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Wendell Horrell: Managing Romanelli’s

Wendell Horrell is one of those lucky people you hear about who has found his true calling. As the General Manager of Eddie Romanelli’s in Water ford, he relishes the daily interaction he has with his customers.

“I could never work in an office building where I sit in a cubicle all day long. I just love people.”

And people seem to love him. After seven years working as the manager at Eddie Romanelli’s in Wilmington, he came across the bridge last summer to help open up a new location of the restaurant at Waterford.  A following of loyal customers came with him.

He speaks with great fondness of a number of regulars: There’s the couple with whom he regularly discusses a shared hobby of running marathons. And then there’s the older couple that was forced to move away last year because of medical reasons.

“And we still get postcards from them. You know, just to let us know how they’re doing. I love that.”

Ever the modest host, Horrell credits any popularity he’s gained to Romanelli’s itself. The company-standard of fresh food always made from scratch doesn’t hurt, he says, and neither does the top-down emphasis on oldfashioned, personalized contact with clientele. A favorite part of Horrell’s job at Romanelli’s is checking in with each table to make sure his customers are happy. He contrasts this with what he calls the “Feed them and get ‘em out,” attitude of some chain restaurants.

“I think it’s good for a customer to know that there’s actually a manager in charge, who cares about the quality of their food and the quality of their experience.” It’s to this that he credits the success of Eddie Romanelli’s. People who feel at home are more likely to bring their family and friends in, and that sparks a chain reaction in popularity.

“It’s not rocket science,” he says. “Customers, as well as employees, well, they have lives and they have families. You know, it’s just about getting to know people a little and treating them like people.”

Horrell insists he’s just passing on the respect that was shown to him 12 years ago, when he started out with Atlantic Quest, the group of local restaurant entrepreneurs who own the Oceanic, Bluewater, Henrys, Atlantic Quest Catering, and Eddie Romanelli’s.

Horrell had spent the first half of his career with Harris Teeter. But after eleven years, he says, “It was time to get out of the grocery business.” It was a nerve-wracking time. He left his job just after a wedding anniversary, and he half jokes now that his wife was “none too pleased.” He was in his mid-twenties. Because he had plenty of experience cutting vegetables and preparing food, he responded to an ad placed by the Oceanic, which was then seeking a prep cook.

In the twelve years since, Horrell has shot up through the ranks with Atlantic Quest. He says it was very early on in his time with the company when he realized he’d found his home.

“There was just a real professionalism. And they really made you feel like you’re part of the family.” Just three years after he started at the Oceanic, he and his wife had their first daughter. “And the owners came and visited us at the hospital with flowers and balloons.” Gestures like this, large and small, says Horrell, are what set Atlantic Quest apart.

Now, Horrell says the friendships he and his wife have made at the restaurant are ones he expects to last a lifetime.

He pauses. Then tells a story about something that happened last year. His mother went through a difficult bout with breast cancer, and right before the operation, he says one of the owners of the business came to the hospital to check up on him. “And that was pretty special,” he says. “I get a little emotional at times talking about it, but they’re just good people. The kind of people that you want to stay working with a very long time.”

Horrell finds that the best rewards, though, take place in his daily responsibilities.

“Just imagine. I get to come into work every day, and I get to throw a dinner party for people.” He leans in. “And they pay me money!” He also jokes that it’s an added plus not to have to do the dishes.

At present, Horrell is most excited about the latest course in the dinner party of his career. Helping to open up the new location of Eddie Romanelli’s in Waterford has been a lot of work, he says, but it’s also been fun.

“Every once in a while when I’m working, I’ll stop and take a look around this place. Ten or twelve months ago, it was just nothing but a shell. And you look around and see what a beautiful restaurant it is. Especially on busy nights, it’s great. From what it came from to what it is now. So, it means a lot.”

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