Cornering the Market

Restaurant Venture Will Light Up a Dark Spot in Tower Square

John DeVoie

John DeVoie, seen standing in the future home of the second Hot Table location, believes Tower Square is ideal for his venture.

John DeVoie knows the recent history of the restaurant site in the southeast corner of Tower Square — it’s been vacant for nearly a year and has seen several establishments come and go over the past decade — and he’s not fazed by it one bit.

That’s because he believes the failures, if some could even be called that, were due to circumstances or factors that had nothing to do with location. And, more to the point, he’s quite confident that he has a product, or model, that will succeed in that highly visible spot.

It’s called Hot Table, a name derived from a form of fast, casual dining DeVoie experienced in Italy (more on that later), and placed over an eatery that he and his brother, Chis, opened in the 16 Acres section of Springfield roughly two years ago. The establishment features signature panini sandwiches — from ‘three cheese chicken’ to ‘steak horseradish’ — and has successfully drawn business from nearby MassMutual, Western New England College and other schools in the area, and the surrounding residential community.

And when the brothers DeVoie, natives of Springfield, opened the doors to the eatery, they did so with the understanding that they were starting a business, not a single sandwich and coffee shop.

“The initial plans called for opening a second location within 18 to 24 months, and we’re right at two years, so we’re on schedule,” he said, adding quickly that they would likely have moved sooner, but last fall was not the time to be seeking capital to open a restaurant.

But long before last autumn, the location of that second restaurant started to come into focus. Officials with Tower Square and the DeVoie brothers started talking roughly a year ago, said John, noting that both had some clear objectives. The property’s owners wanted a stable tenant that could draw visitors to the corner of Main Street and Boland Way, said DeVoie, adding that he and his brother wanted a site with both vast potential and great visibility with which to expand and brand Hot Table.

It took some time to get the deal done, but now that work has commenced at the site, there is optimism that the new restaurant will breathe some life into the still-struggling retail component within Tower Square, and provide more momentum for the DeVoies’ business venture.

“The corner spot at Tower Square is the most visible location in downtown, and the importance of having a vibrant business at that location is imeasurable,” said Russell Denver, president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield. “Hot Table has proven at its Breckwood Boulevard site that it knows what it takes to attract professionals and students alike to their business to be profitable.”

Said DeVoie, “we’re happy to be lighting up that corner. This location is going to help us brand Hot Table. Everyone goes to Main and Bolland eventually, and when they do, they’re going to see our name, and so when we go to Westfield or West Springfield, or another community in the region, people will know us.”

As he talked about the factors that led to the recent press event announcing Hot Table’s pending arrival downtown, DeVoie flashed back to a visit to the 16 Acres restaurant last year by Fred Christensen, Tower Square’s senior property manager.

“He came to see the operation, and when he arrived, there was a long line of people going almost out the door,” DeVoie recalled. “He saw all the people with MassMutual badges and noted that they not only drove a mile to get there, but probably had to walk a mile first to get to their cars in the parking lot. That was enough for him.”

As for DeVoie and the Tower Square space, he was pretty much already sold, although there was considerable negotiating still to do. And the ensuing deal appears to give both parties what they want and need: for Tower Square, a drawing-card tenant that fills a highly visible void; and for Hot Table, an affordable location at one of the region’s busiest intersections.

That figures nicely into the growth plans for the business, which DeVoie conceptualized after spending 18 years in corporate sales for Alcoa and realizing that it was time for something else. “I was 40, and I knew that, in sales, they generally try to put you out to pasture when you’re 50,” he explained. “I had some time to go, but that 10 years comes up fast.”

DeVoie said he has long wanted to launch his own business, and when he started seriously considering options, he focused on one apparently common in Italy. There, small shops called Tavola Caldas serve hot, fresh food and desserts quickly to their patrons. The literal English translation of that phrase is ‘hot table,’ the name trademarked and then given to the venture by the DeVoies and their brother-in-law, Don Watroba, also a co-founder.

The three chose a somewhat tired strip mall across Wilbraham Road from Western New England College to start their venture, citing its proximity to MassMutual and several schools, and also what they considered an “underserved” area.

And they used that same word to describe downtown Springfield. Indeed, while there are several restaurants downtown, DeVoie said there isn’t anything quite like what Hot Table has to offer — a mix of gourmet coffee, unique panini sandwiches, and affordable prices.

“Our intent was to start our company in Springfield, grow our name regionally, and then see where that takes us,” he said, referring to the initial five-year plan and speculation about what might follow.

“We wanted the second store to be close to the first one, and we looked at the demographics of what we do, specializing in breakfast and lunch, and said, ‘OK, where’s the highest concentration of people working in one spot in Western Mass? It’s not Longmeadow, it’s not Northampton, it’s not Holyoke — it’s downtown Springfield, and that’s where we want to be.

“And in our efforts to build a regional brand, what better place to drop a store than right in the heart of the biggest city in Western Mass. and in the best piece of real estate in the city?” he asked as he continued. “That was evidenced by our press conference; we didn’t have a press conference when we opened in 16 Acres, and we wouldn’t have had one if we were opening in West Springfield.”

That press conference was attended by a number of civic and business leaders who expressed the hope that Hot Table would create a spark in the downtown and eventually help light up much more than one currently dark space.

And DeVoie believes his venture can provide one.

“Knowing the history of that site, I’d say there is an element of risk involved with it,” said DeVoie. “But we’re very confident in the product we sell and the service we provide — and we’re also confident in Springfield and in Tower Square.”

—George O’Brien

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