Home 2008 September

They call it the ‘brain drain.’

This is one of those contrived terms, in this case used to describe the flight of young people out of a region to find jobs, opportunities, fulfillment … in short, something better than what they had, or thought they could get, where they were before.

The extent and uniqueness of the brain drain in the Pioneer Valley — which has a number of colleges but keeps only a small percentage of graduates (especially from the private schools) in this region — can be debated. What can’t be debated, though, is the importance of young professionals to the vitality and economic health of this or any other region.

Which is why we’re enthusiastic about the early success and enormous promise of a group called the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield, or YPS. Created about 18 months ago, it is off to what can only be described as a phenomenal start in its efforts to — and these are the words right in the mission statement — engage, involve, and educate people under the age of 40.

As it does so, it is helping to keep young people in this region by giving them more reasons to feel better about their presence here, but it’s also preparing them to be better leaders and contributors to the community if, and for however long, they do stay.

But let’s back up a minute. Current officers say the concept of YPS was born mostly out of curiosity. To make a long story somewhat short, some young people were wondering out loud where all their contemporaries were, what they were doing, what they were thinking, whether they liked it here, whether they fully appreciated all there is to do here, and if they could use help getting connected to the region and its assets.

So they scheduled a get-together and invited virtually everyone they could connect with via the Internet. They were hoping for 30 people and got five times that number.

Besides counting heads, organizers listened and learned, and what they came away with was the clear impression that young people, as a group, needed an organization that could help them network, grow professionally and personally, become involved in the community, and develop leadership skills.

So they created one.

And then they developed some programming to define it. These initiatives include what are called Third Thursdays, get-togethers that take place on those dates on the calendar, at which attendees can network and socialize. There’s also the CEO Luncheon, which, as the name suggests, involves an area CEO hosting lunch for 20 or 30 YPS members and discussing a wide range of topics involving business, the community, and life in general.

There’s also a strong focus on the arts and getting people involved with those institutions, and even a New Year’s Eve gala on the slate for this year.

Put it all together, and we have a group that could make — and is in many respects already making — a very positive impact on this region and its business community.

By getting young people engaged and involved, YPS is making the region a better place to live, work, and play. At the same time, it is giving these same young people more reasons to enjoy their time in the Valley, and perhaps prompting more to stay. Meanwhile, with its focus on education, YPS is helping to groom a more-informed, more-capable group of future business owners, managers, employees, nonprofit board members, and public servants.

This a noble and important mission, one that already has the backing of a number of a number of area corporations, and could use more of the same from other businesses and business organizations that all face the daunting challenge of finding talented help for today and especially tomorrow.

YPS is a group with a purpose and a real future — that’s because it’s this region’s future at stake.-

Sections Supplements
PeoplesBank Expands Its Footprint — and Moves Up the Donors’ List
Doug Bowen, left, president and CEO of PeoplesBank, congratulates Henry Thomas III,

Doug Bowen, left, president and CEO of PeoplesBank, congratulates Henry Thomas III, president and CEO of the Urban League of Springfield Inc., on his organization’s selection as a donation recipient.

PeoplesBank President Doug Bowen has several different numbers to be proud of these days.

For starters, there’s $1.41 billion. That’s the total-assets figure for the Holyoke-based institution, making it the largest community bank in Western Mass. There’s also $912,262,000 (total deposits), and 15, the number of locations the bank now has in the Pioneer Valley.

There are a few more figures of note: one that Bowen certainly knew about, $412,376 (the amount donated by the bank to area-based nonprofit groups in 2007), and one he didn’t, until recently, anyway. That would be 52.

That’s where the bank ranked in the Boston Business Journal’s third annual “largest charitable contributors list,” which is based on donations to Massachusetts nonprofits. That’s just one slot below giant Friendly Ice Cream Corp., ($421,031), in roughly the same neighborhood as KPMG, Arbella Insurance, and even Microsoft Corp., all corporations with a large presence in the Bay State, and comfortably ahead of Dunkin Brands ($218,020) and Reebok International ($138,345).

