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Yes They Can


From left, Vanished Valley principals Joshua Britton, Michael Rodrigues, and Manny Vital

From left, Vanished Valley principals Joshua Britton, Michael Rodrigues, and Manny Vital.


Josh Britton remembers the early, heady days of Vanished Valley Brewing Co. — and the challenging ones that followed.

He had started brewing beer in his garage around 2015 when he met Michael Rodrigues, owner of Europa Black Rock Bar & Grille in Ludlow, and Manny Vital, who owned Europa’s building on Route 21. Vital retrofitted a building out back that became the first Vanished Valley brewery; the name was chosen to honor the drowned Quabbin Reservoir towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott.

“We started that process in 2016, but the licensure took nine months for approvals at the state level. Then we started hammering it out in 2017,” Britton said. Within a year or two, the brewery was rated third-best in Massachusetts by BeerAdvocate.

“We had lines out the door,” he added. “We were only producing like 10 barrels at a time, which for that space is a lot of barrelage; it’s pretty tight in there. We were selling cans in a tent next to the building and doing well. And we were fueling Europa with our kegs. We had people show up and ask, ‘oh, where’s your taproom?’ And they found out it was just a small, 20-by-20 space.”

Rodrigues decided to retire the Europa brand early in 2019 when he saw an opportunity to expand Vanished Valley with expanded production space and a food operation, and the three principals started gutting and updating the building, and also putting up an addition.

“Mike stayed up nights smoking meat — night after night after night, just to meet demand. So we were delivering barbecue and beer to door to door, and it stuck.”

“We wanted to add the food element in a bigger retail space, so it made sense, obviously, to do it right there,” Britton said. “We worked on it all throughout 2019 while still producing beer, and then we were ready to go in January 2020.”

Everyone knows what happened next.

“We had just opened our doors, and then a couple months later, it came to a halt because of COVID,” he said. “It was an interesting time. It forced us to kind of relook at the brand and pivot and decide what fell within the guidelines of what we could and couldn’t do.”

The pivots they came up with not only kept the business afloat during the pandemic, they may have actually raised its profile.

“No place could open and serve food, but we were allowed to deliver food — and beer, for the first time in Massachusets. So we started doing takeout. We didn’t have barbecue as a food option at the time, and Mike came up with the great idea to say, ‘hey, how cool would it be to have fresh barbecue and beer delivered to your door?’

“So we added that as a takeout option, and it was the most popular one we had,” Britton continued. “Mike stayed up nights smoking meat — night after night after night, just to meet demand. So we were delivering barbecue and beer to door to door, and it stuck. We still have great barbecue today; we kept it on the menu.”

Murals in Vanished Valley’s lower level reflect the theme of the drowned Quabbin towns.

Murals in Vanished Valley’s lower level reflect the theme of the drowned Quabbin towns.

Between the successful delivery operation, as well as two Paycheck Protection Program loans and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, the team was able to keep the operation running. “It was a stressful year, but we made it. Once we were allowed to open the doors, we took all the necessary precautions with social distancing and things like that. It kept the lights on, and it kept the brand alive.”


Beneath the Surface

Some of the brewery’s beer selections — 1939 Amber Ale, Cellar Hole Series, Lost Town Stout, etc. — pay homage to the history of the Quabbin.

“The name itself, Vanished Valley, is the tip of the cap to the Quabbin Reservoir and the people that sacrificed for the benefit of others,” Britton said. “We try to keep the names of the beers as Quabbin-esque as possible. Sometimes it’s hard to do, and we just come up with other ideas. But the brand itself commemorates the Quabbin area.”

At any given time, Vanished Valley makes, pours, and distributes — to liquor stores and other restaurants across Massachusetts, from New York to Cape Cod — an array of IPAs, ales, stouts, and more, he added.

“We are very IPA-heavy, but that’s not to say that we don’t appreciate and still produce the classic brands, like a good lager or a pilsner. Some of our bestsellers in-house are actually our light beers. But when we distribute, the more popular ones are the IPAs.”

Britton explained that Vanished Valley straddles two different models.

“When you’re thinking about a brewery, you can be one of three different types of breweries. You can be a contract brewer, where you hire someone to brew your beer for you, and they send it out, and that’s it. Look at Jim Koch’s story with Sam Adams; that’s how he started. Then there’s a straight manufacturing-like brewery, where all you’re doing is pumping liquid out the back door and putting it on the shelf in the store.

“Then there’s us. We’re a brewpub,” he went on. “We wanted to have the food element, but we didn’t want to give up on the opportunity for mass distribution. So we built the brewery to be a distribution model, but the retail side of the house is a straight brewpub. So I don’t need to produce a ton of beer for here, but I need to produce a ton of beer for the market. We wanted to go at it from both angles.”

As for the food element, Vanished Valley serves a broad menu of appetizers, soups and salads, wood-fired pizza, burgers and other handhelds, and, of course, barbecue platters featuring pulled pork, brisket, chicken, and St. Louis-style ribs. Dinner hours are more crowded than lunch, and Thursday through Sunday draw the biggest crowds.

“We have a beer garden out there in the warmer weather, with a massive tent,” Britton said, adding that Vanished Valley now allows groups to rent the space for weddings and large parties. “We have music out there; Manny built an amazing stage for our bands. We have a firepit … all the stuff that makes for a better environment.”

Inside, the brewery has also hosted events from a murder mystery dinner to a bonsai tree event to charcuterie board design, as well as events featuring outside vendors, like a chili cookoff.

“We wanted to have the food element, but we didn’t want to give up on the opportunity for mass distribution. So we built the brewery to be a distribution model, but the retail side of the house is a straight brewpub.”

“We rent this for smaller parties, too: birthday parties, anniversaries, retirement parties, stuff like that. We try to be a one-stop shop for as much as possible,” Britton said. “It’s hard to do sometimes, but compared to other brewpubs and breweries in the region, we are very, very diverse.

“I think we’re doing really well compared to a lot of other breweries in the industry,” he went on. “There have been some closures in the state, and we’re not going to be one of them. But you constantly have to tailor things to the customer, and that’s a constantly moving target. So one of the bigger challenges is staying fresh.”


Lager Than Life

Despite some shifts in the market, Britton said, Vanished Valley is doing well on both the brewpub and distribution sides.

“Our first struggle was dealing with the holy-grail beers — you know, what’s the next best thing? That’s what the craft-beer fanatics want — the search for the white whale, or whatever they want to call it. We were one of those whales initially, and we gained a lot of loyal customers, but there were some falloffs of people that wanted to find the next best thing.”

Another challenge has been the rise of ready-to-drink cocktails. “That sector of the industry is really doing a number on craft beers,” he said. “And now you have CBD-infused seltzers and stuff like that. So our distribution has gone down a little bit because of that.

“But our overall growth in sales has continued every year because of what we do here in the retail area with the restaurant,” Britton added. “If we were a straight production brewery, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. But on the restaurant side, the amazing customers we get here — from a local standpoint and people from out of state — have helped us stay afloat as a small, local business. We’re still very young. We’ve been going at it since 2017, but we’re still young.”

Vanished Valley also makes an effort to give back to the community, such as a beer produced to honor veterans every November, with proceeds donated to veteran organizations. The brewery also sponsors golf tournaments and gets involved with events like Ride to Remember, which honors fallen heroes.

“This is our backyard,” Britton said. “We all grew up here, and we’ve got to take care of it.”

Despite the challenges throughout the years, he added, Vanished Valley has continued to grow — from three employees just a few years ago to more than 30 today.

“We’ve done really well for ourselves. We’ve made a home for a lot of great customers that we appreciate so much. And the town has been nice to work with; they appreciate what we’re doing here from an economic standpoint. It’s just been a fun ride.”

Restaurants Special Coverage

Good Vibrations

Andrea and Tim Monson

Andrea and Tim Monson, owners of Monsoon Roastery, are two of the original partners who brought the Urban Food Brood to life.

Almost a decade ago, Tim and Andrea Monson started a small business roasting and selling coffee, which grew to the point where they opened a retail and operating space on Albany Street in Springfield in 2019.

Not long after, the owners of Monsoon Roastery began talking to the owners of two other small businesses — Nosh, a downtown Springfield eatery, and Urban Artisan Farm, which specializes in hydroponic food production — about a concept that has now become one of the city’s most unique food-centric success stories.

“It started after COVID when small businesses were struggling to survive,” Andrea said. “We already did business with Nosh — we would carry her food products, and then they would carry our coffee. So that kind of social capital started very early on. We actually did that with a lot of small businesses. So we started to think … what if we were a small business corporation — a bunch of us kind of fighting together?”

That’s how the Monsons, Nosh owner Teri Skinner, and Urban Artisan Farm owner Jack Wysocki launched their concept, envisioning a place where small businesses could support each other in a shared space with a common kitchen and other amenities, and people could come stop by for lunch or a coffee and bring home some fresh produce, meat, or other items.

“We started to think … what if we were a small business corporation — a bunch of us kind of fighting together?”

“It took us three years to get financing and to get organized,” Monson explained. “This was an office building. So we had to transform it into food-manufacturing collaborative, which cost a lot of money. In the middle of COVID, there were a lot of shortages, a lot of delays. But we kept fighting for this dream and investing our own funds and sacrificing a lot of time and a lot of sweat equity, and it finally came together in July of last year.”

Skinner recalls collaborating with the other founders on ideas, looking into grant funding to turn the building on Albany Street — a stretch of road known as Gasoline Alley, due to the giant fuel tanks that line it — into a collaborative workspace that eventually became known as the Urban Food Brood.

“The three of us sort of came together, wanting to expand our businesses,” she said, adding that the project ran into a lot of infrastructure and renovation issues that weren’t expected, and cost more money than expected. “But now it’s flourishing,” she added.

Nosh is actually the latest — and largest — operation to move into the space, which, along with Monsoon and Urban Artisan Farm, also includes Corsello Butcheria, Happy Man Freeze Dried, Wicked Whisk, and Rocka Docka Foods.

Vincent Corsello

Vincent Corsello says the Urban Food Brood offers fresh options amid a food desert.

“Happy Man had a certified home kitchen, but he was expanding tremendously. He needed a kitchen, so he ended up taking a room here,” Skinner said. “Wicked Whisk acquired a food truck, but she also needed a commercial kitchen so she could produce her products, as she was growing as well.”

Vincent Corsello, who runs Corsello Bucheria, an Easthampton business that has expanded into the Urban Food Brood, said he took part in a pig roast on Albany Street a few years ago and was struck by the uniqueness of the setup.

“This place is magic. There’s such a vibe here,” he remembered thinking. “So I started coming — I don’t know to what end, exactly, but they were open to a collaboration. They got a grant to do a community kitchen, and I said, ‘can I be a part of it?’ And they said ‘yes.’ And then we went from there.”


Creating a Vibe

The building, with its community spirit and that creative vibe — the walls are lined with works from local artists, which are displayed on a rotating basis and available for sale — is a stark contrast to its surroundings, Corsello said.

“It’s in the middle of a brownfield, essentially. They call it Gasoline Alley for a reason; we’re surrounded by a million gallons of gasoline.

“I have a big window, and I did a brick facade outside the bakery so you can look through the window and see the bakers cooking.”

“But it’s easy to get to, and there’s plenty of parking, so it’s a good location,” he was quick to add. “And the vibe really attracted me to this this campus; it’s like a modern-day boys’ club, only it includes all different types of people.”

Indeed, Monson noted that she’s seen people of different backgrounds, experiences, and even religious persuasions enjoying the welcoming vibe of the space together.

“We have students, we have professionals, we have the police, we have the firefighters, we have EMTs, social workers, teachers … we have so many different people that come in here to enjoy the food or the coffee or the environment. Everybody’s here.

“The one thing I hear over and over again — unfortunately — is, ‘wow, I can’t believe this is in Springfield,’” she went on. “I both love and hate that. As a Springfield resident, a Springfield business owner, someone who grew up in Springfield, I feel like Springfield always gets the short end of the stick. There’s a lot of negative perception about Springfield. And we’re trying to disprove that. We’re saying, ‘hey, look, we built this thing, and people are coming.’

“I’ve heard, ‘this feels like I stepped into Northampton,’ which is, I guess, a compliment. But we’re not Northampton; we’re Springfield.”

Teri Skinner

Teri Skinner, seen here at her downtown Nosh location, is the most recent of the original Urban Food Brood partners to move to Gasoline Alley; she will continue to operate at both sites.

Corsello said the uniqueness extends to the business model, with the various tenants sharing one register, and the businesses sharing their products.

