One of my favorite places to go for a little vacation in my head is the Positano Coast restaurant. With it’s snowy white and Mediterranean blue colors it makes me feel like I’m in Greece. Actually I should probably say it reminds me of Italy, since it’s an Italian restaurant, but I’ve never been there and the color scheme and sun-bathed interior are close enough that it takes me back to my time in the Greek Isles. One of the few places that has been serving food throughout the entire pandemic, Positano is now open for outdoor seating. I spoke to the general manager Thomas Finnegan Wainwright to get the scoop (preferably the sea salt caramel gelato).
So, when I googled Thomas Wainwright, the first hit I got was a fellow who’d been killed by a “rogue man-eating shark.” I’m guessing that isn’t you since that’s pretty out there and also because you’re, well…still alive. The second Thomas Wainwright that popped up had “a reputation as a profligate and a dandy,” and while that might be closer, he was also a suspected serial killer who did portraits for Charles Dickens and Oscar Wilde. So I’m guessing that’s not you either.
[Laughing] No! And Wainwright is my married name! My bachelor name is Finnegan, Lex and I have been married for three years so my name now is Thomas Finnegan Wainwright, we decided to skip the hyphen’s to spare any future children.
Finnegan, so I’m guessing you’re an Irish lad?
Irish/Italian, grew up here in Philadelphia.
Tell me a little about the neighborhood you grew up in?
I grew up in North Philly, in the Germantown/Erie section. It was sometimes rough, but I got a lot of soul growing up there. Everyone was lower than working class. My father was a janitor at the local church. Both parents were children of immigrants, so you know how that is, and I’m 1 of 10 children so I was sweeping floors and doing whatever odd jobs I could to make money since I was 14 years old.
Did you say one of ten?
I did, my father took the job at the church so that he could get a discount on our tuition at the school. It was very important to my parents that we went to a parochial school. They were pretty religious.
[Laughing] And I guess that included frowning on birth control.
Oh yes. Irish + Italian + Catholic = lots of babies!
Where do you fall within the lineup?
I’m the second oldest. I have an older brother. So I learned a lot about how to take care of people early on. I was an altar boy and a lector, I did readings, etc. And I think that’s where I got my love of service. I’ve spent my whole life surrounded by people who serve others: my family, the church. And for me, the church was a great experience. It was very helpful during a bad time for us. It wasn’t the greatest childhood, but my parents did the best they could.
What was the most challenging part?
The poverty…that was very challenging, being a minority in my own neighborhood was sometimes a challenge, and my mother was severely bi-polar and was in and out of institutions most of my life, so all of that combined was difficult. But it taught me how to fight for what I want.
What was a favorite holiday?
Easter was always my favorite. Of course, Lent meant no candy or chocolate, so lifting that restriction was great, and with my father being so involved in the church, it was a family affair. We went every Sunday and, wait, am I giving too much church here?
No, no it’s fine, and that’s coming from an atheist!
[Laughing] Okay. By the way, if I had to classify myself, that’s where I would fall now, but anyway, back to Easter. The Saturday night vigil is something we’d all go to and then we’d go home and were allowed to open up some candy before going to bed. Just the memories of the family time at Easter make me smile. We were really bonded together.
Who was the biggest troublemaker in the family?
Ah, that’s hard. I think we took turns. I always liked to bait my father. He taught me a lot about politics and how to be fair and how to see both sides, but I would play Devil’s advocate and sometimes I’d push it a little too far. He’d say, “Someday your mouth is going to get you into trouble!”
Was he right?
Oh definitely! I can think of the exact right thing to say or the absolute wrong thing to say and either can come out! But at nearly 47, I’ve learned how to keep it at bay.
What kind of stuff were you into as a kid?
I was more studious than I was athletic. I liked reading, I liked movies, music. I did love being outside, too. But anytime I tried to do anything physical, I always ended up hurting myself. That didn’t stop me from trying, because with 6 brothers I always had to stay on my toes.
What was your first or favorite movie?
The first movie I ever saw in a movie theater was “E.T.” It was at the Fernrock theater. And my favorite movie, still to this day, is “Amadeus”. The music and the cinematography are amazing.
I love Tom Hulce! Did you ever see Domenic and Eugene? He should have gotten an Oscar for that.
Yes, I saw that. He was good. But he didn’t even win for “Amadeus” which was crazy.
I know! Okay, back to you: when and how did you get into the food service industry?
When I was a kid, if you asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up — aside from a brief period when I was about 5 and wanted to be a fireman or astronaut — I always wanted to get into the restaurant business. I knew it from the time I was 6 or 7. I always knew that I never wanted a job where I would punch in and punch out. We knew people in the business and I remember cognitively thinking, “Wow, that’s something I can do and it becomes part of your life.” But then I went to college, first to Roman Catholic then Millersville, and afterwards I had to get right to work to help out the family, so I got into sales. I sold jewelry and diamonds on Jeweler’s Row for most of my 20’s. I worked for a few dealers. It’s almost like the restaurant industry where you move around a lot as you grow, so I started with Safian & Rudolph and ended up at Robbins on 8th and Walnut where I met Michael and Dino Kelly-Cataldi who own “And Toto Too” on Locust Street. They were opening up The Napoleon restaurant on South Street and I would visit while they were putting it together and told them that I wanted to start serving for them. They thought I was crazy but I wanted a foot in the door. I told them, “Maybe I met you for just this reason,” so they hired me. I quit my jewelry job and never looked back.