These numbers for assets, branches, and donations are all intertwined, of course, said Bowen, who noted that, as PeoplesBank expands its footprint in Western Mass. — including its two most recent branch openings, both in Springfield — the levels of deposits and assets naturally increase. But so too does the amount of giving within the community, he noted, adding that the bank’s presence within a given community extends well beyond bricks and mortar.

The opening of the institution’s newest branch, on Sumner Avenue in the Forest Park section of Springfield, for example, was accompanied by some checks signed by PeoplesBank and made out to American International College ($50,000); Rachel’s Table ($15,000); the Springfield Falcons ($11,200); ReStore Home Improvement Center ($10,000); Springfield Public Forum ($4,000); Springfield Symphony ($8,000), and the Urban League of Springfield ($15,000).

That’s a total of more than $113,000, which will help the bank keep a strong presence on the Journal’s largest-charitable contributors list, an honor that Bowen relishes because it exemplifies the bank’s mission to make a difference in the communities it serves through contributions to such groups, and not merely compile assets, deposits, and mailing addresses.

“This ranking speaks to our commitment to the region … we’re proud of our track record for giving,” said Bowen, noting that he’s not sure what the final tally for donations will be for ’08, but it will be well north of $500,000. That should move the bank up the list, but Bowen is focused more on what these and other types of donations will mean within the community.

“A lot of people talk about commitment,” he explained. “We do it through our financial resources, but just as important, we encourage people here to donate their time, energy, and leadership skills — and they have.”

Branches of Service

Upon crunching the numbers from the Journal’s contributor list for 2007, one finds that PeoplesBank is exponentially (two zeroes, actually) behind frontrunner State Street Corp., which doled out a whopping $33 million in ’07. That’s roughly double the amount contributed by runner-up Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts ($16.6 million). Meanwhile, Bank of America ($14 million), Liberty Mutual Group ($11.9 million), and Partners Healthcare ($11.54 million) round out the top five. MassMutual? It was 14th at $4.6 million, one slot ahead of the Red Sox, $4.4 million.

But the Holyoke institution wound up as the 10th-highest bank on the list. It is the fourth-largest outside Worcester, and the largest based in the Pioneer Valley.

Bowen says this standing is one of the anticipated, and more pleasurable, byproducts of an ambitious expansion strategy that the bank set in place a few years ago. Then-president Joe Lobello described it as a somewhat unusual game plan given the over-banked nature of many area communities (or the perception of same within the industry and outside it) and planned or anticipated expansion by other institutions, especially ones that had recently gone public.

But Lobello thought then, and Bowen believes now, that the strategy is sound. It calls for giving PeoplesBank, which has historically been focused on Holyoke and surrounding towns, a presence in more communities, including Springfield (where it has only had ATMs until recently) and, eventually, Northampton, West Spring-field, and other cities and towns.

These bridgeheads, if one can call them that, will properly position for the bank for expected future consolidation, mergers, and acquisitions that will leave fewer locally owned and managed banks, said Bowen, noting that Springfield has become the first phase of the plan’s execution.

And while some might put Springfield in the ‘over-banked’ category, PeoplesBank saw what it considered to be room for another, in this case, locally based institution.

“We saw space for a local bank with local control,” said Bowen, noting that most all the banks doing business in the City of Homes are headquartered out of the region or even out of the country. “And we went ahead to fill that space.”

The first foray into Springfield was in Sixteen Acres, with a branch that opened in late 2006, he said, noting that the Sumner Avenue facility was already in the planning stages when that facility opened. Likewise, the next step — a branch in East Springfield, near the Springfield Plaza — is set to move off the drawing board.

As the bank has expanded into Springfield, it has written checks to benefit groups and facilities based in that city or that do business there, said Bowen, noting that, with the opening of the Sixteen Acres branch, the bank donated $75,000 to the Greenleaf Senior Center, among other donations to groups that serve that area.

