End of an era for Merrimack restaurant

A staple of the Merrimack community, Florence’s Restaurant, will close its doors Saturday, Nov. 7, as owner Florence Foti Smokler plans to begin her retirement after decades in the restaurant business.

"Restaurants have been part of my life since I was 11, and I’m tired. If I can’t give 100 percent, then I choose not to do it," Smokler said, adding she’s had a good run. "I have no regrets. I would do it all again; I would take this ride again."

Smokler’s family first opened an Italian restaurant in Boston’s North End in 1974, which was also called Florence’s Restaurant after her mother, Florence Romano Foti.

The family opened another restaurant in 1989 in Merrimack near what is now the Common Man, which Smokler took over and ran for eight years. Following a temporary closure and search for a new location, Florence’s Restaurant reopened at 456 Daniel Webster Highway in 1997.

She said closing is like parting ways with family.

"It’s hard. I started telling customers in October, and we put the date online as soon as we knew it," she said.

Employees knew she had been looking to sell the building for about a year, but she said everybody has offered to stay until the last day.

"I’m so lucky, so appreciative; I’ve had too many wonderful people working for me – they don’t work for me; we work together," she said.

Janet Grubenskas has been with Smokler since answering an ad in 1989.

"I’ve trained every busboy, every waitress, every bartender," Grubenskas said while standing in the threshold of the restaurant’s kitchen recently.

In the kitchen Smokler’s mother was helping prep evening meals with staff, while her daughter and grandson were in the dining room.

"I honestly thought I would do this until I passed," said Grubenskas, 65. "I’m going to miss the friendships, I’m going to miss the customers, but I’m happy for Florence. It’s long overdue."

Gubenskas said her three daughters worked at the restaurant growing up, and still come back to help. "It’s definitely a family atmosphere, I don’t know if I’ll find that again," she said.

As the news hit social media this week, customers have been supportive. "The responses have been emotional. We’ve been getting calls, emails; I’m going to cry reading all this stuff," said Smokler.

One woman posted memories of her wedding day; which was hosted at the restaurant in 2011.

"They made my wedding day such a fantastic and cherished event," said Julie DeRubeis, a longtime customer and Merrimack resident.

DeRubeis and her husband Paul have returned to the restaurant to celebrate their anniversary every year since, and learned of the plans to close at their last anniversary Oct. 1.

"We will always have our memories of Florence’s with our wedding photos, but will miss her and her staff," she said.

Talking about the dedication of her employees, and memories of customers, Smokler became a tearful.

"What you put in is what you get out of it. It was always about taking care of the people," she said.

Over the years, she said she was happy they kept their cooking authentic.

"It’s like a big house to me. We really did homemade cooking; there’s no ‘Fryolater’ in the kitchen, no frozen eggplant; it’s all fresh. People are coming in, getting food to go, saying they’re going to freeze it," she said.

Smokler encouraged the community to keep supporting their local restaurants.

"They’re taking the time to give you a fresh meal. We’re all dinosaurs; we’re all going to be extinct soon."

After retiring in November, she’s looking forward to relaxing and spending holidays at home with her family in Merrimack – something she couldn’t always do while running the restaurant.

"We all live together. We have a full house. We’re Italian; the kids are with us forever," she said.

Two parties have spoken to her about buying the space to open a new Italian restaurant.

"They are interested in purchasing and coming in with their own identity – the name is not for sale."

Gubenskas said she might try to stay on with the new owner, depending what happens next.

"I hope whoever takes over, that I get to stay and see the customers," she said.

With Nov. 7 set as the restaurant’s last day, Smokler wanted to thank her staff and family.

"I can’t thank my parents enough for everything, and my husband, he’s a saint. Without him, it would never have been possible," Smokler said. "He let me fulfill my dreams."