“So when I make sandwiches, I use Teri’s bread, and I use Jack’s vegetables. We use each other’s products to create. So you not only have an opportunity to get something for yourself, but if you like what you taste, you can buy any of those components here at the market. Plus, a lot of Springfield is kind of a food desert, and we’re small businesses offering locally created food products.”

He said patrons appreciate being able to eat or drink something on site, then bring something home to prepare.

“Anybody can come in here and get a cup of coffee, they can shop, they can get some vegetables, they can get some meat, they can get something freeze-dried. For us, it’s a model that doesn’t come without its challenges, and we’re still figuring some of that stuff out, but it’s very unique. People like a one-stop shop.”

Skinner, whose downtown Nosh location has long had an artistic, funky décor, appreciates the way the Urban Food Brood prioritizes art as well.

“People come here, and they’ll pick up some sausage and go, ‘you know, let me get a kombucha, let me get some mushrooms, let me get some spinach.’ And you go home, and you have all of this really good product that’s manufactured here in Springfield.”

“We have lots of artists that come in and display their work on a monthly basis, and then people can purchase their artwork. They’re in a rotation; if the art is there for too long, it seems like it’s just part of the décor. So it moves in and out, and there are some super talented artists that provide works for us.”

Monson said many artists have sold works in the space, or even gotten commissions based on their displays. “So it’s very cool that we can provide that.”

Skinner appreciates other elements of the Urban Food Brood vibe, like how it feels like the center of a town, only indoors and on a smaller scale, with each of the businesses acting as a storefront of sorts.

“I’m super happy with how it all came out,” she said. “I have a big window, and I did a brick facade outside the bakery so you can look through the window and see the bakers cooking. Vincent has the same idea; so do the others. That’s kind of neat.”

The complex, which is open Tuesday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., also hosts regular events, such as food truck Fridays and Thursday farmers markets from 4 to 8 p.m., which have already begun for this season.

“It’s early in the season for farmers markets, but hopefully, as the season progresses, we’ll have more and more items. We’re also going to try to do music,” Skinner said.

A sign outside the Urban Food Brood

A sign outside the Urban Food Brood lists the businesses currently operating there.

“The thing that’s great about the nighttime market is that all of our downtown Springfield markets have always been during the day, when people are at work. What are they going to do with their products after they’ve purchased them? Are they going to put them in the car or bring them back to the office? So this is kind of nice. People can just stop on their way home.”


Fueling Growth

Andrea Monson said the partners in the Urban Food Brood have been pleased with the organic growth of the Gasoline Alley complex.

“We don’t actively market; we rely on word of mouth,” she told BusinessWest. “And I have to say that the people who come here are very cool. They’re great customers. They’re great to my staff, they’re great to all of us, and they’re very supportive. They tell people who tell people who tell people, and now we have this amazing group of people that come here to support us.

“The cool thing is, we all have our own following. Wicked Whisk has their own following. Nosh has their own following. People come here, and they’ll pick up some sausage and go, ‘you know, let me get a kombucha, let me get some mushrooms, let me get some spinach.’ And you go home, and you have all of this really good product that’s manufactured here in Springfield.”

And it’s not just people from the city, Corsello said. Urban Food Brood has been drawing from all the surrounding towns, steadily developing a reputation … not as something vaguely Northampton-ish, but something uniquely and vibrantly Springfield.

“We’re really excited about it,” he said. “It’s only the beginning.”


Smoke Show

Bill Fletcher

Bill Fletcher shows off a few dozen full racks of ribs that are still a few hours from being ready for prime time.
Staff Photo

Unlike many people in the restaurant industry, Bill Fletcher did not grow up in the business. And it was never really his dream to put his name over the door to an eatery.

Indeed, Fletcher ventured instead into the advertising industry, becoming co-owner of a firm, to be called Domani Studios, that eventually grew to 50 employees with offices in Brooklyn and Chicago.

“That was a great time … we did award-winning stuff, all digital-marketing stuff that was new to everyone at the time,” he recalled, noting that this was the start of this century. “All the major advertisers were still trying to figure out how to build a website, and Facebook was just coming into being.”

But while he was helping clients tell their stories, his — career-wise and otherwise — was starting to change, and in a big way.

“On the side, I just started really getting into barbecue,” he told BusinessWest, adding that this interest started small, on the weekends in the backyard, where he would cook for friends and neighbors. Eventually, though, it took him to competitions, mostly in the Northeast, where he would pit his ribs, chicken, pork, and brisket against friendly rivals from across the country.

“I was just obsessed with all that; I would do all this test cooking and travel around the Northeast competing,” he said, referring to the various competitions sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. “They were all-weekend-long things, and they were a party.”

He fared well against those rivals, winning enough prize money — and accolades — to convince him to bid farewell to advertising, sell his share of the company, and use the proceeds to open Fletcher’s Brooklyn BBQ in its namesake borough of New York City.

Skipping ahead a few chapters in this intriguing story — we’ll go back and fill in the gaps later — he has opened Fletcher’s BBQ Shop & Steakhouse at the site of the former Rinaldi’s in Longmeadow. It was an almost-two-year journey from conceptualization of this enterprise to the first day of operation on April 30, and it was a difficult process, he told BusinessWest.

“We were selling out early of a lot of stuff, which is a unique and tricky thing with barbecue, because it takes forever to cook it, so whatever I had is all I had — you can’t make more.”

But just a few weeks in, he’s already seeing the fruits of his considerable labor.

The new restaurant drew large crowds opening weekend, which became a learning experience on many levels when it came to what people liked — and what he needs to cook more of moving forward.

“We’re still learning the cadence — what sells,” he explained. “We were selling out early of a lot of stuff, which is a unique and tricky thing with barbecue, because it takes forever to cook it, so whatever I had is all I had — you can’t make more.”

Bill Fletcher adds some wood

Bill Fletcher adds some wood to one of the barbecue pits at his new restaurant in Longmeadow, one of his many responsibilities as pitmaster.

Overall, Fletcher is off to a solid start, but, limited by staffing issues, as most all restaurants are, he is easing his way into the local restaurant, and not by choice.

Indeed, his original plan was to be open for lunch and dinner seven days a week. For now, it’s just dinner, Thursday through Monday — Mondays, because few of the area’s restaurants are open that day.

“That’s OK … it’s nice to start off slow,” he said. “We can make sure we’re doing everything right.”

For this issue and its annual Restaurant Guide, BusinessWest talked with Fletcher about the road to his new venture on Longmeadow Street and where he believes that road will take him.


Taking it Slow

As he talked with BusinessWest about his venture at one of the front tables in the bar area of the restaurant, Fletcher took a quick break to tend to the fires in the two barbecue pits in the kitchen.

As he opened the bottom door to one of them to add more wood (sugar maple and red oak), he said simply, “I’m the pitmaster — this is my job.”

“I realized that I was spending all my time thinking about barbecue and not being a good president and leader of my crew in advertising. So I spoke to my partner and said it was time for me to get out; I decided I wanted to make this my career.”

Actually, it’s just one of many, he said, as he showed off five dozen full racks of ribs that had been slow cooking for several hours and still had a few more to go before they were ready for prime time.

Fletcher said his days at the restaurant start at 5 a.m. and generally run late into the evening. During that time, he and his team are preparing and then cooking meat, getting appetizers and sides ready for the coming night, and, overall, preparing to welcome guests to what it is in many ways something new and different for the region.

This is the life Fletcher has chosen. Actually, as noted earlier, it chose him as his passion for barbecue moved from the backyard to those competitions across the Northeast to the restaurant he opened in Brooklyn.

It was while taking part in those competitions that Fletcher said he learned that barbecue wasn’t just a hobby, and it wasn’t just a business in waiting. It was, and is, as he put it, “community.”

“You go to these different competitions, and you see some new faces, but a lot of old faces,” he explained. “It’s probably anywhere between 30 and 100 teams competing, and you stay up all night. It takes forever to cook barbecue, so everyone is up all night, sleeping in shifts. It was hard work, but we had a lot of fun and collected a lot of memories.”

it took nearly two years of feasibility studies and buildout

Bill Fletcher says it took nearly two years of feasibility studies and buildout, but his new restaurant is now a reality.
Staff Photo

Making a long story somewhat shorter, Fletcher said he started spending more and more of his time at these competitions, to the detriment of his ad agency.

“I realized that I was spending all my time thinking about barbecue and not being a good president and leader of my crew in advertising,” he explained. “So I spoke to my partner and said it was time for me to get out; I decided I wanted to make this my career.”

He took the proceeds of his buyout and opened Fletcher’s Brooklyn BBQ in the Gowanus neighborhood of the borough in 2012.

Actually, he was part of a wave of barbecue to hit Brooklyn — three new restaurants opening at roughly the same time — a movement that put his restaurant in the food section of the New York Times within weeks of opening.

“We all opened up within a month of each other,” he recalled. “Pete Wells, the New York Times restaurant critic, wrote a piece about us, saying ‘big league barbecue hits New York City,’ and reviewed us all. That was exciting, to be in the New York Times restaurant review in your first month of being open. That was unexpected, and he had some kind things to say about us; that was fun.

“And we won all kinds of awards there — it was a really great run. I was there for a decade … so many great people and great food,” he went on, adding that one key to the restaurant’s success was its operating model, whereby it served as a hub (he called it the ‘hive’), supplying barbecue to other pop-up or market locations.

“We would cook everything in one central location and then send it out to a number of satellites,” he explained, adding that the model worked well, especially in that metropolitan area. “You’re not building five restaurants; you essentially have a commissary, and you’re just sending food out. It was a great model for us.”


Meaty Issues

Eventually, though, Fletcher closed the location. First, he decided he had enough of Gotham and moved upstate. He kept the restaurant going, managing from afar. He then “started dating,” as he put it, and upon “not finding anyone in Upstate New York to my liking,” expanded the search to 100 miles (far for a dating app), which included Longmeadow, where he found what — and who — he was looking for.

“I met my future wife through Tinder,” he explained, gesturing with his hand to indicate that she lived just a few minutes from where he was sitting. When the relationship reached a degree of seriousness, he started looking at where he could open a restaurant in the area.

And after some hard searching and then some “feasibility studies,” as he called them, he eventually settled on the location of the old Rinaldi’s.

“When I walked in here, this place was completely gutted,” he said, adding that a restaurant was planning to move into the site, but those aspirations were derailed by COVID. “I’m completely independent — I don’t have any backing, so I was really concerned about the dollars going into it and whether I could actually pull it off.”

Eventually, the numbers worked, even if the project went 25% over budget, by his estimate, and the restaurant opened more than two years after the first negotiations on a lease began.

Before the opening, Fletcher handled a few pop-up events, including the town’s annual Fall Festival, that provided a taste of what he was getting into — literally and figuratively — as well as some encouraging signs.

“The community was so supportive,” he recalled. “I was selling out in two hours, when it’s supposed to last six. Those events were really encouraging, and I was super excited to be part of all that.”

As noted earlier, Fletcher said he’s still learning what people like most — the ‘cadence,’ as he called it. There’s a note on the restaurant’s website that states hours and then a notation: “please come early, we sell out daily.”

“Trying to figure out what the demand is going to be is part of the trick,” he explained. “And that will take us a little bit of time to figure it all out.”

The menu includes the staples of barbecue — beef brisket, pork (pulled pork and hot links), spare ribs, and chicken, as well as platters with two or three different meats — but also steaks (New York strip, ribeye, and filet mignon) and other choices such as catfish and grits, barbecue ramen, Cajun pasta, pulled pork sandwich, and brisket cheesesteak. Bar snacks and starters include barbecue wings, barbecue nachos, barbecue fries (the menu describes them as a “cult favorite”), hot links with pimento cheese, and spicy shrimp hush puppies.

As for those steaks, Fletcher says they’re unlike anything he believes is offered in the region.

“We’re cold-smoking them 10 to 15 minutes,” he explained. “So they come out raw — they’re just taking in some of our smoke flavor. And then, we’re searing them to order. It is a really complex flavor; it’s really unique. It might not be everyone’s liking, it’s a little smoky, but I think it’s outstanding.

“We’re a little weird,” he went on. “It’s kind of a fancy place — marble tabletops and brass everything — but you can get some sticky ribs and nachos next to a filet mignon and a glass of champagne.”

Looking ahead, Fletcher said he will continue the process of easing his way toward that schedule he originally put on the drawing board.

That means eventually adding lunch, maybe another night or two of dinner, takeout, and catering. He said he will not take the Fletcher’s act to the Big E this year, but will explore making that part of the equation moving forward.