These gifts no doubt helped push PeoplesBank onto the Boston Business Journal’s list, and the donations that have accompanied the Sumner Avenue branch opening may propel it higher, said Bowen, adding quickly that the chosen beneficiaries are as important as the dollar amounts.

“There are organizations — the symphony, the Public Forum, and the Springfield Falcons are all examples — that clearly enrich our lives,” said Bowen. “And then there are others that reach out and support the most vulnerable members of the community, and Rachel’s Table and the Urban League are good examples of that. These are the kinds of groups we want to support because they improve quality of life within a community.”

The bank has an individual with the title “community manager,” Bowen continued, who takes requests from nonprofits, weighs the merits of applications, and makes recommendations to company leaders. “We consider these applications based on the scope and the impact in the community, and our giving is focused on putting dollars where they can impact the most people and have the greatest impact.”

The Bottom Line

Bowen said the bank has a number of possible options as it mulls the next steps in its broad expansion plan.

Creating a presence in Northampton, the largest community in Hampshire County, is certainly at or near the top of the list, while a West Springfield location is also a likely eventuality.

And as the bank expands, it will continue to support those communities where the name goes, said Bowen, hinting broadly that while he’s certainly proud of that number 52, this is one of those rare incidences when an bank executive would like to see a smaller figure next year.

— George O’Brien

Sections Supplements
The Matter of Personal Liability for Restaurant Debt

Restaurants in Massachusetts can be organized to do business in many different corporate forms, including sole proprietorships, partnerships, corporations, and limited-liability companies. When restaurateurs choose to operate their business using a corporate form such as an LLC, it is often with the belief that, should the business fail to be profitable or close altogether, the owners will not be personally liable for the restaurant’s debts.

Unfortunately, even if the restaurant is operated as a corporate entity, there are instances where the restaurant’s owners may be liable for debts incurred in the operation of their business. One frequently occurring example is when a restaurant’s owner signs a so-called ‘personal guarantee.’ Often, the personal guarantee is found on the last page of a form contract, lease, or credit application, and it is not completely read or understood by the person signing the document.

In most instances, if the business defaults on its obligations, a personal guarantee contractually obligates its signor to pay from his or her own assets the obligations of the business to the creditor holding the personal guarantee. Frequently, personal guarantees are written so they do not require that the creditor initially look to business assets to satisfy the restaurant’s debt, but instead allow the creditor to immediately pursue the guarantor for payment.

Complications may also arise where there is more than one principal or owner, and therefore more than one guarantor of the restaurant’s debt. Personal guarantees from multiple individuals generally allow a creditor to seek payment for the entire debt from any or all of the principals, and often do not require that the principals pay their proportional ‘share’ of the debt. Rather, the creditor may collect all of the outstanding debt from the guarantor they believe to be most solvent.

Unless the restaurant is well-financed, or the principals have a proven track record of success in the industry, it is likely that lending institutions such as banks and institutional suppliers will seek personal guarantees from the restaurant’s principals. When faced with the possibility of signing a personal guarantee, there are a number of things restaurateurs should consider.

