Co-owner, Center Square Grill; Age 36
Michael Sakey likes to joke that he was an accidental restaurateur.
Indeed, he studied theater in college, planning for a much different career path. Even then, though, he was a restaurant veteran, having worked at pizza, sub, and coffee shops from age 14. In early 2000, he took a job with Claudio Guerra, the serial restaurateur behind the Northampton-based Spoleto Group. Sakey helped Guerra open six concept restaurants and also spearheaded Spoleto Catering, which specialized in full-service weddings.
“I went in thinking, ‘it’s just going to be for now, until I figure out what’s next,’” he said of his work with Guerra. But the restaurant life turned out to be the ‘next’ after all.
It’s not like he was abandoning his theatrical roots, however, as he sensed a connection between food and his other passion. “Restaurants can be theatrical. It’s kind of like throwing a party every night. If you can make them all happy, that’s something really unique, not like any other industry I can think of.”
Sakey — along with his business partner, fellow Spoleto Group veteran, and past 40 Under Forty honoree Bill Collins — has been making people happy at Center Square Grill since 2014, when the pair struck out on their own and launched the successful eatery near East Longmeadow’s famed rotary.
Breaking away from the Italian fare Guerra specializes in, the partners call their restaurant a “creative American grill,” pulling in influences from South America, classic French cooking, New Orleans, Jamaica, even Asia. The restaurant features a few different dining areas, from a formal dining room to a small room for private events to a lively bar area. Sakey takes particular pride in the restaurant’s impressive — and affordable — array of wine, beer, and cocktails.
He’s also proud of his civic work outside the restaurant, as he’s active in the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, participates in the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts Gala, and sits on the board for UNIFY, an anti-bullying nonprofit. He has also donated to some three dozen area charities, spreading the success of a restaurant that has earned ‘Best Restaurant,’ ‘Best Bartenders,’ ‘Best Outdoor Dining,’ and ‘Best Waitstaff’ honors from MassLive, among myriad other awards.
But it’s a four-and-a-half-star Yelp rating that truly drives Sakey — a reminder that he and Collins are doing plenty right, but can always aim higher.
“Nothing’s ever perfect,” he said, “but we can be really good.”
— Joseph Bednar
Photography by Leah Martin Photography