For now, he’s settling in while also keeping the fires stoked — he’s going through two cords of wood a month.

As he noted, barbecue isn’t just food, it’s community, and that’s what he’s bringing to Longmeadow — and the region.

Restaurants Special Coverage

A Lot on His Plate

Andrew Brow outside Jackalope

Andrew Brow outside Jackalope in downtown Springfield.

On his long and winding road to being a serial restaurateur, Andrew Brow says he’s had many inspirations, role models, teachers, and even an “idol.”

The latter would be Claudio Guerra, the now-legendary restauranteur — think Spoleto, Mama Iguana’s, the Del Raye, Paradise City Tavern, and many others — who gave Brow, like so many others, much more than a job.

“What I got from Claudio is what I wanted — I wanted to be a restaurant owner,” he explained. “It just seemed like this glamourous, fun, wonderful thing — not always, but Claudio made it something to aspire to.”

But there were others who had an impact as well, including Bill Collins, who also worked for Guerra and later hired Brow to be his executive chef at the restaurant he opened in East Longmeadow, Center Square Grill. Then there was Therri Moitui, the owner and chef of a French restaurant on Cape Fear River in North Carolina, where Brow worked for a time after leaving his native Western Mass. to find, well … something else.

“I thought I was God’s gift to the kitchen at this point, when I was 24 years old,” Brow recalled. “And, sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently, he let me know that I was not God’s gift to the kitchen and that I still had a lot to learn. And he proceeded to teach me.”

Today, Brow — owner of HighBrow, a wood-fired pizza restaurant in Northampton, and Jackalope, which just celebrated one year of bringing ‘creative American’ food to downtown Springfield — is still absorbing lessons from others, but he’s also the one passing on knowledge, experience, and keen insight to those who work for him.

His most important bit of advice, if that’s what it is: “if you stop learning, you’re no good.”

This is an operating style that has dominated his career and his time as a restaurant owner, which has been marked by overcoming adversity — as in extreme adversity in the form of the pandemic — and seizing opportunity.

As for the pandemic, it nearly cost him his dream just a few months after he opened HighBrow, but he persevered, knowing that one doesn’t get many opportunities like this one, and it might be his only opportunity.

focus is on ‘creative American’

At Jackalope, Andrew Brow says the focus is on ‘creative American’ and presenting food that is different and unique.
Staff Photo

“It was an interesting time,” he said with a large dose of understatement in his voice. “The first thing is, you feed into that fear — this is my first restaurant, this is basically my one shot; if I fail here, there probably wouldn’t be a second chance. I didn’t come from money, and without money, you can’t really do much. This was my one shot at making it out of being someone else’s chef and being my own guy.”

As it turns out, and largely because of that perseverance, HighBrow wasn’t his only shot. He seized another opportunity with the opening of Jackalope just over a year ago at the site of the former Adolfo’s on Worthington Street. At first, he didn’t want any part of downtown Springfield, thinking the city and its restaurant section had seen its day.

But a visit to the soft opening of Dewey’s nightclub, next door to Adolfo’s and owned by a friend, Kenny Lumpkin, changed his mind.

“I went back the next day because I had enjoyed myself that night, and I was standing on the patio and thinking, ‘maybe I could do something over there,’” he said, adding that this ‘something’ is Jackalope, which he described as a place where could “create and plate whimsical, fun, different things.”

That list includes everything from grilled pizza to mac & cheese to prosciutto-wrapped rabbit saddle. And on the appetizer side, there are his now-famous ‘sticky ribs,’ braised baby-back pork ribs cooked in a host of secret ingredients and juices and then made crispy.

‘Sticky ribs’ are becoming part of the local culinary lexicon — his restaurants go through more than 1,000 pounds of ribs per week — and Brow, one of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty honorees for 2023, is one of the rising stars in the region’s galaxy of restaurateurs.

His is an intriguing story of someone who forged a dream when he was just in high school and then, thanks to hard work and lessons from those mentors and idols, made it happen.


A Different Breed

The jackalope, by most accounts, anyway, is a mythical creature, a jackrabbit with antelope horns — hence the name — said to be ferocious and quite deadly. Stories about them have appeared in many cultures worldwide.

By now, Brow has become an expert on the subject.

“A Jackalope drinks bourbon and beer and eats bologna — and they get enraged,” he explained. “And they would go and attack hunters, who would wear stovepipes on their legs so they wouldn’t get ripped up.”

But he admits that, in this case, the chosen name for his restaurant (after he put aside plans to resurrect the name Caffeine’s) was more a nickname for an old friend who “would drink beer and act crazy in the woods,” than anything else.

“I was having coffee with my wife one day, and she said, ‘when’s the Jackalope moving back up?’” he recalled, adding that the name resonated, and he eventually chose it. Today, there are stuffed jackalopes on his walls, and the logo is on everything from the door to the menu to T-shirts.

Andrew Brow recalls thinking downtown Springfield had seen its day

Andrew Brow recalls thinking downtown Springfield had seen its day, but a few visits to the area convinced him he wanted to be part of the scene there.

The road to opening Jackalope, his second restaurant, has been a long and winding one, with, as noted earlier, countless lessons and influences on his life and career along the way.

Our story begins in Northampton, where Brow grew up in the “projects,” as he put it. Anxious to climb out, he sought work as soon as he could. That was age 15, when, with the proper paperwork, he could work at a Dunkin’ Donuts.

This was a location that was still making its own donuts, rather than having them shipped in from a commissary, so Brow was able to get real experience making things in the kitchen. His work at Dunkin’ came during his freshman year at Smith Vocational in Northampton, and it inspired him to enter the culinary-arts program there, which fueled more interest in cooking as a career.

His first job in a restaurant, at age 16, was as a dishwasher at La Cazuela, owned by Barry and Rosemary Schmidt, who became his first real mentors and role models.

“They were two of the coolest restaurant owners I ever met,” he recalled. “They were kind of like ’60s hippie people, and for them, everything was from scratch and quality. They would fly down to New Mexico and Mexico, and they would meet chili farmers and buy wholesale dried chilis from these farmers; that showed me the passion behind actually loving what you do. It was very inspirational.”

From the dishes, Brow moved up to the pots and pans, which means he also got to prep some of the rice and beans, shred the cheese, and fry the tortilla chips. “It was grunt work, but I thought that was the coolest thing ever, and a few months later, I was a line cook.”

From there, he did a stint at the landmark Joe’s Pizza as a pizza cook, and then a job at the recently opened Spoleto Express, one of several restaurants owned by Guerra, as a sauté cook. There, he met Collins, and the two quickly bonded.

“We became like brothers,” Brow said, noting that he worked for the Spoleto Restaurant Group for close to a decade, helping to open several new restaurants along the way. “I was like the young, rising chef in the organization; I lived the restaurant business.”

He took that passion with him to North Carolina as he sought to get away and do something different somewhere else. “I grew up, I’d spent all my time here, I didn’t go to college … I got out of a long-term relationship, and I was like, ‘why am I still where I was born?’ I wanted to go see something different and new.”


Food for Thought

Brow stayed in North Carolina for two years, learning butchery, charcuterie, French techniques, French sauces, and much more, before returning to Western Mass. to tend to his ailing grandmother.

He first took a job at Springfield Smoked Fish Company, and soon took on some part-time work at the recently opened Center Square Grill. Eventually, he became executive chef there and stayed in that position for four years before he fulfilled that lifelong dream to own a restaurant, buying a wood-fired pizza restaurant from Guerra and renaming it HighBrow.

Pizza wasn’t exactly his passion, he admitted, but this was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. And, as things turned out, it was a godsend because, as noted earlier, Brow became a restaurant owner just a few months before the pandemic reached Western Mass.

Pizza was a model that lent itself to delivery and pickup more easily than other types of restaurants, he explained, adding that he was able to pivot in many different ways, including by partnering with other businesses to bring meals to frontline workers, including those at hospitals and the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke.

“I started off with just myself — I laid everyone off,” he recalled. “I told them to be on standby until we knew what the world was going to look like. Later, it was me and one of my cooks, Carlos. We would come in every day, and we’d go to Restaurant Depot every morning. We would have a limited menu; he would cook pizzas, and I would cook sauté and salads and appetizers. Eventually, I slowly introduced more staff as we were getting busier and I could justify putting more people back on payroll.”

Brow said he wasn’t exactly looking to open a second restaurant when Lumpkin implored him to take a hard look at the Adolfo’s site, but eventually he warmed to the idea of being part of the scene — and part of a comeback — in the central business district.

Over the course of his first year, there has been some change — and pivoting — there as well, he said, adding that he started off focusing primarily on fine dining, but has shifted and evolved, as he put it, and is now offering “more approachable things — but done with the detail we would use if we were plating a filet Oscar or something with delicate construction.”

For instance, with the mac & cheese, he offers a unique pasta with a cheese sauce made with many different types of cheeses, topped with crushed Goldfish crackers instead of the usual breadcrumbs.

“I try to be unique — I don’t like to do anything the same as anybody else around me is doing,” he explained. “I try to be different.”

And, like the name over the door, he is.

Unlike the jackalope — or Claudia Guerra, for that matter — Brow is not the stuff of legend. Yet. But he is getting there — one sticky rib at a time.


Daily News Events Luxury Living Restaurants Sports & Leisure STUFF Made in Western Mass Tourism & Hospitality Travel and Tourism Work/Life Balance

WEST SPRINGFIELD — The Big E announced Thursday that its food lineup for 2022 includes a number of new offering, including flame-grilled vegan options, sweet apple fries, bubble tea, noodle bowls, brunch options and more.

The line-up of new options includes:


New Locations

SoulFully, on New England Avenue: 100% vegan, flame grilled burgers, grilled hot dogs, loaded fries, and milkshakes;

Cha Feo, Young Building: various milk teas, boba teas and Thai teas;

Riceballs Arancini, East Road: beef, veggie, big mac, Philly, Italiano riceballs, Arancini;

Ferrindino Maple Farm, Better Living Center: maple cotton candy and maple cream;

Bakery on Brewer, New England Ave.: apple, apple bacon, blueberry and pumpkin fritters;

Sassys Sweet Potatoes, East Road: roasted root veggies, sweet potato tacos, sweet potato bread, sweet potato pie and Southwest sweet potatoes;

The Happy Dough Co., West Road: apple fries and apple fry sundaes;

Villa of Lebanon, Young Building: baba ganoush, baklava, kofta kabobs, falafel, hummus, kataif, kunapa, meat pies, spinach pie and tabouli

BoardWok Noodles, The Front Porch (Inside Gate 5): yakisoba noodles and rice bowls

The Place 2 Be, The Front Porch: breakfast all day: mini fruity pebble/berries and cream pancakes, Mini Nutella and coconut pancakes and milkshakes topped with waffles and pancakes;

Las Kangris Food Truck, Young Building: yellow rice with pigeon peas, baked pork, baked chicken, green bananas “al mojo,” and seafood salad;

Kulfi Ice Cream Taste of Persia, Food Court: Kulfi, a traditional Indian ice cream;

Frankie’s Famous Italian Frozen Lemonade, Young Building: Springfield’s iconic lemon Italian ice;


Chick-Fil-A, Springfield Road: chicken sandwiches, wraps and more

The West Side Grille Cider Garden, sponsored by Downeast Cider – Outside the Young Building: a selection of Downeast craft ciders Original Blend and Cider Donut in cans and on draft brewed in Boston; and

Ann Maries Candies, West Road: old fashioned candies, fudge and nuts.

Oldies with New Offerings

The Big E Bakery: For 2022, it introduces an exciting new flavor cream puff, chocolate;

Harpoon Beer Hall, located on New England Avenue will be debuting a completely revamped menu of pretzels including the Oh that’s Sweet pretzel coated in cinnamon sugar crust served with warm caramel dipping sauce;

Chompers on New England Avenue will feature a new chicken pot pie chomper, crunchy balls with chicken, potatoes, veggies, mozzarella and cheddar cheese with a roasted chicken gravy dipping sauce.

Visit TheBigE.com to see a complete list of new food offerings.

Restaurants Special Coverage

They Have a Lot on Their Plate

Bill Collins

Bill Collins

One restaurateur called it a ‘triple whammy.’ He was referring to a combination of forces — specifically soaring prices, supply-chain issues, and an ongoing workforce crisis — that are standing in the way of a full bounce back from two years of COVID. Despite these issues, restaurant owners are optimistic that 2022 will bring something approaching normal. Eventually.