  • Decide if you really need this vendor or lender. Restaurateurs should initially determine whether there are other suppliers of this good or service that do not require a personal guarantee. If there are, an analysis of the competing providers should be conducted to determine whether the benefits provided by the entity requiring the personal guarantee outweigh the risks associated with personal liability. If the benefits do not outweigh the risks, or the benefits are marginal, it may be in the restaurateur’s interest to select a vendor that does not require a personal guarantee.
  • Read and understand the guarantee. If the analysis runs in favor of the supplier requiring the guarantee, restaurateurs should be certain to read and understand the terms and conditions of the guarantee. For example, among other things, it is important to understand whether the guarantee requires that the creditor initially look to corporate assets to satisfy the restaurant’s debt before seeking liability on the guarantee. Similarly, restaurateurs should also know whether they are guaranteeing the payment of the creditor’s attorneys’ fees and costs, should enforcement of the guarantee become necessary.
  • Try to negotiate the terms of the guarantee. If a potential supplier or creditor has a form personal guarantee in its agreement, restaurateurs should ask that the personal guarantee section be deleted from the agreement. Depending on the size of the supplier, its business requirements, and its perception of your business, some suppliers are willing to delete personal guarantees entirely in order to gain the restaurant’s business. Alternatively, if a supplier is not willing to delete the personal guarantee entirely, many suppliers are willing to negotiate the length and other conditions of the guarantee.
  • Ensure that all principals sign a personal guarantee. If there is more than one principal in the restaurant, and you are being asked to personally guarantee the restaurant’s debt, in most instances you should require that each principal of the restaurant sign a personal guarantee as a condition of your signature. This requirement, along with appropriate provisions in the restaurant’s operating agreement or bylaws, will ensure that all principals are equally liable for the debt and that each principal has recourse against the other in the event that a creditor seeks recovery on the personal guarantee from only one principal.
  • Place a homestead on your principal residence. While most commercial-lending institutions such as banks require physical collateral such as a mortgage on real property, most purveyors or suppliers do not. Since there is generally no mortgage securing the debt owed to the purveyor or supplier, Mass. General Laws may allow you to protect a substantial amount of equity in your principal residence. Placing a homestead on your principal residence will, in many instances, protect the equity you have in your home, even if you previously signed a personal guarantee.
  • Restaurateurs doing business as limited-liability entities, such as corporations or LLCs, should think long and hard before guaranteeing the debt of their business, because doing so effectively strips many of the protections afforded by those entities. Fortunately, if a restaurateur seeks advice from an attorney, accountant, or other professional knowledgeable in this area before signing a personal guarantee or any legal contract, he or she may be able to avoid many of the pitfalls which often accompany such guarantees.

    Mark A. Tanner is an attorney in the Northampton office of the law firm of Bacon Wilson, P.C. Prior to practicing law, he graduated from the Hotel, Restaurant and Travel Administration Program at UMass Amherst and the MBA program at the University of Colorado. He managed corporate restaurants for Houlihan’s and Ruby Tuesday in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Colorado. Tanner currently advises numerous restaurateurs and other businesses in litigation and business planning matters. This article is provided for informational purposes only, does not constitute legal advice, and should not supplement independent legal advice.


    Great things, no matter their size or scope, are achieved by people, not institutions.

    Personal achievement is possible only with the help of others and in the service of others. At no time in recent history is the value of individual service to the community more universally felt than it is today. Making the commitment to serve is important, but it is equally important, if not more, to have a greater understanding of how to serve. We are living in an historically important time of economic, political, and social change. As a result, it is not only important to identify the issues important to our work and the people we serve, but that we act on ways to address these issues.

    As we do so, it is critical that the decisions we make on behalf of others always keep the larger interest of our community in mind. If we keep community first, institutional interests second, and our individual interests third, we will find new solutions and approaches to today’s challenges, and in the end our individual interests will also be served.

    This idea is fundamental to the United Way’s mission, which is to improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of our communities. We learn that great social movements begin with individual acts of kindness or courage that are driven by principles, commitment, trust, and confidence in the work that we do.

    I have learned in my three years with the United Way that the people we are helping and the lives we are changing are the results of the good work that we do together. Without this strong sense of civic engagement and personal leadership, we could not achieve the important work that must be done day after day.

    It is in this spirit that the United Way has emerged into what we call a community impact organization with the belief that if we live and work united, to advance the common good, lives will be improved by mobilizing the caring power of communities. For us it is important that we focus on the root causes of the issues we face, not just our fundraising. We do this with you as our partners to help us move beyond the surface of problems in order to tackle the underlying causes of these challenges.

