New generation takes over at Rocco's

July 23, 1999|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

During the more than two decades that her parents owned and operated Rocco's Italian-American Family Restaurant in Hagerstown's East End, Diana Burke spent countless hours there - working, sitting down for important family discussions, celebrating holidays and other special occasions.

Still, she never really thought about taking over the family business, which recently marked 63 years, until March 1998, when her father suffered a heart attack in the midst of her mother's battle with cancer.

"They were very particular about who they were giving it up to," said Burke, 48, who sees her father's heart attack as a turning point in her life.

It made her stop and re-evaluate her plans for its remainder, she said.

A farm wife for 14 years, Burke decided to go to back to school after a divorce.

She graduated from Hagerstown Community College with a degree in accounting and business management in 1990.

She then started working part time for a food vending company while she finished raising her children and two more from her remarriage.


With her last child graduating from high school in June 1998, Burke was wondering what next. She sat down and made a list of reasons why she should and shouldn't buy out her parents.

The exercise made her realize she really liked Rocco's atmosphere and the variety of owning a restaurant, that she knew the product and had done all of the jobs there, she said.

She'd done a lot of waitressing, which she loved, took over the sauces when her mother was traveling to Baltimore to be with her ill daughter, and managed the restaurant after her father's heart attack.

Taking over an operation with an established reputation and client base - made it especially attractive, Burke said.

"My only hesitation was knowing what the labor force was like," she said.

Rocco's track record of low employee turnover convinced Burke she could weather the tight labor market.

She became Rocco's new owner on July 20, 1998, and now lives in an apartment above the restaurant on the corner of Liberty Street and Cleveland Avenue.

Her decision to buy the restaurant made her parents, Leon and Lillian Kinsey, very happy, she said.

Her mother, who had an active role in the restaurant's operation, enjoyed going over things with her in the months before she died in June 1998.

"It was nice to not have to give it up to strangers," said Kinsey, 73, who bought the restaurant in 1975.

They were confident their daughter would maintain the quality they'd always insisted on, he said.

From his research, Kinsey said he believes the establishment is the oldest continuously operated restaurant in Washington County, never closing its doors as it changed hands three times since opening July 4, 1936.

"We're proud of a locally owned and operated restaurant passed down through four owners," he said.

It has kept not only the Rocco's name but the meat sauce and meatball recipes used by Italian immigrants Rocco and Frances Zappacosta, who started the business as a two-room basement tavern with a potbelly stove, Kinsey said.

While not Italian, Kinsey said he grew up in the neighborhood, which was largely Italian then, and knew both the Zappacostas and Mike and Stella Young, who bought the business in 1947.

In 1982, the Kinseys started building an addition that would nearly triple Rocco's dining capacity and allow Leon to add distinctive features, including a romantic balcony section, a spiral staircase, a mural of Rome's famous Trevi Fountain and chandeliers imported from Venice.

The restaurant's uniqueness goes beyond looks to the Kinseys' hands-on management style.

There's a rule at Rocco's that women are never seated facing a wall, Kinsey said.

Another says all hot food must be served very hot, he said.

At Rocco's, the waitresses never clear tables. Their emphasis on cleanliness precludes the same person who serves the food from touching the dirtied dishes, Kinsey said.

Also, Rocco's cashiers are not allowed to ask customers how everything was. Since the owners are on site, they know, he said.

The hours are limited to 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, which started in the 1980s to allow the Kinseys to have a personal life.

Burke said she plans to stick with her parents' successful formula.

"They really made the business. I'm just desirous to continue it," she said.

With her father serving as her mentor over the past year and an outgoing nature like her parents, Burke has grown comfortable in her new role.

"I cook like my mother and I look like my father," she said.

Rocco's Italian-American Family Restaurant is at 501 Liberty St. in Hagerstown.

The phone number is 301-733-3724.

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