Crosses adorn the logo on the sign on the white frame building across the street from St. Theodore Catholic Church and School. Inside are various Catholic symbols and quotes.
It’s not part of the parish, but The Grotto Grill is a testament to the Catholic faith of its young owners. The restaurant, in a historic 101-year-old building in Flint Hill, is dedicated to the late Stefanina Vitale Roderick. Stefanina’s family migrated to the United States from Cinisi, Sicily at the age of 14. She worked for years in the garment district of St. Louis and spent some time in the “Hill” neighborhood before moving west and opening the first Stefanina’s Restaurant and Pizzeria in in O’Fallon in 1981 with Cori Breen and Cami Flynn’s parents.
Cori and her sister, Cami, parishioners of St. Patrick in Wentzville, followed their grandmother and their mother and father, Linda and Dan Breen, in the restaurant business. The name, Grotto Grill refers to a grotto built by the Knights of Columbus at St. Patrick Parish in Wentzville, with a statue of Mary donated by the Breen family in memory of Stefanina. She’s the reason the girls have the passion and desire to open a restaurant, following in their family’s footsteps, and relying on hard work and faith.
“We did a lot of soul-searching when it came to picking a name,” Cami said. “Our family had worked so hard to build this legacy and we learned so much from them.”
The name “tied it all together for us,” she said, echoing her sister’s comment that the grotto is part of their faith.
Symbols and quotes at the restaurant attest to the sisters’ faith. Three crosses and a fish symbol in their logo are reminders of the powerful ACTS retreats they’re involved in at their parish. “It’s the ‘fishers of men’ symbol. You go out like Jesus did and bring people into your faith and the Church,” Cami said.
From their participation in ACTS, they each wear a bracelet with fishing tackle snap swivels.
“It’s our foundation,” Cori said.
“And when we come into work every day it reminds us what ultimately we’re doing this for,” Cami added, finishing her sister’s sentence. They do that a lot, especially when talking about their faith.
Cori said she’s influenced by the mission statement of St. Patrick Parish, “Forming disciples: leading all to Christ.” In the long hours in the restaurant business or after a big rush of serving diners at a peak time, Cori reflects on her purpose and its relationship to that statement.
“We may be running a restaurant, but hopefully we are leading good lives that reflect back to Jesus and our faith,” she said. “Our faith is what gets us through.”
Prayer amid challenges
In the late 1980s, Linda and Dan Breen opened a Stefanina’s restaurant in Wentzville. They sold it in 1999 to longtime employees after Linda’s mom, Stefanina, died. In 2001, they bought the former Sacred Heart Church in Troy and opened it as another Stefanina’s location. They remained in business until retiring 18 years later after 37 years in the restaurant business. Several other Stefanina’s restaurants remain thriving, operated by Cori and Cami’s relatives and godfathers.
Cori and Cami passed on the opportunity to continue running the restaurant in Troy in part because of its size, 13,000 square feet. They wanted something smaller so they could spend more time with their families. Cori’s son is in the fifth grade at the same school she and her siblings attended, St. Patrick in Wentzville. Cami has three children, 1, 3 and 4. The 4-year-old attends preschool at St. Patrick.
The sisters learned about the long-vacant building in Flint Hill on Highway P in northwest St. Charles County from connections in ACTS. They sometimes attend Mass at St. Theodore and learned that the previous parish pastor, Father Gary Vollmer, had prayed for a restaurant to open in the community. “It took every ounce of faith” to trust in its success, Cami said. Challenges included renovating the building, which was without plumbing or electric; and work on a highway overpass that blocked access from Highway P to Highway 61 and was expected to take another year.
“We prayed so hard about it, and that overpass ended up getting completed a year early,” Cami said. “The way the pieces fell together, we knew God was taking it in the right direction. But it did not come without plenty of blood, sweat and tears. It was a three-year process.”
They enjoy being close to their parish, so they can pick up their children from school. Their parents live nearby and do plenty of babysitting, especially after the restaurant opened. “My dad said being in a restaurant was easier,” Cami said with a smile.
She added thanks to her parents and her husband. “We could do it without them,” Cami said. Her parents provide advice on the business when asked, but let their children run with their own ideas.
Both thanked their staff, too. “To us, it’s not about being successful. It’s about doing something we love that we can support our families on and about giving back to the community,” Cami said.
A mustard seed
It was a natural fit to use crosses for the three Ts in the logo of The Grotto. “In this day and age, people don’t talk about politics or religion,” Cami said. “People kept telling us that we can be strong in our faith without that risk of turning people off by our faith. But those are our roots. That’s what’s important to us. Literally, on a daily basis. It’s what gets us through the day. It’s OK if somebody doesn’t want to come in here because it’s offensive to them. We don’t hold that against anybody, but for us, we’re not going to hold that back because of what may be politically correct.”
In their office is a quote from Mother Teresa, “Wherever God has put you — that is your vocation.”
They have signs about praying, a kitchen Madonna statue and the words framed to a song their dad wrote called “Lord, I love my life.”
Also in the office is the quote, “Faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains.” Cami cited the story of the mustard seed in the Bible, a favorite and representative of their business model — the smallest seed that yields the biggest plant.
“We are perfectly fine not being a big and/or well-known restaurant, Cami said. “But if we can make any impact with this small restaurant, then we are accomplishing what we set out to do. We gave our LLC (corporate structure) the name Mustard Seed Development, and we have this saying posted everywhere — it’s even on the back window of my car, and we all carry a mustard seed on our keys,” she said.
Cori just completed the lay formation program in the archdiocese. At St. Patrick, she is on board of education, RCIA team, marketing committee and pro-life committee. She has served on eight ACTS teams, including three mission teams with All Saints, St. Theodore and Immaculate Conception Parishes. She has coached soccer and basketball. Their mom has served on 13 ACTS teams and their dad has served on 12. Their other sister, Cara, and Cami and Cami’s husband, Michael, have participated in ACTS, too.
The owners of The Grotto Grill, members of St. Patrick Parish in Wentzville, are inspired by the parish’s ACTS retreats.
ACTS is an international lay apostolate movement faithful to the Catholic Church, whose purpose is to spread the Gospel and love of Christ worldwide.
An ACTS retreat is a three-day and three-night lay retreat presented by fellow parishioners. The retreat begins on Thursday evening and ends the following Sunday at a Mass celebrated with the parish community. Retreats for men and retreats for women are given separately.
Talks and activities during the retreat focus on adoration, community, theology and service, from which the ACTS acronym is derived. Scripture and the teachings of the Church are the guides for the retreats. The retreat takes on the traditions and atmosphere of the parish community sponsoring it. The retreat facilitates the attainment of a new or deeper relationship with the Lord through:
• Adoration — the call by, acceptance of, and response to God
• Community — the love and caring of each other
• Theology — the study of God through scripture and the Catholic Faith
• Service — to God and his people
Each retreat is conducted by a retreat “team” composed of 20-30 individuals who have attended prior ACTS retreats. Chosen by the retreat director, the team organizes the retreat, conducts the retreat talks and activities, and ministers to the needs of the retreatants during the retreat weekend. The retreat is centered on how participants can improve their relationship with God and build a stronger faith community.
“They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to prayers. And everyone was filled with awe; the apostles worked many signs and miracles. All who shared the faith owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to each one’s need. Each day, with one heart, they regularly went to the Temple, but met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously; they praised God and were looked up to by everyone. Day by day, the Lord added to their community those destined to be saved.”