    What are some of things that we are involved in, and why? You might remember news articles that spoke about Springfield ranking sixth in the nation for percentage of its children living in poverty. We have learned since that our poverty level is three times higher than the Massachusetts poverty rate and more than twice the national rate. Through our work at the United Way and from research we have done locally and received from national studies, we know that, to address the root causes of poverty in our area, we will need to focus on programs and services that provide strong early-childhood education, youth development focusing on out-of-school and summer learning, and creating financial stability for individuals and families that live in distress.

    We support efforts that provide access to high-quality early education, summer learning, and other out-of-school programs as well as helping the less fortunate.

    Our mission at the United Way has always been to strengthen the lives of the people who live in our region by empowering them to create a community where all of our citizens are valued and where together we provide the opportunity to create neighborhoods that are safe, productive, and secure. We also know that, in order to accomplish all of this, our United Way will need to create healthy partnerships with all of our stakeholders, members of our community, donors, and more than 50 member agencies that provide more than 120 programs for the 23 cities and towns in Hampden County, South Hadley, and Granby.

    We are proud to be partners with these agencies and programs, and value their work. Together, we know that we will need to embrace new ways and new solutions to our work. We need to understand that, if we do business today as we did yesterday, we are bound to lose, but if we do business tomorrow as we do today, we will surely be doomed.v

    Joel Weiss is president and CEO of the United Way of Pioneer Valley.

    Sections Supplements
    350 Grill Has Become a Choice Venue
    350 Grill

    The proprietors of 350 Grill see the restaurant as one of many cogs in the rebirth of downtown Springfield.

    The original plan was for something much different — a simple luncheon facility catering mostly to the business crowd. But those plans changed, considerably, and what has emerged with the 350 Grill is an intriguing addition to the downtown Springfield restaurant and entertainment scene, one that appeals to many different audiences.

    Sherri Via says that, although the original business plan for the 350 Grill wasn’t actually written in pencil, it might as well have been.

    That’s how much things changed since the initial concept was first put on the drawing board close to two years ago.

    Indeed, what was originally conceived as a venue to provide a significant upgrade to lunch offerings for the neighboring Mardi Gras gentlemen’s club has instead become one of the more intriguing and successful additions to the downtown Springfield restaurant and entertainment scene.

    Instead of the burgers-and-hot-dogs menu originally contemplated by Via — a long-time employee and, in many respects, business partner of Jim Santinello, who owns the Mardi Gras and other venues — 350 Grill features a wide array of steaks, a ‘Kansas City veal chop,’ and ‘lobster ravioli.’ It’s a mix, and a venue, that is drawing constituencies from downtown businesspeople to some of the bikers who invade the city on Thursday nights during the warmer months.

    “Things just kept … evolving,” said Via, who used that word early and often as she talked about this entrepreneurial venture in progress, which will soon celebrate its first year in business with high hopes and expectations for the future. “One thing just led to another and, well, here we are.”

    While all that evolution has created a successful addition to Springfield’s entertainment sector, it has led to some growing pains as well, said Via, who brings roughly 30 years of experience in the hospitality sector to her role as proprietor of the ‘Grill.’

    The kitchen, for example, is much too small and in other ways inadequate for the menu being featured. “It has only eight burners, and that’s clearly not enough,” Via said, noting that this situation led to some early problems and even a few apologies from management concerning service.

    But there are plans being readied to rectify that situation, she continued, adding that there are other remedial steps being taken or in discussion. First and foremost, the building to the other side of the restaurant, an eyesore for decades, will be razed this fall, providing space for additional parking, she said.

    Meanwhile, the Grill’s menu continues to change, providing a degree of freshness that Via demands, and new wrinkles continue to be added. In other words, the evolution is ongoing.

    The Pasta Is Prologue

    Via acknowledged that some people might naturally have had doubts about whether last December was the time, and downtown Springfield the place, to be launching a new restaurant.

    But she had no such doubts.

    Although 350 Grill was a work in progress right up until the day it opened — and even after the ribbon was cut — she believed in the concept, and also in Springfield and its downtown.

