Heather A. Lacey – The Legal Sea Foods Group
The Legal Sea Foods Group has been given a lifeline at a most precarious time.
Like so many others in the restaurant industry, the iconic Boston-based company was severely impacted by COVID-19. The crisis lingering and challenges mounting, owners of the family-owned company decided the best option for the brand and its employees was to sell.
Last December another Boston-based hospitality company, PPX Hospitality Brands, through its affiliate Legal Sea Foods Restaurant Group Inc., purchased Legal’s assets. Those letters standing for Personne Particulierement Extraordinaire—French for “particularly extraordinary person”—PPX has since focused on optimizing the Legal Sea Foods brand along with its two others. Also in the fold are America’s Steakhouse collection Smith & Wollensky and Strega Italiano, which are an established group of Italian restaurants in the Boston area.
“With three distinct iconic restaurant brands, we have the ability to curate our expansion in markets as various opportunities present themselves,” says PPX CEO Oliver J. Munday.
And there to assist as new general counsel of the legal division is Heather A. Lacey who has done her part to sustain the brand during its darkest days. In that regard, Lacey will be honored in November in Boston as a Top Woman in Law in 2021.
“They came in and saved our jobs,” Lacey says of PPX. “They share the values of the importance of our employees, some of whom have worked for Legal Sea Foods for 25, 30, and close to 50 years.”
Putting Legal first
Months before most of the Legal Sea Foods crew had even heard of PPX, it was Lacey who was looking out for their jobs, notwithstanding the uncertainty of her own status since in-house lawyers often aren’t retained when a company changes hands. And though the restaurants were temporarily closed at the height of the pandemic, Lacey says she had never worked harder or juggled more responsibilities, some outside the usual to-do list of an in-house lawyer.
She navigated the complexities that led to Legal securing a Paycheck Protection Program loan from Washington. Nobody was terminated, she says, and the company covered 100 percent of employee benefits.
“I literally was hands-on,” Lacey tells Vanguard in August. “Employees were calling me, unsure of how to file for unemployment and expressing they weren’t getting help from the states. I’d intervene on their behalf. One man asked if I wore a superhero cape.”
While Lacey wasn’t directly involved in negotiations with PPX, she did due diligence and helped all but a handful of Legal Sea Foods employees be kept. Since the deal was sealed, she’s been working with internal and external experts, such as Alliant, to align LSFRG’s benefits to PPX’s and develop the most comprehensive and economic packages. That includes medical, dental, vision, 401(k), referral bonuses and vacation along with such ancillary perks as life and disability insurance, paid sick time and employee rewards and discount programs.
Such benefits are as much an investment in LSFRG’s well-being as for its employees. As Lacey explains, the pandemic has devastated restaurants everywhere and line cooks and wait staff are now often wary of returning to their jobs. It’s more reason for a restaurant to be mindful of employee concerns, though Lacey’s proactive approach predates the pandemic.
Core values shared
Hired as associate general counsel at then-named Legal Sea Foods in 2005, Lacey’s responsibilities were often split between managing litigation and overseeing employee-related issues. Even then she kept an open door, as did the owner and CEO Roger Berkowitz.
She created an anonymous hotline where employees could confidently bring concerns forward—then and now a rarity in the hospitality business. That dovetailed into the training program she developed to cover such issues as discrimination, harassment and diversity-equity-inclusion initiatives.
She also created an Employee Engagement Committee that met monthly to hear what else might be on everyone’s mind. Safe workplace is always top of mind; some items might be stored too high, non-slip mats need to be added on occasion, exits should be free and clear and hot pots secured to prevent spills and burns.
It all falls under a general counsel’s responsibilities, and she’s especially glad to be one with a company that shares her values.
Law called early
Lacey traces interest in law back to her childhood. The youngest of five siblings, she laughingly says she knew unfairness from the get-go. Even in grammar school she was the one organizing petition drives and walkouts. She went on to graduate in 1993 with majors in political science and English from the University of Delaware and, encouraged by an English professor, pursued law at Boston’s Suffolk University.
The American Civil Liberties Union held an early attraction for Lacey and, while she never worked for it, she did legal clinics to assist tenants in fighting evictions and protecting themselves from unscrupulous landlords, as well as single mothers fighting for safety and support for children. But paying off loans and putting money aside while living in the pricy Boston area is beyond the means of many young professionals, so Lacey honed her skills with a few firms, , including Heller, Levin, Seksay & Ouellette, Posternak Blankstein & Lund and Manchel & Brennan.
Legal Sea Foods Inc. beckoned her to join the team in 2005 and how the business has since changed, the company expanding the presence of restaurants in airports. Then last December, Berkowitz sold the restaurants and other assets to PPX while retaining rights for e-commerce and retail sales using the Legal Sea Foods name.
“A very interesting 16 years it’s been,” says Lacey. “We’ve been a tight-knit, family-like company with tremendous highs and lows, like what you’d have in any family.”
And she’s a survivor in more than just the corporate way. She’s been dealing with cancer but maintains a positive mindset. Though her husband now teaches math, he owned two restaurants and knows what she’s up against professionally. Their 16-year-old daughter works in a restaurant, though she’s determined to play Division 1 lacrosse. Similarities abound with mom.
“I’ve been a hostess, a delivery driver, dishwasher, waitress,” Lacey says. “Having an understanding of this industry and what goes on has been most helpful in my legal work.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Fall IV 2021 Edition here.
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