HULL – Jess Travis bought Toast, a popular breakfast and lunch restaurant on Nantasket Avenue, in the fall of 2019.
Months later, the pandemic hit. She lost most of her staff and had to switch to doing only takeout on the fly. Three years later, she's rebuilt and, at peak hours, customers line up outside and brave the winter cold as they wait for a table.
To show her appreciation for new staff and the two pre-pandemic holdovers, Travis planned a special Christmas surprise for her employees: a trip to Disney World. Next May, she'll take her employees and their families to Magic Kingdom in Florida. Travis said 27 people total are going on the vacation.
"I knew I had to do something," she said. "It’s been three years. They stood by me."
Travis works alongside her employees to manage the restaurant and wait tables. For a year, she set aside all of her tips to spend on the vacation. With money secured and logistics in order, she got to start planning the fun part: how to break the news.
On Dec. 17, she held a staff party at the restaurant. Server Maria Farley said Travis first gave out gift bags to everyone.
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"In the bag (were) mouse ears," Farley said.
Travis then dumped a 30-piece puzzle onto the counter and told staff to put it together as fast as they could. It took a while as an excess of hands moved pieces around, but eventually the image became clear: Disney characters gathered around a Christmas tree, framed by the words, "We're going to Disney World!"
Joyous dancing followed. Stevie Ryan, a 16-year-old weekend server, caught the scene on her cellphone and posted it to Facebook.
"I wasn’t expecting it to blow up like it did," she said.
Ryan hasn't been to Disney World since she was a little kid. She said she's looking forward to going with her "work family."
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Keeping it a surprise wasn't easy. Travis entrusted the task to a single co-conspirator, server Sean Lally, who has worked at Toast since he graduated from high school in June. Lally worked to figure out the best time to schedule the trip based on everyone's availability.
"I had to completely avoid saying anything about the trip," he said.
Travis said there's no one secret to having a close-knit work staff, other than being there for each other. They share dinners after shifts, attend each other's parties and family gatherings and generally help each other out, she said.
"I love them, they love me," she said. "I’m a boss too, but we keep it close. You take care of them, they take care of you."
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This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Hull restaurant owner surprises staff with trip to Disney World