    “I think Springfield can and will come back, and I believe we’re a part of that process,” she said. “What the city needs is some positive thinking about what has happened, and what will happen down the road.

    “Overall, the more businesses — restaurants — you have downtown, the better it is for everyone,” she continued, clearly espousing the ‘grow the pie’ theory of the hospitality sector that embraces competition. “When that happens, you create vibrancy, and sooner or later, people will come to your establishment.”

    Via said her decision to press on and create the restaurant that patrons see today was based more on gut instinct than any real market research into whether such a venue was wanted or needed. And thus far, her instincts appear to be good.

    Flashing back to early 2007, Via said the 350 Grill — the original version of the eatery — was born of need, specifically a desire to vastly improve the quality and quantity of lunch offerings for Mardi Gras patrons. Needless to say — although she did say it in several ways — the plans changed.

    As renovations to what was a long-time dance club started to take shape, Via said she sensed an opportunity to go well beyond the original vision and create something far more upscale that would attract a larger and significantly more diverse clientele. Such an opportunity dovetailed nicely with her own career ambition to operate a fine-dining establishment.

    What eventually emerged is called a steakhouse by some — because there are several different cuts on the menu — but it is much more than that, said Via.

    There are a number of seafood options — from sea bass to swordfish to shrimp florentine — as well pasta dishes, chicken, lamb, and more. Meanwhile, the menu of appetizers, or tapas, is diverse and includes everything from artichoke francaise to veal meatballs.

    The lunch menu, which has proven to be popular among the business crowd, has some usual suspects — a signature burger, a Reuben, and a turkey melt, for example — but also a grilled swordfish sandwich and a ‘blue plate special.’

    Via’s sister, Doreen, presides over the cramped kitchen as executive chef, and she changes up the various menus every four months, said Sherri, to keep the overall product fresh.

    The need to continually alter and add to the menu is just one of many lessons Via says she learned over more than three decades in the hospitality business that she is now applying to 350 Grill. Others include everything from the need for a constant focus on value — in whatever ways it can be achieved — to keeping the bathrooms clean.

    “I’ve been a waitress, a bartender, a hostess, a manager … you name it, I’ve done it,” she said. “And I’m glad I’ve done all those things because I have insight into those jobs and every aspect of this business.

    “You learn a few things when you’ve been in this business as long as I have,” she continued. “The key is to successfully apply what you’ve learned.”

    Meanwhile, Via is tapping into her contacts within the business and cultural communities (she’s on the board of directors of CityStage and Symphony Hall and is heavily involved with the local chapter of the American Cancer Society) to tap into those constituencies and thus grow her customer base through what is always the best marketing tool in this business — word of mouth.

    And while the first year or so in operation has generally exceeded most expectations, Via knows that the restaurant business is more challenging than most not in it would think. Consumers are fickle, she explained, and economic conditions can change the scene in a heartbeat.

    That’s why she’s focused on applying those aforementioned lessons, listening to customers, and responding with continuous changes and improvements.

    A Job Well-done

    Indeed, as she talked with Business-West, Via was getting ready for the lunch crowd — and also a meeting with an architect to discuss options for expanding the grill’s kitchen.

    It’s not a question of whether that will happen, but how, she said, adding that, in many respects, the evolutionary process continues at this venue, which didn’t take the shape of those original plans.

    And no one’s complaining.

    George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]


    Blast from the Past

    A series of events were staged Sept. 12 and 13 to launch the Web site ‘Shays’ Rebellion and the Making of a Nation’ at Springfield Technical Community College. The Web site project was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities for STCC in partnership with the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Assoc. and the Springfield Armory National Historic Site. Clockwise, from above, Shays’ Rebellion project manager Dr. Lynne Spichiger and Web site designer Juliet Jacobson demonstrate the Web site; artist Bryant White at the gallery reception for his paintings for the Shays’ Rebellion Web site; answering questions following the symposium on Shays’ Rebellion, from left, Dr. Kevin Sweeney of Amherst College, Dr. Leonard Richards of UMass Amherst, and Dr. Robert Gross of UConn.