I did Michael’s portrait a few years ago when they opened up the cabaret in Glenside.
Dino’s Backstage! I was the original General Manager there.
Yes. Sadly it’s closed now. So over the years, I worked my way up learning about food, learning how to bartend, through a chef at Fish & Co, I was introduced to chef Georges Perrier and began serving at Le Bec-Fin. I became maître d’, forged a great relationship with Georges, and learned a ton.
Best and worst celebrity encounters?
Working at Le-Bec and then Lacroix after that, we had a lot of high profile people. I won’t name the worst, but you did get some who were flat out rude for no reason, a lot of them not even deeming to make eye contact with the peons. I tell my staff, there’s a difference between being a server and a servant. But one of my favorite encounters was when I was between shifts at Lacroix. I was sitting looking at emails on my Blackberry and I heard someone say, “I’d like to have a reservation for tonight please.” It was a Friday night and we didn’t have any tables available, I looked up to say so and it was Robert De Niro! What struck me about it was how humble and quiet and soft spoken he was.
I’m assuming you found a table.
Oh course! He came with his wife and his child, I don’t know if you know it but he has an autistic child, and they were all so pleasant and sweet. And I made him laugh which was a highlight of my night.
[Laughing] Who got bumped?
No one! I can always find room. It’s like a chess match sometimes, but we wouldn’t bump someone. You never know why people are coming, it could be to celebrate, or the anniversary of someone who died, or maybe the one night a year they dress up to go out. It’s not just about taking orders; we provide an experience. People have gotten engaged here, had baby reveals. We become part of people’s lives.
Very true, I actually worked in your restaurant way back when it was City Bites. And I have my own celeb story. In the 80’s the TV show “St. Elsewhere” was the hot show. One of the stars from it came into the restaurant with his family. I was the worst server, but for some ungodly reason they put me on his table. After I served their meals I heard his son say, “Mommy, what’s in my spaghetti?” His wife said, “It’s just a fake finger nail, just put it in the ashtray.” I looked at my hands and saw 9 bright red fingernails and one plain one. I tried to serve the rest of the meal with my knuckles so they couldn’t see, but thankfully, they were super cool about it. Probably better than I would have been.
That’s funny, I have my own nail story. It was when I was selling jewelry back in 1997. I’d gone out in drag for Halloween, not something I usually do but I had some real drag queens do me up and I had a blast. Went to work and as I was showing some rings to a lady, realized that I still had red nail polish on. I like to call out the elephant in the room so when I saw the customer looking at my nails, I said, “It was Halloween last night, remember?” She asked, “So what were you?” and I replied, “Fabulous!”
Love it! So that leads me to your coming out story.
My schoolmates figured it out before I did. They realized I was different when I was about 5 years old. But I had a hard time coming to terms with it myself, in part because of the church, though we weren’t a born-again type discipline. It was more self-imposed. And for some reason, I thought that gay meant a woman trapped in a man’s body, so I should want to become a woman. But that’s not what I wanted. I was an emotional child. Well, I’m an emotional adult too, but my father, God rest his soul, knew that I was going through something. I was going to an all-boys school and was getting picked on. My father just said, “Son, whatever you are, just be the best.” So when I turned 21 I moved to Center City and came out. The hardest person to come out to? Me. Then I went to visit my parents and told my mother first and she was not pleased. She came around later, but it was rocky at first. She said, “Have you spoken to your father?!?” I told her no because I was terrified. I finally asked him to take a walk with me and on the way I said, “Dad, I want to talk to you about something. I’ve met someone,” and he responded, “What’s his name?”
Yeah, so I told him all about the guy and then stopped and said, “How did you know?” and he said, “Son, I’ve always known. I wasn’t sure if you knew and I wasn’t sure how to tell you or if it was my responsibility to tell you.” I felt like a million dollars after that.
Great story. So how have you been faring during the quarantine?
Well, the state of emergency was declared on March 12th, we knew there was going to be a shutdown and that Monday, Aldo who owns all the restaurants called a meeting at the NJ location. He said to us, “You are all employed. You are my family. We’ll start doing take out, we’ll do UberEats, we will do deliveries to the Society Hill Towers, we’ll do what it takes to keep everyone going.” We have a lot of neighborhood customers who come in daily, so we were glad we were going to be there for them.
And the New Jersey location is where they have the body scanning correct?
Yes, they have a Thermal Imaging Camera System in the main entrance. The system will monitor the body temperature of everyone who enters the building, including all staff and guests. It’s the first one in the area. At our restaurant, we have a contact-free hand scanner that we use on all staff and everyone is masked. We’ve been open outside for sit-down meals for about a month. We were hoping we could use the outdoor patios inside the building but were told no. Luckily we have plenty of outdoor seating around the building. Personally, I’m working a lot, but still get days off and I cook for my husband, Alexander, (Lex) who is working from home. He works for WSFS bank. We try to take walks and the nice part is that this time has given us a chance to realize again how much we enjoy being around each other.
My 30th birthday fell on the same day as OutFest in 2003. It was a beautiful day and several friends and family members came out to celebrate with me.
If your family had a mascot, what would it be?
A Phoenix. The idea of rising renewed from tough situations is something that has a lot of meaning for me. I even have one as a tattoo.
Motto or saying you love.
“Let’s focus on the solution, not the problem.”For more information go to: www.positanocoast.net