By Mark Morris

When 2022 began, Bill Collins was anticipating a full year of uninterrupted business for his restaurant, the Center Square Grill. He did not foresee what he called a “major punch in the face” that shut down the restaurant for six weeks.

In January, one of the thermostats in the restaurant’s dining room failed, causing one sprinkler head to freeze. When the heat came back on, the ice in the line moved and activated the sprinklers. By the time Collins could shut off the sprinklers, the restaurant had taken on nearly 15,000 gallons of water.

“The basement was a nearly complete gut job,” Collins said. “In the dining room, we replaced floors, seating, and several walls.” It took exactly six weeks to go from the flood to opening the doors once again.

Locating a contractor can take six weeks, so how did Collins make the repairs to Center Square and re-open so quickly?

“I looked to my customer base and called the contractors who are regulars at the restaurant,” he said. “They had a vested interest in getting us back open.”

In some ways, the sprinkler incident is a metaphor for the struggle for area restaurants as they look to make a full comeback after the pandemic. Just when people are dining out again and restaurant owners are looking to make up for two years of lost business, they are getting hit with spikes in food costs, increased labor costs — when and if they can find staff, that is — and various supply challenges that affect food and kitchen operations.

“I looked to my customer base and called the contractors who are regulars at the restaurant. They had a vested interest in getting us back open.”

“It’s a triple whammy,” said Ralph Santaniello, co-owner of the Federal Restaurant Group. “In some ways, this has been more challenging than the pandemic.” He quickly admitted that while the pandemic was a crushing event that came out of the blue, governments, communities and vendors all came together to help everyone get through it.

In addition to the Federal in Agawam, Santaniello and partner Michael Presnal own Posto Italian in Longmeadow and Vinted Wine Bar in West Hartford. Following his parents, who were in the restaurant business, Santaniello said he has been in the industry his whole life and has never seen prices as crazy as they are today.

“We used to plan out the business to see where we would be in five years, then it went to five months, and now it feels like it’s five minutes,” Santaniello told BusinessWest.

Everyone we spoke with discussed the challenge of rising costs. Aurelien Telle, co-owner of Alta Restaurant in Lenox, said that even after forecasting for increased costs, they were 6% higher than anticipated in the first quarter alone.

Aurelien Telle, co-owner of Alta Restaurant

Aurelien Telle, co-owner of Alta Restaurant, says price increases on food the past six months have been “insane.”

“That’s huge and we don’t know where it’s going from there,” said Telle. “In the last six months price increases on food have been insane.”  

Adding to the craziness in food costs is unpredictability of what will be affected next.

Andrew Brow, chef and owner of Highbrow Wood Fired Kitchen in Northampton said all restaurants plan their menus with a balance of higher-cost items such as filet mignon and less expensive ones such as pasta. In the past, Brow bought braised short ribs at $5 per pound rather than New York strip steak which costs $10 to 12 a pound. Supplies are so mixed up now, that the short ribs cost as much as the New York strip which hasn’t increased in price.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to the price hikes,” Brow said. “One week mushrooms will triple in price, the next week it’s chicken and spinach.”


Food for Thought

Creating different dishes is one way restaurateurs are adjusting to the chaotic, soaring prices. When scallops escalated from $108 for an eight-pound case to $223, Collins created a new dish that included shrimp, which has held a more stable price. Instead of an entrée with six scallops, he offered in its place a shrimp and scallop entrée using three scallops and three shrimp.

“We used to plan out the business to see where we would be in five years, then it went to five months, and now it feels like it’s five minutes.”

“This way we can keep the dining price where it is and still offer delicious fun food that people expect when they come here,” Collins said.

Gas and electric bills are another area where prices are going up with no end in sight. Santaniello explained that restaurants, by design, are energy intensive with usage increasing in the summer.

“We have air conditioning running all day and night in the summer because when it’s 98 degrees and humid outside people expect to be comfortable when they go into a restaurant.”

It’s not surprising that take out containers spiked in price and were difficult to find at the height of the pandemic. Supply-chain issues also affected restaurants in less obvious ways. Santaniello said he needed a part for an oven door, something that would normally take a week to get, if the repair person didn’t already have one in their truck.

“We waited two months for the part,” Santaniello said. “So, we were down an oven for two months, and that’s difficult in a busy kitchen.”

Santaniello and Telle are experiencing busier than normal kitchens because as customers are returning to their respective restaurants, labor shortages have forced both men to cut back on the hours when they are open.

Andrew Brow

Andrew Brow says there has been “no rhyme or reason” to price hikes on food in recent months.

“Business has been great because of the pent-up demand of people wanting to go out to eat,” Santaniello said. “Our biggest issue is keeping up with that demand because we’re still looking for employees.”

Before the pandemic, the Federal operated six days a week. Now, in order to give his staff some time off, they are open only 4 days a week.

“The pandemic exacerbated a problem that our industry already had with finding enough workers,” Santaniello said. Advertising on job search sites such as Indeed and a restaurant specific site called Poach has brought limited results.

“We found our biggest success came from advertising on Facebook.”

For 13 years, Alta was open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner. These days, hours have been reduced to 6 nights a week and lunch hours were cut.

“We reduced our hours because we couldn’t hire more people,” said Telle. “I didn’t want my staff to have to work six double shifts, so I closed lunches to protect our staff.”

Telle is currently interviewing people with the hope of offering lunch hours again by late spring.

“We always get busier as the sun comes out,” he said adding that business also gets a big boost from all the tourists who visit Lenox in the summer.

Collins called it the best investment he’s ever made when he paid his staff their full salary during the six weeks Center Square was closed for repairs.

“It’s so tough to find qualified people that it made sense to us,” Collins said. “Most of my team has been with me for quite a while and it would have been tough to replace them if they had to leave and find other jobs.”

There are signs that open restaurant positions may be starting to get filled. Brow reported that Highbrow is fully staffed and he was able to hire a full staff for his new restaurant Jackalope in downtown Springfield.

“Even though wages are up much higher than pre-pandemic, the workforce is back,” Brow said.

As the weather gets warmer, all the restaurant owners look forward to expanding their outdoor dining. They all expressed gratitude to state and local officials for keeping this lifeline open even after diners were allowed back inside.

“I’m sure there are some people who are not comfortable coming back into a restaurant,” Collins said. “I think we’ll start seeing them once outdoor dining picks up.”

On May 1, Telle began accepting reservations for summer dining at Alta.

“People are making reservations into July and August,” he said. “And 85% of those are requests to sit outdoors.”

Collins added, “fresh air is not going out of style anytime soon.”

Summer also brings with it the opportunity to support local farms. Telle said working with local farms allows him to control some of the price increases, though he understands local prices will be higher this year than in the past.

Collins buys as much local produce as he can. In fact, his menu credits Szawlowski Farms in Hadley with supplying potatoes for their French fries.

“When tomato season kicks in we will buy them from Meadowbrook Farm in East Longmeadow,” Collins said. “Nothing tastes better than fresh local produce.”


The Bottom Line

Between outdoor dining and customers who are excited about eating out again, the restaurant owners all remain positive about this year and beyond.

Santaniello, describing himself as an optimist by nature, said, “I’m hoping by the fourth quarter of this year we will see some stability in pricing and as more people return to the workforce it will benefit our industry.”

Telle said he’s hopeful about hiring new staff and looks forward to a busy summer. “Right now, we’re following the same business patterns as a regular year.”

With Jackalope scheduled to open on May 11, Brow expressed gratitude despite all the uncertainty. “For those of us who made it through, it was worth the wait.”

For Collins the year started with closing for six weeks to fix major water damage. Despite that setback, Center Square is still on track to have its busiest year ever. He philosophized that a restaurant experience is more than just food.

“People need to go out and socialize. They need to feel that connection,” Collins said. “When they don’t, they get depressed and grumpy.”

He concluded, “that’s why we’re all back and we’re pumped to be here.”

Restaurants Special Coverage

Chain of Events

Craig Erlich

Craig Erlich says the mission at Friendly’s is to create positive experiences — and lasting memories.

Craig Erlich can trace his relationship with Friendly’s back to his fifth birthday party at one of the chain’s restaurants.

“I have pictures of me with my life-size balloon,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, over the decades, this relationship has certainly taken many different forms — from customer, to franchisee, to his current role as president and CEO, in which he has the responsibility of, well … creating memories like that of his fifth birthday for future generations of customers.

In other words, Erlich is the latest executive to take on the job of resuscitating a brand that has fallen on some hard times in recent years, as evidenced by the sale price of the Friendly’s chain, then in bankruptcy, to Amici Partners and its affiliate company, Brix Holdings LLC: $1.9 million.

Erlich, president and CEO of Friendly’s, understood that the Friendly’s chain had shrunk dramatically over the years and was struggling to compete with the large number of competitors in the fast-casual family restaurant category, a situation only made worse by the pandemic. But he ultimately saw promise, and a challenge he was willing to take on.

“When the opportunity came around — and the pandemic presented a lot of opportunities for reshuffling of leadership of brands — we were really passionate about Friendly’s and what could happen with this brand,” he said. “When you finally have your chance to put your hands on the steering wheel and go from backseat driver to being the driver … we were really excited about the opportunity.”

Elaborating, he said that he and his partners already had some plans for Friendly’s in mind when they acquired it in December, 2020, and now, some of those plans are coming to fruition.

That includes the new-look of the Friendly’s that recently opened on East Main Street in Westfield. It’s called the Friendly’s Café, and the model is a reflection of the changes in dining habits that have taken place over the past two years, especially when it comes to take out and delivery.

The new model will feature both, as well as on-site dining, with customers ordering food at a counter or at a table using QR technology. There’s also a traditional ice cream fountain area, providing an ice cream parlor feel.

While the concept is quite different from what Friendly’s customers are used to, the goal is to maintain the chain’s overall look and feel — and its capacity for creating lasting moments … like Erlich’s fifth birthday party.

“With Friendly’s, everyone talks about the experience — they talk about memories,” said Erlich. “We wanted to maintain that quality. When you’re restoring an old home, you want to make sure to keep the bones and the structure there, and just enhance the features. That’s the approach we took with this brand, especially the Friendly’s Café.

“We knew it was going to be a bit of a different kind of experience for the customers,” he went on. “But when you think about how people dine today, whether it’s QR technology, off-premise dining, curb-side delivery … we knew there was an opportunity for that.”

“When you finally have your chance to put your hands on the steering wheel and go from backseat driver to being the driver … we were really excited about the opportunity.”

Meanwhile, other changes have been introduced, especially on the menu, which now includes a number of new items, including a variety of appetizers and salads, and offerings like the Doritos Cool Ranch chopped cheeseburger. The goal is to create an appealing mix of new options and old favorites, he told BusinessWest, adding “the menu feels much more balanced than it did before.”

Flashing back to late 2020, as he and his partners were doing their due diligence on Friendly’s as they explored acquisition, Erlich said this research revealed a chain facing many challenges and restaurants in need of repair and revitalization, a situation exacerbated by the pandemic in many respects. But ultimately, what they saw was opportunity.

“The pandemic forced a lot of companies to focus on just keeping the lights on,” he told BusinessWest. “We knew there was going to be a significant amount of repairs and maintenance needed for these buildings; just the equipment in the kitchens alone was in the millions of dollars.

The Friendly’s Café in Westfield

The Friendly’s Café in Westfield opened earlier this year to positive reviews from customers.

“But we saw a big opportunity,” he went on. “And 2021 was really focused on building the infrastructure and putting some technologies and new ideas in place that would build a foundation for what we’re about to do this year.”

Which brings us back to the Friendly’s Café, which opened at the end of February to solid feedback from customers, said Erlich, who acknowledged that while it’s early in the game, the new location is thus far exceeding expectations.

“Customers have been very complimentary, and it has performed very well; we’ve seen a lot of repeat customers, and that’s the true test,” he said, adding that the company is scouting locations for similar facilities.

The location in Westfield is a free-standing building in a shopping plaza, and that is the preferred model, said Erlich, adding that the company is also looking at expanding its drive-through presence at existing restaurants.

“We think there’s a big opportunity there,” he said. “We have about a half-dozen drive-throughs connected to our traditional restaurants; it’s all about the convenience, and we feel that this model is really convenient for the customer.”

Overall, the company is not looking to replace its traditional restaurants with the new model but rather use the café model as a vehicle for growth, bringing Friendly’s to different communities, including some where a Friendly’s location has closed.

“When you’re restoring an old home, you want to make sure to keep the bones and the structure there, and just enhance the features. That’s the approach we took with this brand, especially the Friendly’s Café.”

