NBT's Longtime Cafeteria Manager Retires After 21 Years
Published: March 17th, 2022
By: Sarah Genter

NBT's longtime cafeteria manager retires after 21 years The Blue Star Cafe team at Betty Smith's retirement celebration. Smith served as the Cafeteria Manager at NBT Bank for 21 years. Pictured is newly hired Cafeteria Manager Frank Bonnot, Cindy Tripp, Betty Smith, and Amanda Lund. (Submitted photo)

NORWICH — After 21 years of serving up delicious comfort food to the employees of NBT Bank, Betty Smith has retired and handed the reins over to seasoned chef Frank Bonnot.

Smith got her start in the culinary field from her mother, who had taught her some skills in the kitchen. She then managed the kitchen at the Genegantslet Golf Course in Greene for 20 years. When it was suggested that she apply to NBT, who was hiring for a cafeteria manager, Smith took the leap and the rest is history.

Although the beginning was a bit different than what she was used to, as the cafeteria was much smaller, less busy, and served canned food, Smith said she was given the freedom to make the NBT Blue Star Cafe her own. She and her team got to work switching the kitchen over to from-scratch cooking, and from there business began to boom. In 2004, then-President and CEO of NBT Bank Martin Dietrich suggested expanding the cafeteria into what it is today.

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"He saw how busy we were getting and everything, and in 2004 he goes, I have this vision that we need to have a gathering place for our employees to go and relax and enjoy good food. So we rebuilt the cafeteria and expanded it huge and state of the art equipment. It was amazing," said Smith. "I have never been so lucky in my life, and for them to really think that we could pull it off was amazing."

From there the culture and services of the Blue Star Cafe really began to take shape. The kitchen began cooking "Thanksgiving feasts" for the employees every year, and the tradition even spread to other NBT branches.

"We would have Thanksgiving feasts, and oh my goodness the people would come over from all over. They would come down from the branches in Sherburne, in Greene, Oxford," said Smith. "They would preorder, we would put them together, they would come and tell us what time they were getting there, we’d have it all packaged up for them, and they would take it home to their office and feed everybody that worked there in their branch."

She said everything for the feasts was made completely from scratch, "right down to the pie crust." NBT executives would also get in on the festivities by donning chef's hats and aprons and serve food to the employees.

"The best part about the whole thing was the executives would come down and do the serving. There would be a line going down to the end of the cafeteria, down the stairs in the hallway, waiting for these executives, Marty included, and we used to have so much fun talking with the people," said Smith. "That is my favorite day because the executives, they’re so much fun. They wear the chef hat, the coat, the apron. They kid with the employees. That is just a great day, it's a great great day, so that is my favorite memory. I’m going to miss it."

During COVID shut downs, Smith and her team developed a plan to still provide delicious meals to NBT employees, who were now working remotely. They began a takeout service right from the Blue Star Cafe.

"I called my girls, Amanda and Cindy and Brooke, and I said what do you girls think? Do you want to work or do you want to collect unemployment? And they said we want to work," Smith explained. She pitched the idea to her boss, Joe Stagliano, who gave them the green light.

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"I presented it to him like everybody’s remote, everybody is stressed, everybody has their kids home, they’re sitting at their computers for eight hours a day, and then they have to do schoolwork with their kids, and then they have to fix supper, clean up supper, put the kids to bed. They have no break at all. I said, so I was thinking we could make dinner for them three days a week."

The hot dinners were available to preorder, and provided disposable plates and silverware for easy cleanup. All in all, Smith said the Blue Star Cafe team served over 17,000 meals during the pandemic.

Smith's cooking even extended beyond the Norwich NBT branch. She ran the Colorscape hospitality tent for ten years, and then was asked to sell her fruit pies, pot pies, and soups at Saturdays in the Park with Chobani. At the time, Smith said she was unsure about the commitment as she was out of work recovering from a broken ankle.

"I said well I don't know if I can do all that hauling because of my leg. I really have to take it a little easier until it completely heals," she said. "Mindy [Chawgo] and her husband are wonderful people, and she said don't worry we have a tent, we have a chair, we have it all set up for you, you don’t have to do anything but bring your pies. And I said oh my gosh are you kidding me?"

At first, Smith started small, only making 25 pies. But, she quickly found her food was an instant favorite at the weekly events — in the first half hour, she completely sold out. Now, she makes 50 to 60 fruit pies, 50 pot pies, and three kinds of soup each week, and still always sells out.