    ‘Latinos in Schools’ Initiative

    Comcast was on hand to show its support and sponsorship of the ‘Latinos in Schools’ initiative at a recent sponsorship event staged at Springfield Central High School. Comcast contributed funds that will be utilized to help provide school uniforms for children who are unable to afford them in the Springfield school system. Pictured are: back row, left to right, Juan Gerena of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center Inc., Comcast’s Dan Glanville, Brad Palazzo, and Steve Fitzgibbons; middle row, left to right, Dr. Denise L. Pagan-Vega of Springfield Public Schools, Univision character la Profesora Anacleta, Jesus Arce from Mayor Domenic Sarno’s office with (front row) Springfield schoolchildren.

    Sections Supplements
    Claudio Guerra Elevates Pub Fare at Paradise City Tavern
    Claudio Guerra, left, with Operations Manager Bill Collins,

    Claudio Guerra, left, with Operations Manager Bill Collins, says Northampton’s combination of sophistication and fun make it the ideal setting for upscale pub food and cask ale.

    They came first out of loyalty.

    “When we first opened for business, we had a couple come in from Amherst, who wanted to check it out,” said Claudio Guerra, referring to Paradise City Tavern, the prolific restaurateur’s latest venture, which opened in Northampton in July. The couple had been fans of the now-closed Del Raye Bar & Grille, a far more elegant restaurant that was closed to make way for this new, upscale pub.

    “As they looked at the menu, I said, ‘how do you like it?’” Guerra said. “They said, ‘we don’t.’ So I asked why. They said, ‘why would we cross the bridge for hamburgers and beer?’”

    But they stayed and ordered: a burger, a flatbread pizza, and a couple of draughts. “I walked over later and asked how everything was, and they said, ‘OK, this is worth crossing the bridge.’ That’s my favorite moment here.”

    That satisfaction derives, no doubt, from the challenge of convincing people that quality food is quality food, no matter the price or décor. Because a tavern this is — albeit one with a few twists.

    “We’re trying to provide the most delicious but affordable pub food we can produce,” Guerra explained. “A burger is not just a burger; we’re trying to do the best hamburger you can find. The french fries are cut every day from raw potatoes. And the flatbread pizzas are made with some whole wheat in them, not some generic garbage.”

    ‘Generic,’ in fact, is not a word that comes to mind when perusing the flatbread options. Sure, the ‘Gumba’ is loaded with traditional pepperoni, meatball, and sausage, but more adventurous palates might appreciate the ‘Frenchy,’ with duck confit, melted leeks, and goat cheese; or the ‘Ham & Gruyere,’ which features those two toppings along with green grape slices.

    Somehow, the ingredients fit together — just like the diverse destinations that make up Guerra’s ever-expanding chain.

    Finding a Home

    Born in Germany to Italian parents, he emigrated to New York City as a boy in 1963, and literally grew up around the restaurant business. His father first worked seven days a week between two jobs — as a head waiter for a top French restaurant, and as the night manager for a second, 24-hour French eatery. After 10 years, he had saved enough money to move to Long Island, where he opened his own restaurant, eventually expanding that endeavor to four establishments.

    The younger Guerra, meanwhile, spent his boyhood checking coats, busing tables, and washing dishes, and after high school, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. He underwent a two-year apprenticeship in Bavaria, Germany, then returned to America in the early 1980s to help his father open a restaurant in Hartford, Conn. called the Mill on the River.

    On his days off, he took road trips to find a place where he could launch an enterprise of his own. When he arrived in Northampton, he fell in love with it — even though the town was far from the bustling center of arts and culture it is today. He ate that first night at the Eastside Grill, which was packed, but didn’t have a lot of competition.

    Guerra started to see possibilities, realizing in short order that Northampton was populated by educated, progressive-minded people who appreciated quality and creativity in a restaurant. Pizzeria Paradiso was his first venture there, followed in the next several years by two additional downtown ventures, the more upscale Spoleto and Del Raye.