“I’m looking at some locations on Long Island and across the Northeast — Connecticut, Massachusetts, and other states,” said Erlich. “We’re looking for the right locations; we don’t want to expand too quickly and dilute the quality of the location. I think that happens often — some of the brands will get excited about one success story and then they’ll launch others and they think it will be the same in any location. We’re being very careful to be sure that the locations that we pick have similar demographics and traffic counts, and that we feel good about the potential.”

He said there are many communities in the Northeast that had a Friendly’s location and would like to see that brand back, with many long-time customers lobbying through social media and other platforms for a return

“We’re using that as some of our intelligence to start focusing on some areas,” he said, adding that finding suitable sites is an art and a science, with many factors coming into play, from demographics to the prevalence of other restaurants.

Indeed, competition, in the form of a critical mass of dining options is often desirable, he said, noting the Friendly’s Café in Westfield sits between a new KFC and a McDonald’s in the same shopping plaza. Those are fast-food chains in a different category than Friendly’s, he explained, but they still constitute choices, which in turn generate traffic to a given area.

Looking at what’s happening within the industry, Erlich noted that off-premise dining now accounts for roughly half of all sales volume within the industry, a pattern that has held up even as the pandemic has eased in recent months, an indication that this is more than a passing fancy.

The new café model enables the chain to take advantage of this phenomenon while also catering to those who prefer the traditional sit-down restaurant — albeit with some new technology for ordering and delivery.

“You can focus on two different experiences for the guest,” Erlich explained. “Whether it’s making sure that the person bringing the food home is getting a good, quality meal and also that they’re getting a good experience when they’re in the restaurant. It just adds a new dimension that a lot of brands are focusing on, and I know that we are.”

Looking ahead, and projecting where he wants Friendly’s to be in five years, Erlich said the broad goal since the acquisition has been to stabilize the brand and then commence building that foundation for the future that he spoke of. And this has been accomplished, through the introduction of the café concept, the new menu items, and some more aggressive marketing that was launched this month.

“I would like to see the brand grow, and I think the café model will give us the ability to do that,” he said in conclusion. “There’s a lot of excitement, and it’s my job to keep that excitement going and channel it in the right direction. Everyone is rooting for us, from customers to the team members to the franchisees. Everyone has great memories of Friendly’s, and we want to provide great new memories.”

Restaurants Special Coverage

Chain of Events

John (right) and Chris LaVoie at Hot Table’s location in Tower Square.

John (right) and Chris LaVoie at Hot Table’s location in Tower Square.

Hot Table, now a chain of panini restaurants, started humbly in 2007 with a small location in the Breckwood Shoppes in Springfield. The brand has come a long way since then, and in many different ways. There are now seven locations, with plans for four more to open this year or early next, including the first free-standing facility. After that … well, the partners talk of having perhaps 50 stores by the end of this decade. What they do know is that growth will be controlled — and strategic in nature.

John DeVoie gestured toward an array of architect’s renderings of Hot Table’s first free-standing facility, complete with a mobile pickup window, planned for Memorial Drive in Chicopee, and said, “that’s our future.”

He then corrected himself and said, “well … that’s a big part of our future.”

Indeed, the future takes a number of shapes and directions for this growing chain of panini restaurants. Indeed, while construction is due to start on that Chicopee location later this year or early in 2022, work will begin before that on new locations within shopping malls in Framingham and West Hartford, with an additional location planned for a development, blueprinted by Pride Stations owner Bob Bolduc, to reshape the land inside the jug handle off turnpike exit 3 in Westfield with Hot Table and Starbucks.

Overall, this chain, which started with one small restaurant in the Breckwood Shoppes across Wilbraham Road from Western New England University and now has seven locations, has aggressive plans to add four more restaurants by the end of this year and reach perhaps 50 by the end of this decade.

“For the most part, we’re keeping our efforts focused on New England,” said John, who launched the chain with his brother, Chris, and another partner in 2007. “And over the next 10 years, we want to become a well-known, regional brand.”

This brand is striving for a mix of free-standing facilities like the one in Chicopee and more locations leased in retail centers, and, overall, a “balanced portfolio,” said Chris, adding that the goal is measured growth.

“We’re very excited to grow, but we want to grow the right way,” he told BusinessWest. “We don’t want to add overhead and layers of management just to support a few more stores; we want to be very strategic about how and where we expand.”

Overall, with four new stores on the drawing board, 2021 is certainly shaping up as a milestone year in the company’s history, one that will take it to new markets and in new directions. This growth and territorial expansion come at a time when many restaurants have been fighting to merely survive the COVID-19 — and some haven’t. Hot Table itself was hit hard initially.

“In March and April, when the pandemic hit, we weren’t sure we had a company — we had an 80% plunge in revenue,” John recalled. “We had the same ‘what the heck just hit us?’ experience that just about everyone in the restaurant business did.”

But within the fast-casual category within this sector, many chains bounced back quickly and have enjoyed success since, said John, adding that many have benefited from the takeout nature of most business and also from an added delivery component.

Hot Table invested in an app that enables consumers to order from the menu and arrange delivery through Grubhub or another provider, said John, adding that the technology served to introduce the brand to new audiences.

An architect’s rendering of Hot Table’s first free-standing location

An architect’s rendering of Hot Table’s first free-standing location, slated for a parcel on Memorial Drive in Chicopee.

“That was a silver lining for us,” he explained. “We had a lot of folks discover us who might have just been at home ordering from a third-party platform, who had never been in one of our stores.”

And this is just one of the ways the pandemic has actually benefited Hot Table, he went on, adding that it has made real estate both more available and more affordable.

So much so that the company, which has long considered Boston far out of its reach when it comes to real-estate prices, is being encouraged to take a good look at the Hub.

Whether this chain can actually attain a Boston address for one its locations is one of the many questions that will be answered over the next several years. For now, the company is focused on 2021, and all that it has on its plate — literally as well as figuratively.

For this issue and its focus on restaurants, BusinessWest talked with the brothers DeVoie and third partner Rich Calcasola, based in Charlotte, N.C., to get a sense for where this brand can go next and how big the portfolio can become.


Ingredients for Success

As he referenced those architectural renderings of the Chicopee site, John DeVoie pointed to what could become the ‘golden arches’ for this chain. That would be the tall red signage, or marquee, with what has become the company’s brand — a stylized slice of panini bread with grill marks running across it, with the words ‘Hot Table’ over it.

It’s not really possible to put such large, pronounced signage on the existing locations within shopping plazas, he said, adding that the new look represents another breakthrough for the company and an opportunity to not only sell more paninis, but grow its brand.

“When you build your own building, you have the opportunity to think about what your brand says on the outside — what is the golden arch for us?” he noted. “And it’s a long way from our origins at the Breckwood Shoppes.”

By that, he meant not just the marquee, but the free-standing store concept, locations on both ends of the state, aggressive plans to add four stores in just over a year, and ongoing talk about where to go next.

“For the most part, we’re keeping our efforts focused on New England. And over the next 10 years, we want to become a well-known, regional brand.”

But before talking more about the present and future, let’s recap how we got here.

Our story begins in 2006, when John and Chris, both successful in corporate sales, decided they wanted to make money for themselves, instead of someone else, and started to focus on the restaurant industry.

Blending vast amounts of experience with taking corporate clients with a healthy appetite for entrepreneurship out to eat, they started shaping a concept for the growing fast-casual category of eatery, and followed the advice of their sister, who told them about a dining model she encountered on a trip to Italy — cafés of sorts called tavola calda, which translates, literally, to ‘hot table,’ and their parents, who suggested a made-to-order panini concept.

For their first location, the two chose the Breckwood Shoppes, which they knew well because they both graduated from Western New England. The site wouldn’t attract any of the huge players in the fast-casual arena — Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, Panera Bread, Shake Shack, and others — because of the demographics of the surrounding area, but for them, it worked.

It blended the college crowd — students, professors, staff, and administration alike — with a thickly settled neighborhood, large traffic volume, and visitors to other shops in the plaza.

The large players in smart casual wouldn’t have gone where Hot Table went next — Tower Square in downtown Springfield, in 2009 — either. But the brothers, enticed by the large population of office workers in surrounding towers and an attractive offer from then-owner MassMutual, decided to roll the dice. And they essentially rolled a ‘7.’ Indeed, the site has become a popular lunchtime destination — even moreso with recent arrivals such as Cambridge College and UMass Amherst Center at Springfield — and has even thrived during the pandemic without most of those workers and students.

“We’re pretty close to last year’s numbers, overall,” said John, comparing 2020 with 2019. “What’s happened is that this has become a delivery hub for people in West Springfield, Chicopee, and other cities and towns.

“With the new model of how we do business — we have more than 30,000 users of our app, which allows people to order and then utilize a third-party platform for delivery — our business model shifted,” he went on. “So now, we’re way above pre-pandemic sales levels overall.”

After Tower Square, the DeVoie brothers, now partnering with Calcasola, have been focusing on where the large players in fast-casual have put down stakes. In fact, the strategy has been to follow them — on the theory that their research into where to locate is certainly solid — and, in doing so, create more of a critical mass of quality eateries, which creates dining destinations.

“In March and April, when the pandemic hit, we weren’t sure we had a company — we had an 80% plunge in revenue. We had the same ‘what the heck just hit us?’ experience that just about everyone in the restaurant business did.”

This was the case with the company’s next locations — in Enfield (2012) and Glastonbury, Conn. (2014), Route 9 in Hadley (also 2014), Marlborough (2017), and Worcester (2019). And that’s also the case, to one extent or another, with the Chicopee (there’s a Chick-fil-A right next door), Framingham, Hartford, and Westfield locations.

“People just drive there to eat, and you get in the rotation,” Chris said. “When Chick-Fil-A and other competitors came to Enfield, our sales went up.”


Location, Location, Location

When asked about the chain’s ‘formula’ when it comes to identifying markets they want to be in and then locations within those markets, the partners said it involves a blend of science and intuition, but mostly critical masses of traffic, retail, diners, and, yes, competitors.

All these ingredients are found in Hadley, said Calcasola, noting not only the large college population (there are four colleges within a few miles of the store’s location on Route 9), but also a host of fast-casual competitors and a large and growing cluster of retail that draws people from three counties.

Most of these same essentials can be found in Worcester, in the chain’s site in the the Trolley Yard, a mixed-use development that is also home to Starbucks, Chipotle, Sprint, and other national brands. Indeed, Worcester boasts seven colleges and a growing business base, said Chris, noting that it benefits greatly from being within easier commuting distance from Boston.

Meanwhile, in Marlboro, there are no colleges, little retail, and a less-dense population than in other communities the chain calls home. But there are a number of office parks and hotels, said John, adding that this was the store most impacted by the pandemic — although it, too, has rebounded.

An architect’s rendering of Hot Table’s first free-standing location

The Hot Table chain has come a long way since the opening of its first location in the Breckwood Shoppes in Springfield.

In Chicopee, Memorial Drive has been transformed into a retail destination over the past decade, said Chris, noting that the changes have caught the attention of Chipotle, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Chick Fil-A, which made that the address for its first (and still only) location in Western Mass.

Meanwhile, the Framingham store now under construction and set to open in June is in Shoppers World, a large retail complex boasting 27 stores, including Chick-Fil-A, Olive Garden, TGI Fridays, and Chipotle.

“That whole area is called the Golden Triangle,” said John, referring to the retail district in Framingham and Natick. “And it’s the number-one retail destination in metro Boston. So it’s kind of a big jump for us, but our business model now supports that.”

By ‘big jump,’ he meant, among other things, the rates for the property being leased, which was also the case in West Hartford and a spot in Corbin’s Corner next to Shake Shack, although, as noted earlier, the pandemic has eased some of the sticker shock, while also creating some opportunities as stores — and restaurants — went out of business.

“There are more opportunities in the form of spaces becoming available,” said Calcasola. “Meanwhile, the asking price dropped in some locations, including West Hartford; we’re still paying a good amount of money, but not what they were advertising it for a year and half ago.”

As to the question of where the chain might go next, there are many ways to answer it.

For starters, the company wants to go where those major brands listed several times above are going. In fact, that’s usually the first question being asked, said Chris, noting that, as Hot Table ponders whether to expand into Rhode Island, the presence of other chains is a key consideration.

“We’re pretty close to last year’s numbers, overall. What’s happened is that this has become a delivery hub for people in West Springfield, Chicopee, and other cities and towns.”

