"Let me go start my fryolator and make Scotty his dinner."
Though Jean Stott was happy to be doing an interview, she also had work to do. Jean, the proprietor of Stott's At-Bat restaurant and batting cages, has become the food provider of choice for Connecticut Tigers coaches, players and front-office staff. The homey and unassuming restaurant, located just down the road from Dodd Stadium, is run according to a simple, all-prevailing motto: Enter as strangers, leave as friends.
"Scotty," in this case, was Connecticut Tigers hitting coach Scott Dwyer. It was more than two hours before game time, and Dwyer had just called in an order for what he refers to as his "old-school lunch" of grilled cheese and french fries. As Jean fired up the fryolator on this early Saturday evening, she spoke with a quiet but passionate enthusiasm regarding just how much her customers -- Connecticut Tigers and otherwise -- have meant to her and her business.
Stott's At-Bat, which shares the same the Norwich, Connecticut, business park as Dodd Stadium, was founded by Jean's sister and brother-in-law, Sue and Mark Ferguson. The land on which the restaurant sits has been in the family since the 19th century -- the Stotts were dairy farmers -- and the restaurant's "Stott's Avenue" location reflects their long history in the area. The business is still very much a family affair; as Jean and I spoke, her father, Kelvin, was restocking the beverage supply.
Sue and Mark Ferguson started the business in 1996, complete with batting cages, in response to the opening of Dodd Stadium one year prior. Dodd was home to the Norwich Navigators at the time, Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees.
"People would come here for dinner, then hit a few balls and go across the street to the game," said Jean, regarding the original business model.
Jean took over the business approximately a decade later, after the Fergusons became too overwhelmed by the dual demands of work and family. She expanded the menu and oversaw a difficult but ultimately successful renovation, slowly building a loyal customer base. This base expanded greatly in 2010, when, for the first time ever, Stott's At-Bat was truly embraced by the team calling Dodd Stadium home. That team was the Connecticut Tigers, Detroit's Class A Short Season affiliate, who relocated from Oneonta, New York, following the 2009 campaign.
"I became friends with the front office, so they were coming here. And then when the coaching staff came in, [the front office] told the coaching staff that this was a good place to come," said Jean. "Coaching staff then turned around and told the boys, 'If you want a home-cooked meal, this is the place to come.' And then, one by one, the boys all started to come here.
"And of course my little ladies who work here, they all love it, the boys that come through," she continued, with a laugh. "They're sweet and kind, I tell management that all of the time. They're good kids, you know? I try to talk to everybody and get to know their name. I think that's important. If I don't know their name, they're 'Honey,' just because that's the mother in me, you know, not having children of my own. You see them in and out and you care about them; you're excited when they get moved up and hope that they're successful."
As for players who've eaten at Stott's At Bat through the years, Jean mentions everyone from Shane Spencer (1996 Norwich Navigators) to Madison Bumgarner (2009 Connecticut Defenders). But it's the Tigers that have really made an impression on her.
"I've learned more about baseball the last couple years than I ever knew, just from talking to them," she said. "We get some that come in on their own, so they're willing to start a conversation. I never knew that catchers put stuff on their nails, so the pitcher could see [the signs], I never knew that. We had two boys, Duncan [McAlpine] and Austin [Green], a couple years ago who used to always sit at my counter. They taught me a lot; they were good kids."
Stott has worked out a trade agreement with the Tigers, catering press box meals Monday through Friday in exchange for an outfield billboard. At the ballpark and at the restaurant, her clientele has now expanded to include the entirety of the professional baseball ecosystem.
"Just this past week I had had the umpires in, and I've learned a lot about that," she said. "I've learned about coaching. … And you can tell when a scout is in town -- they just have that look about them where you go, 'Hmm, are you…?' 'Yep, I'm a scout.'"
• Read more about Ben's visit to Connecticut on the Biz Blog »
Jean's relationship with the Tigers organization is an extension of her "Enter as strangers, leave as friends" customer service philosophy.
"I've met some incredible people who have come through these doors that I can call friends," she said. "There are three gentlemen who sit at my counter in the morning, who've become regulars, who would have never met had they not been sitting at my counter. … They sit here and chat in the morning, and my dad comes in, and they all hold court for a little while. They talk about everything under the sun, wish each other well, go about their day and look forward to the next time they can see other. And it's awesome. I look at that all the time -- how many people have met here."
Stott's At-Bat serves breakfast all day, a policy that serves as a tribute to Jean's late friend, Dana Wynn.
"[Wynn] was diagnosed with cancer," said Jean. "She would call and say, 'All I want is French toast and burnt bacon -- can I have that?' 'You can have whatever you want; I will make you anything.' Then I started thinking about it. Why are we not doing breakfast all day? If she wants it, there's gotta be other people that want it."
Stott's At-Bat specialties include home-made corned beef hash as well as sausage gravy, which Jean says she makes "really well for a Yankee girl." Players, likely to be more health conscious, often opt for omelets or grilled chicken.
Or, in Dwyer's case, a pregame meal of grilled cheese and french fries. He had apparently been inspired to call in his order after seeing pitcher Matt Davenport eating a similar meal in the clubhouse.
"Hi! Old-school lunch," said Jean to Dwyer as he walked in the door to pick up his meal.
"Yes! Yes! I saw Davenport walk in and I thought, 'Man, I am so hungry. I just want grilled cheese and fries," replied Dwyer. "I don't even know what time the bus leaves tomorrow, but I know I'm gonna have to eat before we go to Staten [Island]."
"Okay, find out that information and pass it along to me," replied Jean, who needed to be prepared for a morning rush of hungry baseball players.
"That's why you try to have that personal connection with everybody," said Jean, after Dwyer had left. "That's why, when the boys come in, you try to make a connection. You try to know what they're doing, if they won the night before. You always say good luck to them as they're walking out the door, because you want them to be happy when they come in the next day."
"It's been really cool for us to meet so many different people from year to year, and when the team comes the next year, you're looking forward to seeing them again. It's fun."
Enter as strangers, leave as friends.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.