The Specials is an ongoing series of interviews with the unsung heroes of hospitality — from managers, waiters and sommeliers to dishwashers, farmers and foragers.
Jonathon Spada is the general manager of Marigold, a restaurant and micro-bakery in Rome, where he has lived for almost ten years. Originally from California, he studied at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration in New York.
Hospitality has always been a passion of mine.
I grew up in a big family and my parents' ideal vacation was camping. Quite frankly, I preferred staying in hotels.
I work at the intersection of hospitality and design.
Whether it’s the way we plate food or promote an event, if it’s packaged the right way, people will perceive the value in it. If you put it together in a way that’s on-brand for the establishment, you can justify a certain price for it. So when I talk about the intersection of hospitality and design, it’s very much about blending creative aesthetics with business acumen.
I came to Rome when I was doing a master’s in architecture.
I stayed and launched SAYHELLO Creative, a consultancy that advises hotels and restaurants. For a while, I consulted on actual operations for a few restaurants, where I would go in and do things behind the scenes — checklists and standards, staff meetings and team-building exercises. I enjoyed doing it, but it was so hard to do for multiple clients because you have to become part of the family before you can build trust.
I joke that Italians understand hospitality until you start paying them for it.
It’s not a nice thing to say but you can have some terrible guest experiences in Italy because they typically treat it like you're at their workplace, not their home.
Marigold allowed me to connect with the industry on a personal level.
I wanted to work somewhere part-time and get my hands dirty. When I heard that Sofie and Domenico were opening a new place, I wrote to them and explained who I was. We connected and I started doing a couple of nights a week when Marigold opened in 2018. It had been years since I’d done service. It was thrilling because I realised how much I missed it — and eye-opening because I realised how much hard work it was.
I’ve been managing Marigold full-time since the first lockdown.
I’m a very collaborative, getting-my-hands-dirty kind of leader. But I never forget that there’s a hierarchy for a reason, that there are responsibilities, and that if I'm doing everyone else's job, I’m really not helping them. It's important to ensure that people understand what they're responsible for and to support them in whatever they need to do.
Working at the Beijing Olympics shaped me as a leader.
As part of my program at Cornell, I worked in the official restaurant at the Olympic village. My role was to manage the staff that took out the trash, washed the floors, and broke down boxes, for 10 hours a day, six days a week. None of them spoke English and I didn't speak Mandarin, so I learnt a lot about kitchen organisation and communication.
I love Marigold’s approach to sustainability.
It’s not only about using local ingredients but about how much is used. When a guest comes here for, say, the third time and still doesn’t get that piece of cake or pastry because it’s sold out, I like explaining that we're not going to make more of it just because there's a higher demand. We make what we can, based on how much space we have or how much we can afford, and we want it to sell out because that means it's always going to be fresh and that we never have to throw anything out at the end of the day.
We wrote a book about Marigold’s response to the pandemic.
In September 2020, I realised I was already starting to forget some of the decisions we made when we went into lockdown. I knew I’d find it interesting and valuable to look back at what we did 10 or 20 years from now. So I was literally on my phone, writing notes and trying to remember what our thinking was. That Christmas, I decided to put the notes in a book for Sofie and Domenico. Then, exactly a year after we went into lockdown, we published it widely. I see it as a book not only for our guests, but for other restaurants too — to say, here's what we did, whether it was the right thing to do or not, you be the judge, but this was our thinking at the time.
As told to Superb. The transcript has been edited for clarity and concision.