There’s More Growth on the Menu
Andy Yee says he’s heard what he readily concedes is a truism pretty much his whole life.
‘The restaurant business is really hard.’
But while he acknowledges this commonly held belief, or the related opinion that this business is certainly harder than it looks, he quickly adds that such work is essentially all he’s ever known, at least since his father first brought him to work at the Hu Ke Lau in Chicopee as a teenager.
“People do say it, and I hear it in the finance world all the time, that the restaurant business is not for the faint of heart — that it’s a very difficult industry,” Yee told BusinessWest. “I don’t know what that means, because I was born into this business — I don’t know anything but restaurants, so ‘difficult’ is not a word I exercise all the time.
“Yeah, it’s difficult, but everything’s difficult — life’s difficult sometimes,” he went on. “You make it what it is; to me, it’s fun, challenging in a good way, and rewarding.”
Which is why Yee is not only still doing this roughly 40 years after he got his start in the family business, he’s somewhat consumed with a mission to create the largest and best restaurant group in the region.
“It’s a personal goal of mine that my family shares — we’re all united in this goal,” he said. “And that is to be the quintessential restaurant group in this area.”
Some would say he’s already accomplished that goal with a portfolio of eateries, operating under the corporate name the Bean Restaurant Group, that includes several entities bearing his father’s first name — Johnny’s Tavern, Johnny’s Bar & Grill, Johnny’s Tap Room, and Johnny’s Roadside — but also the venerable Student Prince (Fort), IYA Sushi and Noodle Kitchen, and the Hu Ke Lau, although that landmark is currently closed and with a future described with those three letters TBD (more on that later).
But like Johnny Yee, the principals in the Bean Group — Andy, his siblings Edison, Anita, and Nick, and aunt Bonnie — are seemingly always in a building, adding mode, and that’s why there will soon be a second IYA location, this one in downtown Amherst, and another addition on the banks of the Connecticut River.
Indeed, the Bean Group is joining the Rondeau family, long-time owners and operators of Masse’s Seafood in Chicopee, in a venture to write an exciting new chapter in the life of the Dockside Restaurant at Brunelle’s Marina. The landmark will be renamed the Boathouse Tavern, with the tagline ‘waterside dining.’
A new upstairs deck is planned, as well as some changes and additions to the menu, with the goal of making the popular eatery even more of a destination and a complementary piece to the other eateries within the Bean Group.
But there are certainly more additions to come, said Yee, who was vague as he talked about what specific opportunities might emerge for acquisition or new development, but quite specific, and determined, as he talked about that broad goal he described.
For this issue and its annual Restaurant Guide, BusinessWest talked with Yee about his future plans — to the extent that he was comfortable doing so — but more about his career in this business that’s harder than it looks (to other people), and what drives him to continually build upon his portfolio.
Stirring Things Up
Yee said the chosen closing date for the Hu Ke Lau was anything but random.
April 6 was also the date his father opened the restaurant 53 years earlier, he said, adding that his family chose to close the loop in a sentimental and powerful way.
“It was a fantastic run — I’m still in mourning, I’m still crying; I have my moments,” he told BusinessWest as he talked about the iconic landmark that brought generations of people to Memorial Drive in Chicopee, or ‘the drag,’ as he called it, which he saw transform itself several times over a half-century.
As sad and sentimental as that day was, there was also a considerable amount of order and logic to it as well, said Yee, adding that the family decided roughly two years ago that the aging property had seen its day and that pouring more money into made little, if any, sense.
“The family was united in shutting it down not because it wasn’t profitable, but because the building had run its useful life,” he explained. “We were putting Band-Aids on top of Band-Aids on top of Band-Aids; when it rains outside, it pours inside.”
As to what comes next, not only for the Hu Ke Lau restaurant but for a large property on that radically changed, now extremely vibrant ‘drag’ … Yee was non-committal on both matters. He would say only that the family has taken steps to protect the Hu Ke Lau brand until it decides what to do with and it, and that it will look at a wide range of options before deciding anything.
“The Hu Ke Lau brand has been in our community for a great amount of time, and my family doesn’t see it going away,” he said with conviction. “Will it be 27,000 square feet? I think big restaurants today are difficult to operate; dark rooms don’t produce income.
“There’s another chapter to begin with the Hu Ke Lau,” he went on. “We’re looking, but we’re not looking too hard because we have some other things we’re doing right now.”
The only other thing he said with finality in his voice is that the building will be coming down soon. “We’re packing up,” he said.
That was a reference to the fact that Hu Ke Lau property was not only home to the restaurant, but to the Bean Group’s corporate headquarters, if you will, which were on the second floor.
These offices will soon be relocated to Union Station in downtown Springfield, in space to be subleased from his business partner in the Fort venture, Peter Picknelly, who recently moved his family’s bus company, Peter Pan, into the recently reopened transportation hub.
Thus, that subleased space will now be home to what he called MMMs, short for Monday morning meetings, strategy sessions staged by Yee family members since as long as Andy can remember.
And there’s been lots to discuss and do as these meetings in recent months, including the finalization of plans for the second IYA Sushi and Noodle Kitchen location, a 2,000-square-foot location on East Pleasant St.
Yee said the setting is ideal given the proximity of UMass Amherst and the other institutions comprising what are known as the Five Colleges, and he sees plenty of opportunity despite the growing number of eateries with sushi on the menu.
“There’s plenty of sushi there, but we’re going bring a new and very unique eatery to the marketplace,” he explained. “We’re going to bring big-city flair and a higher caliber of execution to this area.”
Construction of the IYA facility is underway, and Yee anticipates a ribbon-cutting ceremony in September, coinciding with the return of students for the fall semester.
As for the new Boathouse Tavern, Yee will be partnering in that venture with his brother-in-law, Donald Rondeau, and other members of the Rondeau family. The Dockside has been a South Hadley institution for years, and the facility was famously rebuilt and expanded after a devastating fire in 2013.
The Brunelle family made the property available, he went on, and the new partnership is determined to take full advantage of what Yee sees as a tremendous opportunity.
“We’re going to change the brand and introduce waterside dining,” he said, adding that his team has closed on the property and already commenced work on everything from marketing to construction of the new deck to changes on the menu.
Food for Thought
While those MMMs at Union Station in the weeks and months to come will no doubt have packed agendas with just the two latest additions to the Bean Group’s portfolio, Yee said they are just a few of the items to be discussed.
Indeed, in addition to matters that fall into the category of old business, there will plenty of new business as well, as the group drives ahead with that broad goal of becoming, if it isn’t already, the quintessential restaurant group in the area.
Andy Yee isn’t ready to say what this new business — or new businesses, as the case may be — is just yet, but he knows that opportunities will continue to present themselves, and the group will take advantage of some of those opportunities.
And that’s because, as hard as this business is, it’s all they’ve ever known, and ‘difficult’ isn’t the first word they would choose to describe it.
George O’Brien can be reached at email@example.com