Mary Welsh knows a thing or two about celebrations.
As former owner of the Evergreen Grill in East Lansing and current assistant manager of the State Room at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Center, Welsh has dedicated her career to making sure her customers celebrate in style.
From the perfect place setting, to an eye-catching centerpiece, to a menu filled with options for everyone, Welsh doesn’t let anything slip by her discerning eye when it comes to celebrating. Well, almost anything. There was that one time while hosting a cocktail party for an Evergreen Grill customer that Welsh and her crew forgot the cocktail napkins. But it’s staying cool under pressure that has lead Welsh to the success she has found in the celebration business.
“The last thing you want to do is draw attention to a flaw,” said Welsh.
Of course if you had asked Welsh 30 years ago how to celebrate in style, she might have looked at you funny. That’s because 30 years ago Welsh was a student Michigan State University studying psychology. In 1976 she married David Pung. The couple had three children — daughter Stacie Littlefield and sons Ryan Pung and Ben Welsh Pung. In the early 1980s, when Welsh’s kids started school, she decided she wanted to reenter the work force. The only problem was, she had no experience. One day she happened upon the not-yet-opened Peanut Barrel, met owner Joe Bell and asked for a job.
“I begged him,” she said laughing. “I had never waited a table in my life.”
Bell gave Welsh a chance on one condition: she had to help paint the place before they opened the doors. Welsh grabbed a brush, got to work and discovered her calling in the restaurant biz.
After ten years of serving up cold brews and burgers Welsh, Bell and another business partner decided to open a restaurant together.
“At that time it was a whole lot easier to open a business,” said Welsh.
The business partners rented a large building on Abbot Road that had formerly hosted a diner and decided to bring a little something different to the area.
“There was a gaping hole in fine dining in East Lansing,” she said. And so the Evergreen Grill was born, opening its door in 1996.
“It was a leap,” said Welsh. “It was like we went from first grade to the first year in college … I got slaughtered.” But the slaughtered feeling didn’t last thanks to the people Welsh hired.
“I had some really good people locally that I hired,” she said. “I was really lucky.” One of those people was Millie Vanderbrink.
“She would not accept anything mediocre,” said Welsh. Soon enough Welsh became the same way.
“I (was) willing to work really hard,” she said. “I would put in lots of hours.
Welsh’s hard work got results. The Evergreen Grill took off.
While running the East Lansing establishment, Welsh also had a hand in planning a number of events in East Lansing. One of her favorites being the now discontinued Michigan Festival In fact, one of her favorite memories of being in business in downtown East Lansing is the year she set up a huge sand volleyball tournament for the festival. The festival was a success, but Welsh’s contractor backed out of removing the five tons of sand off of MAC. Today, thinking of those piles of sand, Welsh laughs.
Eventually, Welsh bought out her business partners and became soul owner of the Evergreen Grill.
“It was a dream,” she said. About four years ago, however, calling it the most challenging business decision she has ever made, Welsh decided to close the Evergreen Grill because of difficulties with lease negotiations.
At the time, Welsh had every intention of retiring.
“I tried retiring,” she said, but it didn’t stick. Soon enough Welsh was on the hunt for a new job.
While on an interview with another restaurant it hit Welsh that working for someone else right away would be difficult. And so she stopped her search to find a job in the restaurant business and instead started at the bottom, working a minimum-wage job in retail.
“That’s exactly what I needed,” she said.
A few months later, she accepted a position with Michigan State University working in the residence halls.
“That was interesting,” she said. When the opportunity with the State Room was presented to Welsh, she accepted. That was three years ago.
“I absolutely love it there,” she said.
As assistant manager at the State Room, Welsh oversees the breakfast and lunch crowd and also helps to plan special events like the State Room’s breakfast with Santa, princess tea and more.
“Every day is really different,” she said.
One of the best parts of being at the State Room is Welsh’s co-workers. When she closed the Evergreen Grill, Welsh said she knew there would be a lot she missed about running a restaurant, but there was one thing she missed that took her by surprise.
“The thing I missed the most were the kids … their energy,” she said. In the State Room Welsh once again can be inspired by “the kids.”
Also keeping her inspired are her real life kids and grandkids — Littlefield has two daughters, 14-month old Harper and newborn Abbott. This Thanksgiving, Welsh will spend the holiday celebrating in style with them.
“She gets out the nice plates,” said Littlefield. “She makes everybody happy … She and my dad are amazing at that … They’ve always made it so everybody is comfortable.” One of those comforts includes preparing Littlefield’s favorite Thanksgiving dish, a special turkey stuffing complete with almonds and dried cranberries.
After 20 years of celebrating in style Welsh said she’s picked up some tips. First of all she says, make a list.
“Have an actual plan and write everything down,” said Welsh.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are likely to be centered around family tradition.
“I’m a huge person of tradition,” she said. “I think people like things the way they’ve always been (and) Thanksgiving is steeped in tradition.”
When it comes to celebrations held at different times of the year, having a theme is a
good way to get started said Welsh. Once you as the host have an idea of what you’d like to happen, ask for help in executing that plan — assign duties to party guests and whatever you can do ahead of time, do it. If you can afford it, added Welsh, hire help. All of the pre-planning will allow you to actually enjoy the celebration you’ve put so much work into.
“When the actual event is happening, forget all of that,” she said. “Actually be present.”
It’s unlikely that Welsh will forget all of her years of experience this holiday, but as long as she spends it with the people she loves, she’s sure to enjoy it, after all this Thanksgiving there’s no shortage of what Welsh is thankful for. Along with her job at the State Room she said, “I’m thankful for my kids, my husband and these babies.”