Holcomb serves higher 'purpose' at Firebox Restaurant

BY John Stearns

HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns
HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns
Jennifer Holcomb's Greater Hartford restaurant experience includes stints at Max Restaurant Group and Hot Tomato's.

Jennifer Holcomb

General manager, Firebox Restaurant, Hartford.

Highest education: Housatonic Valley Regional High School, Falls Village, 1992.

Executive insights:

"Business is business, that is the bottom line. Every single day I come in and say that’s what we need to do. It may be hard on some employees, but at the end of the day, it’s just going to be better for everybody."

Jennifer Holcomb has worked more than 20 years in the restaurant industry in myriad capacities at well-known eateries throughout the region, but she's found something special and different at Firebox Restaurant in Hartford.

Holcomb, 42, is general manager of Firebox, part of the Billings Forge complex purchased by the Melville Charitable Trust in 2005 in Frog Hollow, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the state. The trust purchased the former tool factory to provide quality, affordable housing, and create employment and community development opportunities, according to a trust report. Firebox sprung out of that mission, opening at the Broad Street site near the Capitol in 2007 and known for its creative, farm-to-table cuisine.

The restaurant employs about 33 people, mostly Hartford residents, which is rewarding, Holcomb said.

"I've always cared about my employees, but it makes me care more about my employees and what it is that they're getting out of life and what they can do for themselves," she said.

The trust in 2007 also helped fund the launch of the nonprofit Billings Forge Community Works (BFCW), which promotes healthy eating, sustainable agriculture and local food within an urban setting and uses its community garden for food production, youth programming and community engagement. A weekly farmers' market offers access to locally grown foods, among other BFCW programs, for which Firebox profits are earmarked.

"The amount of programs that they're involved in is staggering to me," said Holcomb, who joined Firebox in 2014 as bar manager and was promoted to GM last year.

The complex also includes The Kitchen, a café that serves as a training ground for Firebox and other restaurant jobs.

"It's changed me in a way," Holcomb said of working at Firebox. "I've become a lot more socially conscious. Everything that they do here has a purpose," from job training, to supporting regional farms to cultivating the community.

The experience has helped her grow as a manager as she works to help people who may need an extra hand or chance.

"Here, it pushes me to learn how to develop the right skills to motivate and inspire somebody," Holcomb said. "The ultimate goal for the entire staff is to motivate and empower."

Holcomb's management style is focused on business, while caring deeply about her employees. She admits to wearing her heart on her sleeve, and takes it personally if a staff member is having a bad day and feels she didn't do enough to help.

She tries to emulate Jimmy Cosgrove, with whom she worked as assistant manager for about five years at Hot Tomato's and who now co-owns Salute Restaurant, calling him hardworking and selfless. Cosgrove said Holcomb was his right hand, worked as hard as anyone and took initiative.

"It's hard, because when you work for somebody like me, everybody's used to the way I do things and Jenn wasn't afraid to do things on her own, even though she knew it might come back at her," said Cosgrove, who expects her to flourish at Firebox.

"She knows her food, she knows her wine ...," Cosgrove said. "I think she's impeccable."

Holcomb's resume also includes work at Max Restaurant Group as assistant manager, Dish 'n Dat as GM, and Rizzuto's as bar manager.

To relax, Holcomb enjoys dining out with boyfriend Bill Brooks, who works for a food distribution company. She also has a passion for horses and has a Morgan show horse, Andy, which she keeps and trains in Chatham, N.Y.

The admitted farm girl grew up on a dairy farm in Litchfield County's Falls Village. She has shown Morgan horses at competitions around the country — riding horseback and in buggies pulled by the horses — but primarily in the Northeast. With her busy Firebox schedule, she cherishes barn time, whether with Andy or horses at her parents' farm, but calls her job a career highlight that's given her more purpose in the industry.

"I have said it to a couple of people, this will be the last place I work at in Connecticut," Holcomb said.