“We’ll ask if there are Chick Fil-As and Chipotles around,” he told BusinessWest. “Wherever they’re going, that’s where we want to be. We want to compete with the nationals.”

Availability of real estate is another issue, said John, adding that the company has long sought to be on Riverdale Street in West Springfield, specifically the stretch south of I-91, but has not been able to secure a location because of exclusivity clauses secured by some competitors. Meanwhile, price remains an issue in some areas, including Boston, although the pandemic, as noted, might bring that city into reach.

“We have a consultant that we work with. Before the pandemic, he said, ‘guys, don’t even bother going into Boston; it’s crazy — don’t do it,’” said John. “The last meeting we had with him, he said, ‘you may want to think about exploring opportunities in Boston.’”


Pressing On

When and if the company goes down that road remains to be seen. For now, its principals, as noted, have other things on their plate.

Lots of them.

Indeed, this will be a year when Hot Table takes giant strides toward becoming that established brand the partners want it to be, a year when that image of the panini top with the grill marks on it becomes known in new markets and in new ways, like that sign on the property in Chicopee.

That location isn’t the future — but it is a big part of the future, with additional growth and territorial expansion on the menu.

As John DeVoie said, this company has come a long way from the Breckwood Shoppes — and in all kinds of ways.


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


Sunny Outlook

Debra Flynn in the alley behind Eastside Grill

Debra Flynn in the alley behind Eastside Grill, which has been transformed into a charming, colorful dining spot.

When COVID-19 arrived 14 months ago, restaurant owners everywhere went into survival mode. Bill Collins was no exception.

Fast-forward to, well, just last week, and the story is a different one.

“We just celebrated our seven-year anniversary,” said Collins, owner of Center Square Grill in East Longmeadow, who marked the milestone by donating 10% of the day’s total sales to Shriners Hospitals for Children in Springfield. “That’s something we would not have been able to do without outdoor seating.”

Reliance on al fresco dining — and gratitude for the return of warm spring weather — is a common theme for restaurants across Massachusetts, at least those that had outdoor dining space available, or the opportunity to create some.

In Collins’ case, he didn’t even wait for spring to return.

“We’ve had outdoor seating since we opened, but we definitely expanded on that,” he said. “In fact, we spent nearly $20,000 ramping up for the fall, installing greenhouses with electric heat. All winter long, we offered single-use lap blankets for people who came in.”

In doing so, he was able to serve diners at something approaching normal capacity through the cold months, even though interior capacity was still limited by public-health mandates. “It was a game changer. Really, for us, it put us in a position where we were not just able to squeak by, but to comfortably pay our bills all year, which was a great thing.”

Customers appreciate — and usually prefer — the outdoor option, too.

“When the phone rings, 90% of the time, it’s with inquiries to sit outside,” he said. “We took down the greenhouses for the summer but plan to bring them back. People are still talking about the greenhouses. They were a hit for us, and they’ll definitely be back in the fall.”

Munich Haus in Chicopee has long served patrons on a large patio known as the Biergarten, with seating for 150 — well, before physical-distancing rules, anyway — and a 24-seat bar area.

“It was a game changer. Really, for us, it put us in a position where we were not just able to squeak by, but to comfortably pay our bills all year, which was a great thing.”

“It’s been great,” owner Patrick Gottschlicht said. “A lot of our customers already knew about it. We didn’t have to put a tent in the parking lot with concrete barriers or anything; we’ve got a fully set-up Biergarten, a true outdoor area. We’ve always said we’ve tried to emulate the experience of sitting in a biergarten in Germany, to make it as authentic as possible.”

At Eastside Grill in Northampton, owner Debra Flynn has taken several approaches to allowing customers to eat outdoors. She converted an alley behind the restaurant into a cozy, colorful space lined with potted plants, colorful murals, and lightbulbs strung above the tables for the evening hours.

This year, while adding even more plants and patio umbrellas to the alley, Eastside Grill is one of a handful of restaurants and retailers set to benefit from Summer on Strong, a city initiative to close a small portion of Strong Avenue to vehicle traffic from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Eastside will be able to seat 32 more customers in the road, almost doubling its outdoor capacity to 70. Live music outdoors will be a feature on many nights as well.

Like others we spoke with — and have been speaking with since restaurants were allowed to partially reopen last spring — Flynn said many folks want to dine out, but still worry about gathering indoors, so outdoor dining is critical for business.

“We get calls every single day about it,” she said, noting that she doesn’t take reservations specifically for outdoor seating, but customers can request it and wait for a spot. “I don’t blame them. We want them to be very comfortable, and if you’re not comfortable inside, we want to make sure we have a table outside.”


Taking to the Streets

The barriers between restaurants and roadways that were a mainstay in downtown Northampton last summer have been going up again in preparation for the outdoor dining season. Despite the loss of parking that results from this concession to restaurants, city leaders heard enough positive feedback last year to allow eateries to push out past the curb again along Main Street, Pleasant Street, Pearl Street, Masonic Street, and other spots — and, in cases like Strong Avenue, well beyond the curb.

“The city has been really wonderful to work with,” Flynn said. “Everyone from the City Hall to the DNA [Downtown Northampton Assoc.] to the chamber has been really helpful. I feel really good about the way things are going right now.”

Meanwhile, a recent order by Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle will allow restaurants and retailers on Main, Cottage, and Union streets to expand their seating options and retail spaces into parking spots and other public spaces. Businesses interested in the exemption must first submit detailed plans, including a review for ADA compliance, an exterior lighting plan, and a timeline for how long the outdoor seating will stay in place.

Easthampton allowed a similar outdoor-dining expansion last year from August to November in an effort to support local businesses struggling to navigate the economic impact of the pandemic. But with the accommodation being announced late in the summer season, only one restaurant, the Silver Spoon on Main Street, ended up using parking spaces for seating. The mayor expects interest from many more businesses this year.

Keisha Fortin says the outdoor Biergarten has been a critical part of business

Keisha Fortin says the outdoor Biergarten has been a critical part of business at Munich Haus during the pandemic, and will continue to be well beyond it.

One reason is the still-prevalent sentiment, even after the majority of Massachusetts adults have been vaccinated against COVID, that dining outdoors just feels like a safer option.

“Anyone who’s concerned about coming in, we have the outdoor seating, and they can feel safe outdoors,” Gottschlicht said. “Or indoors, too — but, yeah, there’s plenty of fresh air and open space out there.”

Kiesha Fortin, longtime manager at the Munich Haus, said she looks forward to the day when distancing rules end and she can put more tables on the biergarten patio, due to how popular that option is. Most people are clamoring to eat out, she noted, but many prefer to do it outdoors.

The pent-up desire to eat out has posed another challenge to restaurants, Collins said — staffing up to meet rising demand.

“We’re seeing more and more people coming back to eat, but the biggest challenge for our business, and everyone I’ve talked to in my line of work, is the way unemployment benefits are being handled. We’re having problems getting entry-level employees in the door because everyone is making more staying at home. Typically we run around 95 employees, but we’ve been struggling to stay above 75.”

That said, “hopefully people starting to come back out will have a little patience and realize what things were like a year and a half ago is not the current scenario,” Collins added. “It’s not that we don’t want to hire people back; we just have no people coming through the door to work.”

They are coming to eat, though, especially to restaurants serving up meals outdoors — a development that, for this beleaguered industry, has certainly been a breath of fresh air. u


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]


Meals on Wheels

John Grossman and Dawn Cordeiro of Holyoke Hummus

John Grossman and Dawn Cordeiro of Holyoke Hummus

As the operator of one of the region’s more popular food trucks points out, food-truck culture in the Pioneer Valley is different than it is in metro areas like Manhattan, where the trucks are a constant street-corner sight. Here, they’re more common at fairs, music festivals, and community gatherings, in addition to city streets. And a few have morphed into brick-and-mortar locations as well, which operate in synergy with the mobile kitchens, giving patrons even more opportunities to experience new tastes.

John Grossman has told the story often about the year — it was 2013 — he attended the Holyoke Brick Race, an annual stock-car event in the Paper City. Organizers arranged for food vendors, but none showed up.

“I had been traveling to New York for work, and I was used to seeing falafel trucks on every other corner, and I really wanted to see food like that here,” he recalled. “I told the mayor, ‘next year, I’m going to be here with a falafel cart.’ He said, ‘go ahead, John, you do that.’ That’s all the inspiration and shoving I needed. Our first gig was the race a year later.”

Grossman calls his food truck the Great Garbanzo, and has since added a smaller trailer called the Little Chickpea. He and his wife, Dawn Cordeiro, have turned their enterprise, Holyoke Hummus, into a staple at events like Food Truck Fridays at MGM Springfield and Abandoned Building Brewery, as well as community events, music festivals, and other gatherings across the region, like last weekend’s Run the Runway 5K at Westover Air Reserve Base.

Festivals and other public gatherings have been key to the success of most regional food trucks, he said, as opposed to places like Manhattan, where they’re a constant sight on city streets.

“There isn’t the urban density to support food trucks” lined up along streets, he noted, adding, however, that MGM and others have done well to create buzz around weekly food-truck events.

“It’s not the people in the casino coming out to that; it’s the people who work downtown who say, ‘hey, there’s a bunch of food trucks,’” he told BusinessWest. Making food trucks a regular sight along city streets outside of festivals and events, he added, requires permitting and parking tangles that can be difficult to navigate, although many have done so in Western Mass.

Like Sun Kim, who launched her food truck, Sun Kim Bop, in Amherst in 2014, but eventually decided downtown Springfield would bring more traffic, so she set up shop in front of Tower Square in downtown Springfield.

Bop is cooked rice molded into a bun and grilled; it’s the foundation for her Bop Burger, a seasoned rice bun with dry seaweed sprinkles, sauteed kimchi, and pork, beef, or chicken in between.

“It’s a tough business, but exciting. It’s a good way to get to know people,” she said. “During the warm season, people want to go outside to eat, or have an outing with their employees, and the food truck can go anywhere — in a field, in a park.”

At events, she added, “so many restaurants come with a tent to set up, and they take quite a while, but with the truck, we can set up within 10 minutes and start to feed people.”

Her authentic Korean street food soon developed a following, but there was a problem: what to do during the cold months?

“We had a long break during the winter, from November through April, when we closed. Food-truck season is quite short — maybe two-thirds of the year — and I felt like people might forget about us during the winter. I felt like we were starting our business over every spring,” she said. “But with a restaurant, we could stay connected to people. They could keep coming back to the same place and remember us.”

So, two years ago, she opened a Sun Kim Bop restaurant on Main Street. And she’s not the only one who turned mobile success into a storefront; Holyoke Hummus opened its restaurant on High Street, across from Holyoke City Hall, two years ago, starting with lunch service and adding breakfast this past January.

Sun Kim says her restaurant patrons will often seek out the food truck

Sun Kim says her restaurant patrons will often seek out the food truck, and vice versa, bringing synergy to her two-pronged business.

For our annual Restaurant Guide, BusinessWest checks in with a few local food trucks, and learns how that model has evolved for them, or will, into brick and mortar sites that coexist along with those kitchens on wheels.

Local Flavor

Jake Mazar and Will Van Heuvelen both come from a farming background, and both worked at Brookfield Farm in Amherst when they got an idea.

“Will’s background is in cooking and baking, and mine is in business management,” Mazar said. “But we both came to the Valley to pursue agriculture and had a passion for local food.”

Brookfield Farm had no commercial kitchen, though, and the pair wanted to take their food passions further. So they launched a food truck called Wheelhouse.

Jake Mazar (left) says he and Will Van Heuvelen

Jake Mazar (left) says he and Will Van Heuvelen want to take concepts that resonate with the agricultural movement and make them more accessible to the public.

“We wanted to take a lot of the same concepts that resonate so strongly with the local agricultural movement and make them more accessible to the public,” Mazar explained.

Wheelhouse got rolling in 2015, bringing the wheeled kitchen to food-truck events, farmers markets, festivals, and fairs over the first couple of years. It still takes part in some 75 events per year, but mixed in with music festivals, like the Green River Festival, and other public gatherings is an increasing number of private, catered events.

“For some of those, we don’t actually use the food truck,” he said. “Or, sometimes we bring the food truck to a wedding and do a family-style dinner, followed by late-night tacos from the truck. We do a lot of private events, and generally, we don’t do as many public events as we used to.”

That evolution has brought them to the next step, and they’re in the process of purchasing a property in Amherst to — much like Holyoke Hummus and Sun Kim Bop — open up a brick-and-mortar version of Wheelhouse.

