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Former restaurateur Eric Tonkonogy brings a vast expertise in food preparation, service, catering and management to leading a white-glove quality limousine service in Massachusetts that specializes in a wedding clientele.
MILFORD, Mass. — Operator Eric Tonkonogy never thought two decades in the restaurant and hospitality sector would prepare him for an even more difficult line of work.
When the owner of a chain of six restaurants sold off the last one in 2005, he thought he would simplify his life by starting a limousine company. He wanted more time to see his children and stop shuttling among the restaurants. After a frequent customer strongly suggested the limousine business, Tonkonogy bought a vehicle, joined associations, went to trade shows, converted his QuickBooks software to keep track of his new business, and picked up overflow business from other operators.
“I decided I would try something that is easy and bring my customer service skills to the limousine business,” he says. “I would be a butler on wheels. Eight years later, I can say it’s not easier than the restaurant business, but I love it and it’s enjoyable. With the restaurant business, when you close for the day, it’s over. This business is 24/7, 365 days a year.”
As it turns out, being a career chef and former restaurant owner has proven invaluable for Tonkonogy, who runs Exceptional Limousine of Milford, Mass. Acquired by operator John Greene’s ETS International in Randolph, Mass., in 2011, Exceptional now serves as the social or retail division of ETS with its 15-vehicle fleet that includes a mix of conventional stretch limousines, super-stretches, executive vans, and limo buses. It has 65% retail and 35% corporate clienteles.
Tonkonogy, a chef by trade, owned a chain of six family-style restaurants called Eric’s spread across middle Massachusetts from 1992-2005. The chain also was a natural fit for his side catering business for social events and corporate meetings. He first worked as a sous chef for the Marriott Hotel in Newton, Mass., from 1987-1992 after graduating from Johnson & Wales Culinary College.
Choosing weddings as his primary market made sense. Within a few years, Exceptional Limousine ran 18 vehicles and had been chosen “Boston Best Limousine Service” by a major wedding publication. It served 270 weddings in 2011.
As in the restaurant business, customer service for limo clients starts with first impressions — networking to meet new customers while regularly visiting current ones to keep good business relationships strong. “It starts even before they call us,” says Tonkonogy, the vice president of Exceptional and ETS. “It’s how you write and market your ads to get new clients.”
Then, when the calls come: “I trained our staff that we don’t answer the phone with our name, we also thank them for calling us. You find out what they are looking for. They’ve already decided they want to use a limousine service, so you work with them just like sitting down with a bride doing a wedding.”
At your service
Taking a restaurant industry concept, Tonkonogy trains Exceptional chauffeurs and employees to adopt a maître d’ approach to serving wedding clients.
Compared to corporate chauffeured transportation, retail runs for weddings and special events require some more planning and creativity. “What do the bride and her mother have as a vision of moving and getting around? It could be something like using a horse and buggy backed up with limousines and mini-coaches.”
A skilled operator will go through all the steps and logistics to get a good feel for the customer: Vehicles, passenger volume, schedules, run times, wait times, etc. Exceptional Limousine has two full time employees who specialize in coordinating wedding transportation and related services. “We do spend quite a bit of time with wedding clients, on the phone, on e-mails and in person with the bride and her mother,” Tonkonogy says. “The mother is a key point in the business.”
To maximize services offered, Tonkonogy started a networking group three years ago when the corporate business slowed. Called the 495 Wedding Group, it brings together wedding professionals based along the I-495 corridor. “We met and decided we were able to help each other out,” he says. Through the networking group, Exceptional can connect a wedding client with photographers, florists, DJs, tuxedo shops, wedding venues, and other vendors.