Ayer restaurant owner cooks up special relationship with local school district

Karyn Baldino employs and fundraises for high school students

Karyn Baldino inside Karyn’s Kitchen

AYER – It’s 9:30 on a Tuesday morning and Karyn’s Kitchen is slowing down from an early morning breakfast rush.

It’s a good thing there’s fewer customers because there’s also fewer employees, as several  who work the kitchen and wait tables at the popular restaurant can’t be late for class.

Karyn Baldino, who’s owned Karyn’s Kitchen for three-and-a-half years, currently employs students attending Ayer Shirley Regional High School.

It’s not a new employment practice for her, as she’s frequently employed high school students in the past. Not only does she help put money in teenagers’ wallets, but she also puts money in the funds for those teens’ school events.

Karyn’s Kitchen, located at 200 West Main St., has hosted breakfast after the Ayer Shirley Regional High School’s homecoming game with profits going to the school’s Athletic Boosters.

Last fall, Karyn’s Kitchen hosted a breakfast before the high school’s homecoming dance in late October  with a portion  ofthe profits going to the Boosters, followed by another breakfast where a percentage of the proceeds will go towards the high school’s class of 2020.

“The community gives so much to me,” Baldino said. “People are given many choices on where to go and spend their hard-earned money on a meal. Many of them choose to come here. I’m always appreciative, I never want to take that for granted.”

The restaurant business is leagues away from the Harvard resident’s old job, working as a travel agent in Boston specializing in trips to South Africa. Then in 1999 she met Dan Civitarese, who offered her a job at his restaurant Dan’s Place.

“I really enjoy working with the public and this is a great atmosphere to do that in,” Baldino said. “The hours were perfect because I have a son, who’s 22 now, but for the 15 years I was here, I didn’t miss a baseball game, a hockey game or a school event. We were out at 2:30, so I didn’t miss anything for my son.”

Baldino said she worked at Dan’s Place for twelve years and, even after she briefly left to work at Mariano’s in Pepperell for two years, she still remained close friends with Civitarese. So much so that he approached her to buy the business in 2016, with him retiring and Dan’s Place being renamed Karyn’s Kitchen.

“When Dan approached me to buy here, while I was so sad to leave the people that I grew with, I jumped on the opportunity to come back because this feels like home,” Baldino said. “I have never in all the years I’ve been in this industry, particularly the restaurant industry, felt like this was work. I would keep it this way, with the family-run atmosphere and the long-term employees who work here. We all work together.”

Baldino says she loves using work at the restaurant to teach kids about “responsibility, accountability and how to work.” Those lessons include how to engage people through tending to customers and keeping organized through working inn the kitchen. The team atmosphere is a key ingredient to the dynamic of Baldino’s employees, regardless of the social hierarchy in the school halls.

“I have a rule of thumb that I teach them and go over when I interview them,” she said. “I don’t care if you don’t like each other outside these four walls. Within these four walls, you’re a team player. They make it work.”