“Will and I both think the Valley is such a unique place, in large part because of the agricultural heritage here, and the amazing small farms and growers — and large farms and growers. We can get grain here, dairy, fruit, vegetables, meat, mushrooms, fish — you name it, there’s a different place for it,” he said. “And it’s sort of our mission to highlight the amazing work these growers are doing. The farms contribute in a big way to the culture of our communities, and we want to shine a spotlight on them.”

It’s a shifting spotlight, to be sure, as the menus at Wheelhouse are constantly in flux, based on what’s coming out of the ground locally that month — from spring vegetables to summer fruits to root vegetables when the weather cools down.

“We change the menus basically every week based on what’s fresh, what’s going to be in season,” he said, noting that will be a feature at the brick-and-mortar restaurant, too. “That’s a big challenge, to accommodate what’s available in a given week.”

Dawn Cordeiro are among a handful of food-truck operators

John Grossman and Dawn Cordeiro are among a handful of food-truck operators who have translated their success into a brick-and-mortar restaurant — or are planning to do so.

What helps is that the Pioneer Valley is home to a progressive, multi-cultural, and culinary adventurous population that’s open to new tastes, and that means opportunity for truck owners who can carve out a niche, as Grossman has with his creative takes on falafel and hummus.

“People in Holyoke are interested in a wide variety of foods,” he said.

As for the restaurant, “it has a fun vibe,” he added. “We always knew lunch and dinner would be the bread and butter. But we started breakfast at the beginning of the year, and we also went to seven days a week. We were able to grow the restaurant in ways we weren’t even thinking about.”

He wasn’t sure High Street was ready for a seven-day operation, he noted, because it’s a largely commercial district that clears out after business hours.

But we heard people telling us, ‘I live in Holyoke but work in Springfield, and I can’t get back from work in time to eat at your place. Weekends would be great.’ And weekends are going nicely; people are happy we have food available every day.”

Rolling On

Still, food trucks are still about getting into plenty of outdoor events and raising their profile — usually for one type of food, as Grossman has done, and as Kim has done with Korean street food.

She told BusinessWest she’s relieved to have the Main Street shop, as a food-truck-only business was problematic in some ways. Simply put, it’s not easy to prepare everything without a commercial kitchen, with limited space and always having to supply electricity, gas, and water to the vehicle.

“It was tough; we were working without a real kitchen, like a restaurant has. That’s why we started thinking, ‘if I opened up a restaurant, we could prep all those things in the restaurant’s kitchen.’”

In fact, the truck and restaurant have boosted each other, Kim noted. “Sometimes people who find us at the truck come to the restaurant, and the restaurant people come to the truck. They both have the same logo and colors, and they can make a connection. Rather than having only a restaurant or truck, that really gives us synergy.”

Cordeiro has been out front with marketing Holyoke Hummus — both the food truck and the restaurant — especially online. “We’re mobile, and people are mobile, too, and that’s how you reach them,” Grossman said. “She’s been a great voice for us, explaining who we are and reaching people who’ll want to follow us around and be a part of this.”

As for Mazar, “I like to joke that we started this business just so we get to eat more of Will’s food,” he said. “At the end of the day, we just love food. We’re not trying to be pretentious about it; we just want to make it accessible.”

When asked what he enjoys about the mobile food lifestyle, he was quick to respond.

“It’s the people — well, the combination of people and food. Food trucks are a great interaction between the natural world and the human world. That’s a great inspiration for Will and me. We work with amazing farms — it all starts with them — and we get to see people experience the natural world in an incredibly delicious and satisfying way.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Restaurants Sections

2018 Restaurant GuideThe region’s bevy of restaurants comprises one of the area’s most intriguing business sectors, one in which there is constant movement, new additions, and exciting stories unfolding. This year is no exception, and BusinessWest captures that movement, that excitement, in its annual Restaurant Guide.



There’s More Growth on the Menu

Bean Group has a number of intriguing plans coming to a boil


Taste of Italy

West Springfield’s bNapoli melds big-city style with local flavor


Who’s Cooking

A list of the area’s largest restaurants

Restaurants Sections

There’s More Growth on the Menu


Andy Yee says his family’s goal is to create the region’s largest and best restaurant group. Some would argue that the Bean Group is already there.

Andy Yee says his family’s goal is to create the region’s largest and best restaurant group. Some would argue that the Bean Group is already there.

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 protected]

Restaurants Sections

Taste of Italy

Jerry Moccia says his goal is to provide diners with an authentic Italian experience.

Jerry Moccia says his goal is to provide diners with an authentic Italian experience.

If today’s dining public has become more demanding, Jerry Moccia says, television may bear some of the blame. But he’s not complaining.

“People are very into food — they know flavors, they know a lot about food, and things like the Food Network have brought a lot of exposure,” he noted. “People are more into food than they were 15 years ago, and expectations are much higher — which makes it more comfortable for us.”

He referred generally to the world of upscale dining, and specifically the Italian restaurant, bNapoli, he opened almost two years ago on Elm Street in the heart of West Springfield’s downtown.

Moccia is no stranger to the location, having opened Bella Napoli Pizzeria next door in 2005, four years after arriving in the area from his homeland of Italy. He ran that establishment for almost a dozen years before moving into the larger, neighboring space vacated by Curry Printing several years ago and creating a higher-end eatery.

“This is more my background,” he told BusinessWest. “We did Italian-American next door, with delivery, and I just wanted to bring something more authentic to the area, less Italian-American and more authentic Italian. I want people to experience how people really eat in Italy, while many restaurants in surrounding areas offer more Italian-American food.”

Thomas Fawcett, who oversees bar operations at bNapoli, said the restaurant is the culination of Moccia’s long-term vision.

“He plugged away there day and night with the vision of doing this,” Fawcett said of the pizzeria. “He always knew he wanted to open this; it was always sort of in the back of his mind. It was hard work, and that’s what he wanted. He was growing something.”

The goal, he added, was to serve fare that was ahead of the curve for the region, but not jarringly different. It was a risk, considering the success of Bella Napoli, but one that has paid off.

“Originally, it was tough, because people knew Jerry for next door, for the pizza shop — red sauce, Italian-American food,” he said. “A few people walked in here out of the gate with that expectation. But people gave it a shot, and maybe it wasn’t somewhere they could eat every night, but they knew on a special occasion they could. Then they told a couple people, who told a couple people, who tried it and told a couple more people.”

They’re still coming — and still telling their friends.

Heart of the City

Stepping inside bNapoli, diners are greeted by elegant, modern décor — all clean lines and earth and grey tones — meant to reflect what they might experience in a trendy restaurant in a big city, Moccia said. Meanwhile, the extensive menu currently runs the gamut from a grilled octopus appetizer and a house beet salad to creative entrees featuring veal, short ribs, haddock, ribeye, and a broad range of pastas.

“It feels very urban, metro New York or Boston,” he said of the atmosphere. “As for the food, we have some traditional, authentic Italian dishes with a contemporary spin. Everything is farm to table. We change the dinner menu three times a year based on the seasons. Tom came in over a year ago and brought the same expectation from a bar point of view.”

Indeed, when Fawcett showed up, there was no bar program to speak of, and he went to work crafting a unique experience for diners based on his training in Boston, where he was mentored by cocktail notables like Patrick Sullivan, who put B-Side Lounge in Cambridge on the map starting in the late ’90s, and Jackson Cannon, Fawcett’s fellow B-Side alum, who went on to establish Island Creek Oyster Bar.

Fawcett, who grew up in restaurants — his first job was at age 13 at Wild Apples Café in East Longmeadow — eventually enrolled in Jackson’s bar protégé program and became bar director at the second Island Creek location. He said what Moccia is doing at bNapoli — and what he has developed with the drink service — is very much in the spirit of those establishments, but innovative for Western Mass.

“It’s just different for this area. What we’re doing with cocktails out here is unheard of,” he said. “We make everything we can possibly make. We infuse our own spirits; we blend spirits for house blends. Strawberries just came into season, so we purchased strawberries from a farm and made a puree with them, which we won’t do in December, because we’d have to buy strawberries from California.”

As a result, the bar is even more seasonal than the restaurant, with a cocktail menu that changes roughly every six weeks. “Guests can come in today for their anniversary, and then if their birthday is in three months and they want to come back, the drink menu is totally different,” Fawcett said. “It’s something to look forward to for the next season. Right now we have a blueberry-infused Campari in one of our cocktails.”

Thomas Fawcett (right, with bar manager David Lazaro) says he has applied the restaurant’s from-scratch ethos to its drink menu.

Thomas Fawcett (right, with bar manager David Lazaro) says he has applied the restaurant’s from-scratch ethos to its drink menu.

Meanwhile, he expanded the wine menu from 40 to 100 labels but also focused it almost exclusively on offerings from Italy and the American West Coast. “This was fun for me; I’d never written an Italian wine menu, and I have fallen in love with Italian wine. What a great area of the world to grow grapes.”

As for beer selections, don’t look for big names like Anheuser-Busch and Miller; the roster is dominated by craft breweries — local names like Iron Duke and Fort Hill, but also small-batch producers from Maine to Virginia. “We are just a small, local restaurant, and we want to honor other small, local businesses.”

And Moccia definitely wanted to start small, Fawcett added.

“We’ve taken a slow approach. We didn’t want to open and have 1,000 people here right out of the gate. We’re sort of feeling our way, and we put a ton of time into what we do. We don’t have to work this hard, but we do because we’re passionate about it. David, the bar manager, doesn’t have to be here at 9 a.m. on a Monday pureeing strawberries for the week when we could just purchase it for a nominal fee and be done with it. But we take pride in what we do, and we love this and want to share this with everyone else.”

The feedback Moccia and Fawcett get from customers tells them that going the extra mile is appreciated.

“When I talk to people, they feel our passion for it,” Fawcett told BusinessWest. “When we’re at the table talking to them about what we do and how we do it, it’s a little more than just reading a list of ingredients. We’re sharing more of an experience. We’re bringing guests into the restaurant life, if you will.”

A Risk Pays Off

That life is one Fawcett knows well, and that Moccia has known for even longer. “He grew up in restaurants, and he understands the kitchen; he plugged away in one for 15 years,” Fawcett said. “So he had the back of house nailed down.”

His vision captured Fawcett’s imagination during their first meeting.

“I did not move back here expecting to see this,” he said. “I thought, there’s not going to be a restaurant that’s looking to do what I was doing in the city. But I met Jerry, and he said, ‘this is what we’re about; this is what we’re trying to achieve.’ And it has not been for naught.”

In some ways, Mocchia has been a risk taker, Fawcett said, but he’s adapatable, too, willing to alter offerings based on customer feedback.

“We just want to offer something fun and different which is fresh, and something that we believe in as well,” Fawcett went on, adding that bNapoli has amassed a strong cadre of regulars the staff knows on a first-name basis.

“We’re building relationships,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re a small restaurant. We don’t have the freedom of some large restaurants to be distant to their guests. You can walk into any big-brand restaurant and then walk out, and get a hello and a goodbye, and that’s it — and you could be fine with that. But here, I want to know how they’re doing. I want to know how their week was. I want to know if there’s a small touch we can make.”

In short, the goal is a big-city-type restaurant with a connection to the neighborhood, he went on — and his definition of ‘neighborhood’ is expansive, with regulars coming from places like Northampton, Wilbraham, and West Hartford.

“People make that ride, and they’re happy to be here,” he said. “People out here, when they believe in something, they stick with it. When they feel like you’re advocating for them, building something on their behalf, they will stick with you tooth and nail as long as you’re producing a good product, not taking shortcuts. If you’re working in their best interest, they know that.

“We’re in the business of hospitality,” Fawcett concluded. “It’s so much fun coming in here. We have a really strong group of people who bring that passion to the table, and we just want people to enjoy themselves.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Restaurants Sections

Your Annual Guide to Eating Out

restaurantguidedpThe Western Mass. region is well-known for its culinary diversity, offering nearly endless choices when it comes to cuisine, atmosphere, price range, and overall experience. For our 2017 Restaurant Guide, we made our way to four restaurants — from a 40-year-old icon to newer establishments well on their way to becoming household names. There’s plenty on the menu, so read on.

SEE: List of Restaurants in Western Mass.


‘Accommodating Cuisine

At Sierra Grille, they’re not fixing what isn’t broken

Upwardly Mobile

Cima is making more history at a long-time dining destination

Pop On Over

Judie’s continues to draw a crowd 40 years after its opening

Taking a Simple Approach

The Alvah Stone offers a view — and much, much more

Restaurants Sections

‘Accommodating Cuisine’

By Kathleen Mellen

Sierra Grille sous chef David Moses has his eye on pleasing the customer.

