the Mayor’s Office and the BPDA. The Anchor itself, and its multifaceted approach, was conceptualized by our team. However, the broader and original vision stems from the City of Boston. It was a great experience to collaboratively set The Anchor’s benchmarks and goals together. It was the BPDA leadership and the entire Walsh Administration that envisioned interaction with the greater Boston community, establishment of programs, events and outreach that welcomed – quite literally everyone – to The Navy Yard and the waterfront. My team is fortunate to be a part of that process and the vehicle to achieve those objectives. Once we learned what the City wants to do, how it wants to engage, provide amenities for residents and opportunities for youth and families…we were off to the races with the execution components of that truly inspiring vision.

What is the most exciting thing about doing the project?

There is so much to be excited about and to love. The Anchor is a true passion of mine and our entire team. The support that we have from the immediate neighbors and all of Charlestown is overwhelming. Plus, the support of the Friend’s Group, the City and all of our partners enable us to make the three-part mission come to life. The Anchor is designed to be a truly safe and inclusive gathering space for the immediate residents as well as for the greater community. We’ve seen time and time again that vision come to life whether it is through our community programming or word of mouth. The second component is the event and programming calendar. As we’ve chatted about, we set out with an ambitious goal to spearhead over 300 dynamic and diverse free public events, programs and activities. We want to give people options and something to do. Of course, the third facet is the venue itself – the establishment of The Anchor has of course become one of the most stylish and desirable venues around and the centerpiece of the Navy Yard activation.

Is there anything similar to The Anchor in the city? It was great, as an original resident here, to see the activity it brought to the neighborhood. We’ve had a few things over the years but none ever as successful as this.

You have mentioned that you’re an original Navy Yard resident, which is just awesome. To me that also means your experience and thoughts mean a lot. We worked hard; very, very, hard to refine every element of The Anchor. Attention to detail and devoting attention to even the smallest of adjustments, truly makes us unique. I’m thrilled to hear it is the most successful venture in the Yard. Our goal is to continue that progress. There are some comparable options for the various aspects of The Anchor, but none that have everything we do rolled together. It takes a talented and dedicated team to create a successful venue from scratch. But when we add in the variety of events, programs, art initiatives and activation that Anthem brings to life through The Anchor, that difficulty multiplies. Then the sheer volume of community and youth outreach further differentiates.

Another aspect that makes us stand out from other venues in Boston, which we haven’t touched upon yet is our three-tiered jobs program. The Anchor also participates in The Anthem Group’s preexisting inner-city jobs program – providing employment and job training to at-risk youth, individuals in recovery and adults transitioning from homelessness back into the work force.

Initially, one might compare us to any other beer garden, but when you look at the scope of what we have built, we are far from comparing to any other beer garden in the city. In fact, we are not a beer garden at all – we are a multi-faceted venue and placemaking operation that is inclusive of programming, arts, entertainment and hospitality.

The Anchor has truly become everything we envision and so much more than others could ever imagine, especially when one thinks about its evolution as a special events venue. If you looked at the space a year ago, it was a really pretty park but largely unused and the key components to make it a true venue did not exist. Now we are looking at multiple inquiries a day for a myriad of different special events, including several weddings!

In the end, we are not a venue and a business-model that can easily be classified, and while that sometimes provides a challenge to define and market, we find that it is actually one of our greatest strengths.