    Over the past several years, Guerra expanded his empire further, opening two more Northampton restaurants — Spoleto Express, a lunch-oriented Italian eatery; and Mama Iguana’s, serving Mexican fare — and a second Spoleto in East Longmeadow. But while the lower-priced establishments have been humming along fine, he noticed a trend at the Del Raye.

    “For years, it was a home run,” he told BusinessWest. “But, to be honest, after 9/11 we saw a gradual slowdown in business, which accelerated in the middle of last year. The Del Raye opened up 10 years ago, but it’s a completely different economic environment today. When people are starting to put $60 or $70 in their gas tank, they think twice before they spend $60 or $70 for dinner. So the writing was on the wall.”

    Paradise City Tavern is a different entity altogether, although the culinary staff from the Del Raye is largely intact. In addition, the restaurant features 12 microbeers on tap (Guerra said he could offer more, but wants the kegs drained quickly to keep the beer fresh), and is also among just 500 or so locations in the U.S. to serve up what’s known as cask ale, which is beer brewed right in the barrel from which it’s eventually tapped.

    “Cask beer is called ‘real ale’ in Europe,” said Bill Collins, operations manager of Guerra’s restaurant chain. “All the yeast is still there, so it’s naturally carbonated. It’s got a much different flavor than other beer, and it’s served at about 59 degrees, not ice-cold. It’s got a cult following … it’s the way beer was first drank.”

    Guerra agreed. “It’s closer to the pure taste of what the brewer intends,” he told BusinessWest. “I come from a philosophy that the less food is handled and futzed with, the happier I am with it. And this is as real as it gets. The customers here are really educated about beer, and they’re really thrilled about the casks.”

    Unlike other restaurants he’s operated, this one doesn’t cater to one niche, said Guerra. “We get an early family-dinner crowd because we’re family-friendly, and then there’s a normal dinner crowd, and then after they leave, we get the drinking crowd. In fact, we’re open from 4 to 2, and half our sales here are after 11. We’ll bring in bands and DJs, and it turns into a spontaneous party.”

    All in all, he’s happy with his latest venture, although he was nervous about turning the Del Raye — an elegant, white-tablecloth type of establishment — into a tavern. But it was a move he felt he had to make.

    “A lot of people hang onto a model they’re familiar and comfortable with,” Guerra said. “I think a lot of people, in my shoes with the Del Raye, would have tried to stick it out, and probably not successfully. The Del Raye was special to me; I met my wife there. But, while it was painful, I made the decision to get rid of it.

    “In business,” he continued, “you have to stay up on the times and be hyper-aware of the realities of your competition, the economy, and the mood of the customers. You have be flexible like Play-Doh and keep moving if you’re going to be successful.”

    Having a Ball

    Besides the music, Paradise City Tavern strives to throw other creative entertainment at guests. The day Guerra spoke with BusinessWest, the staff was getting ready to show the cult stoner-bowling flick The Big Lebowski on one of the five large-screen TVs, and giving away 50 games courtesy of Northampton Bowl.

    And next spring will see the addition of an outdoor deck, which will add about 100 seats. One reason Guerra didn’t build one right away is that he knew business would be strong when the restaurant first opened, and wants to extend the excitement into next year by creating a second buzz around the deck.

    Guerra’s philosophy has always been simple — “you have to treat your customers and your employees they way you’d like to be treated,” he said — but his strategy in such a crowded restaurant market is more complex. It comes down to knowing what a community needs, he said, and then providing it.

    “If you’re driving into town and you want a place that has good food, microbeers, a lot of sports on TV, now you’ve got a place,” he continued. “It’s filling a niche; it’s not rocket science. And today, the lower you can charge for quality food, the busier you’re going to be. It’s a function of the economy. People are nervous — as they should be.”

    All the more reason to escape from stress with a flatbread pizza and a drink — even if you have to cross a bridge to do it.

    Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]