Now that she's retired, the Blue Star Cafe has been handed over to Frank Bonnot, who has been in the culinary field since 2009 and earned degrees in business and culinary arts at BOCES and SUNY Cobleskill. Prior to his new role as Cafeteria Manager at NBT, he worked at SUNY Oswego as the Production Manager of their residential dining services.

The Blue Star Cafe offers a deli bar, a weekly deli special, daily homemade soups, and a daily hot food special. Bonnot said he'll still keep some of Smith's classics, but he is also striving to create healthy meal options that still taste great.

"We can make healthy items desirable and delicious. Like for example, today we had street cart tacos. It was shredded, fire braised chicken thigh that I grilled in a little bit of oil with salt, pepper, cumin, garlic, black pepper, onion, and a little bit of lime juice, and then it was on a taco shell with black beans, corn, and green chilis, plain white rice, and then I made a cilantro lime slaw to go on top of it as well," he said. "So it’s something different, but it’s still light, flavorful, and adds some complexity to the dish without sacrificing calories for it."

Bonnot has a particular affinity for international cuisine, specifically Hispanic and Asian cooking, and enjoys utilizing spice in his dishes.

"I love Asian cooking, I love Hispanic cooking. I like doing a lot of Thai stuff, like I have a lot of good Thai curry recipes, and I wouldn’t mind making a trip to the asian food market in Syracuse a few times," he said. "I enjoy the different flavors. I need to cut back on spice, I know I need to do that eventually. I ferment my own hot sauce at home, so I’m a hot sauce fanatic. I like to enhance food with spices."

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Although he's still settling in, he said he hopes to implement a few new things at the Blue Star Cafe as well. Namely, inviting BOCES culinary students to cook at the Cafe, and begin composting as a way to reduce the kitchen's carbon footprint.

"Since I went to BOCES I know seniors have to do 30 hours of culinary hours to graduate from BOCES for culinary. I did mine at the prison. So that was fun, they do meals to go for seniors over there," said Bonnot. "So I want to do something like that maybe have one of them work here during the summer time."

"I would love to take any leftover food scraps, and possibly getting compostable containers in as well that we can put in the compost as well to limit our carbon footprint," he continued. "Slowly but surely trying to get these things together. [I'm] still trying to learn the ropes."

Ultimately, though, Bonnot said his goal is to provide a positive and satisfying meal and experience to anyone who walks through the door.

"I really enjoy putting smiles on people's faces and making good food for people. I care a lot about what I do, and my main goal is to make sure that the person that walks down those stairs, or walks down those stairs, or walks down some other stairs, is 100 percent satisfied with their whole experience," he said. "That was my same goal at the college with my food, and that’s the same goal I have wherever I’m going to go: Make sure everyone’s experience is as best as possible."

Before her send-off, Smith worked with Bonnot for two weeks to get him used to his new role. Although she may be retired, she said she's always there to help.

"I’m sure that he’ll do a fine job, and I know the girls will guide him through all the rough spots that might come along," said Smith. "I gave him my phone number I said you call me whenever you have questions. Call me, I’ll guide you as best I can."

Smith's last day at NBT Bank was on Friday, March 11. Employees gathered in the Blue Star Cafe for her retirement party, a fitting place to celebrate her 21 years of service.

"It was bittersweet when I left. I mean, I cried for like two weeks before I left, and I mean anytime anyone talked to me the tears would start flowing, I couldn’t help it," said Smith. "Then they put on this beautiful reception for me, I can’t even tell you. People were amazing. I mean, it was great."

Despite the bittersweet end, Smith said she's ready to enjoy her retirement, and even kicked it off with a vacation to Florida. She said she looks forward to spending time with her grandchildren, and figuring out what she wants to do next.

"I’m ready to enjoy retirement and enjoy my grandkids. I still cook for people whenever anyone wants anything. So there’s a lot to be done yet," she said. "I just want to take the first year and just kind of get a grip on what I want to do, for sure. So yeah, it’ll be interesting to see what I come up with, because I really don’t know! But I don't want to stop cooking."

Reflecting on her years at NBT, Smith couldn't help but recognize all the little things along the way that ultimately led to her position there. A position that, in the long run, gave her the freedom to do things her own way, and eventually retire.

"NBT, I can’t thank them enough for everything they have done for me, and for their employees. They take such good care of their employees. I mean, it just really truly is amazing, and if it wasn’t for Mike Paino suggesting the job to me, and NBT letting me do my own thing, I would not be able to retire right now. If it hadn't been for those three things, oh my gosh, I would have to work for the rest of my life. And now I get to enjoy my grandchildren," said Smith. "I get to go and enjoy all of them now, and if it wasn’t for NBT I would not be able to do that today, and I thank them so much."