Sierra Grille sous chef David Moses has his eye on pleasing the customer.

We’ve all been out to dinner with that person: you know, the one who pores over a restaurant’s menu and then tries to reinvent it on the spot.

“I’d like the tuna,” your companion might say, “but instead of the baked potato you have listed here, I’ll have mac and cheese, and rather than a salad, I’ll go with butternut squash.”

Let’s face it; the creative orderer can be a waitstaff’s nightmare. It’s why you’ll see the words “no substitutions, please” on so many menus.

But not at Sierra Grille, where diners are invited to build their meals at will, from a menu that features a dozen entrées, 18 ‘small bites,’ 10 special sauces, seven choices of salads and paninis, and nine sugary desserts — and that’s not counting the sliders, soups, and daily specials.

Say you’re craving a blood-red tenderloin steak, but you aren’t a meat-and-potatoes fan, per se, and would prefer a double order of locally grown asparagus in place of the more traditional spuds. No problem. Or, maybe it’s meatless Monday, and your mouth is screwed up for seitan or tempeh, cooked on a veggie-only grill, and paired with royal basmati rice and grilled vegetables. Sierra Grille has you covered.

SEE: List of Restaurants in Western Mass.

This place is a mix-and-matcher’s delight.

“I call it an accommodating cuisine,” said Sierra Grille owner O’Brian Tomalin, in a recent interview at his establishment at 41 Strong Ave. in Northampton. “Did you ever go to a barbecue, where you bring a six-pack, which you add to the collection of six-packs, and then you bring a side dish, and it lands on a table, and there’s something on the grill? You take what you want from the grill, you have this great selection of sides to choose from, and there’s a selection of beer and wine. This is that kind of experience, extrapolated to a restaurant. Everybody can find something they like here, and that’s what I strive for.”

Tomalin, 49, opened Sierra Grille in 2006 after working in restaurants and breweries in his home state of Maine and, later, as the first bar manager at Amherst Brewing Co. And while he says he’d never call himself a chef, he does know a thing or two about cooking. As the youngest of nine children, four boys and five girls, he learned to make himself an egg for breakfast by the time he was 6, out of necessity.

By the way, one of those nine is actress Susan Sarandon, a fellow foodie who has eaten at her brother’s establishment on several occasions, surprising diners as she’s supped on the likes of hanger steak and scallops. After a recent visit, she asked Tomalin what he had used for a marinade on the scallops. “I said, ‘nothing. They’re just beautiful, fresh scallops. A little white wine and a tiny bit of butter.’ She said they were incredible.”

For this issue and the magazine’s annual Restaurant Guide, BusinessWest visited Sierra Grille and talked at length with Tomalin about his accommodating cuisine and why it resonates with his customers.

Food for Thought

On a recent afternoon, just before the day’s 3 p.m. opening, Tomalin was seated at a two-top high table in the vintage bar area of the restaurant, dressed casually in a short-sleeved shirt, cargo shorts, and a baseball cap. Light poured into the wood-paneled room, its effects dappled in spots as it shone through stained glass embedded at the top of two grand, arched windows.

The mahogany bar top dates from 1947, and while Tomalin had it refurbished about five years ago, he said, nothing was changed — other than removing about 50 cigarette burns that harkened back to the days when smoking was allowed in eating and drinking establishments.

The building was constructed in 1880 as a hotel for railroad passengers who arrived or departed from the city’s train station, just across the street. In the 1980s and ’90s, as the Baystate Hotel, it was a popular venue for live music.

As an ode to that history, Tomalin recently revamped a long-defunct program, “Reanimate the Bay State,” which features live music every Thursday, starting at 10 p.m., with a cover charge of $3.

The dining room at Sierra Grille

The dining room at Sierra Grille in Northampton, home to what owner O’Brian Tomalin calls “accommodating cuisine.”

“The bands — most of them local — get 100% of the cover charge, and they get beers while they play,” Tomalin said. “It’s really exciting.” It has also boosted business, with the bar doing up to an additional $1,000 in sales on Thursday nights.

Tomalin leases the ground-floor space from the building’s owners, brothers Antonio and Efthimios Rizos, who also own the Opa Opa Steakhouse and Brewery in Southampton, and business partners Volkan Polatol and Petros Mirisis. The quartet runs two other restaurants in the building: Mulino’s Trattoria on the second floor, and Bishop’s Lounge on the third.

Sierra Grille is open seven days a week, from 3 p.m. to midnight, but never on holidays (it’s a policy, he says, that his staff appreciates. “The restaurant business is pretty flaky; whatever makes you a whole person — it makes it better for us.”)

An early/late menu that includes everything but the entrées is available from 3 to 5 p.m., and from 10 p.m. to closing.

In addition to the array of culinary choices, the restaurant features 24 beers on tap, as well as a selection of bottled beers. Tomalin is also the owner of Building 8 Brewery in Northampton, and he always has a couple of those brews on tap at Sierra Grille. He also serves selections from other local brewers, including Green River Ambrosia, a mead made with honey from local bees that comes from the Artisan Beverage Cooperative in Greenfield, as well beers from Germany and Belgium and elsewhere in the U.S.

Berkshire Brewing Co. is always on; we pour their Steel Rail and their Coffeehouse Porter,” he noted. They also go through a keg a week of Allagash White, from the Allagash Brewing Co. in Maine, often using it in recipes. The hoppier beers are customer favorites.

Most of his wines are available for purchase by the glass, and are priced in the mid-range (“I call the selection ‘Wine 101’”), and though there are no obvious favorites, customers invariably switch between reds and whites with the seasons.

The biggest change for imbibers is Sierra Grille’s full liquor license, awarded by the state in January after an 18-month-long process of meetings, applications, and more meetings. Tomalin is in the final stages of designing a stable of craft cocktails, with selections from boutique distillers, which will be priced in the $8 to $12 range.

“You won’t be able to get a Jack and Coke here,” he explained. “We like supporting the little guys.”

Tomalin says he’s committed to supporting smaller growers as well, and buys his food locally, or regionally, as much as possible.

“We can get wahoo from Hawaii, and it’ll be here the day after it’s caught, but do you think I want my fish flying on a plane, blasting stuff into the atmosphere? No.”

Seafood comes from the coasts of Massachusetts and Maine; burger meat comes from local sources; and, when they’re in season, he gets his veggies at local farms, like Queen’s Greens in Amherst, as well as from area foragers. During the growing season, he often stops by Northampton’s farmer’s markets to see if anything strikes his fancy. Those items might just turn up in that day’s specials.

Tomalin says his customers appreciate the local freshness. “We just switched over to local asparagus, and we’ve doubled what we’ve been selling.”

With an eye toward environmental sustainability, the restaurant also recycles plastic, glass, tin, and even cooking oil. “Until recently, an employee was using the oil in his car,” Tomalin said.

The restaurant also supports a number of causes dear to Tomalin’s heart (during the last presidential primary, he held a fund-raiser for Bernie Sanders, where he read a statement of support from Sarandon, a longtime political activist), as well as local nonprofit organizations. This month, for example, the restaurant is running a “Half Pints for Half Pints” campaign: half the cost of each pint of beer sold on Mondays is donated to the Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s “Cooley Cares for Kids” fund-raiser.

“The benefits stuff is pretty great,” he said. “It is nice to do something, have an issue, accomplish that, get it done, and see it work.”

Something to Chew On

Even though Tomalin quips that the restaurant business “would be great if it weren’t for the customers,” he says he’s committed to satisfying diners at his busy establishment.

On an average Saturday, the restaurant serves between 225 and 275 meals; on a bigger weekend, like at college-graduation time, the number rises to about 300.

“People always tout our consistency,“ Tomalin said. “I look at cuisines and see what’s trending, but I don’t want to be trendy. We’re still evolving a bit, but we do what we do. As the saying goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”

Restaurants Sections

Upwardly Mobile

Tony Dimaio and Mindy Sullivan

Tony Dimaio and Mindy Sullivan say Cima is off to a solid start, thanks to a great location and a diverse, eclectic menu.

Mindy Sullivan says she and partner Tony Dimaio didn’t realize that, when they chose the name Cima for their restaurant venture in Wilbraham, it would turn into such a conversation starter.

But that’s what it has become, and in most all ways, that’s been a positive development.

For starters, there’s the pronunciation; most don’t get it right. It’s actually ‘cheema,’ although most will leave out the ‘h,’ which leads to a quick correction if Sullivan or another staff member is within earshot. Then, there’s the translation of that term, which usually comes up, because most patrons need one.

In Italian, cima means hilltop (or summit or mountaintop, although Sullivan and Dimaio usually focus on hilltop), which is what the restaurant lies on; it’s also the name that was on this building years ago — the Hilltop (it was most recently known as Horizons, however).

Between the pronunciation, the translation, and then a quick history of this property along busy Route 20, there’s plenty to talk about, said Sullivan, adding quickly that there’s generally more to the conversation.

And this often comes down to what Cima Restaurant and Chop House isn’t — although the menu makes this abundantly clear. Indeed, while the name is Italian, this eatery isn’t what would be called traditional Italian in its cuisine.

SEE: List of Restaurants in Western Mass.

Indeed, while there are some of the stalwarts, like linguini with clams, chicken Milanese, veal marsala, and seafood Mediterranean, the menu tilts heavily toward the ‘chop house’ side of its name, said Dimaio, with everything from a 20-ounce ribeye to double-cut lamb chops to a thick veal chop.

“We didn’t want this to be the typical red-sauce Italian restaurant,” he said, adding that the traditional Italian favorites, steaks and chops, and the overall broad diversity of the menu has made it easy for patrons of the other establishments that have been on this site to return to that stretch of Route 20.

“This has long been a dining destination,” Dimaio, formerly the long-time executive chef at the Monte Carlo in West Springfield, told BusinessWest. “And with Cima, it’s become a destination again.”

In many ways, this venture represents the summit — to date, at least — in a career in cooking that began with Dimaio working in various pizza shops before gradually opening his own place, with Sullivan, in rural Erving.

Cima is closer to home (East Forest Park) for the partners, and also closer to the vision of the restaurant operation the two have long sought to operate.

For this issue and its annual Restaurant Guide, BusinessWest ventured to the hilltop (that’s lowercase) to see why the latest name over the door on this well-known property is generating conversation that goes well beyond that name and what it means.

The dining room at Cima can seat close to 100 people.

The dining room at Cima can seat close to 100 people.

High-steaks Venture

It was a week or so before Mother’s Day, and the calls to the front desk at Cima were coming at a fairly steady clip.

One only needed to hear Sullivan’s side of the conversation to grasp the big picture — and the questions being asked on the other end. Over the span of a few calls, she communicated that the restaurant would have special hours — it would open at noon rather than at 4 — as well as a ‘holiday’ menu with a few additional specials, and, yes, they were still taking reservations.

“It’s become one of the very busiest days of the year — right there with New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day,” said Sullivan, who, by day, is the director of Environmental Health and Safety at Westfield State University. She added quickly that, while Cima would certainly do well on Mother’s Day, as most restaurants do, she and Dimaio were more focused on the hundreds of non-holidays.

And by most all accounts, she said, Cima, which will soon mark a year in business, is off to a very respectable start in a highly competitive business — and also a highly competitive stretch of road.

“We’ve been quite pleased with the response thus far — business has been quite steady, and we have a great base of customers that keep returning on a regular basis,” said Sullivan, who attributed the solid start to a number of factors.

The location is obviously one of them, she told BusinessWest, adding, again, that generations from the same family have now been dining at that location, and essentially from the moment Horizons, which operated on that site for many years, closed, there was speculation — and anticipation — about what would follow, and when.

“A of people missed Horizons, and they were anxious for us to get the place open,” she recalled. “Throughout the three months we were readying it, we had a steady stream of visitors asking when we would be opening.”

And the site has a long history as a restaurant for a reason, said Sullivan, noting that this stretch of Route 20, just a mile or so from the Eastfield Mall in Springfield and also Post Office Park in Wilbraham, is very well-traveled. It’s also accessible to a number of communities, including Ludlow, Palmer, East Longmeadow, Hampden, and others.

And this location certainly played heavily in their decision making as the two partners looked for a solid opportunity within the broad hospitality sector.

“We were looking for something closer to home,” she noted. “And when this particular piece of real estate came on the market, we wanted to be part of the community.”

But location, while always one of the main ingredients for success in this business, to borrow an industry term, is just part of the equation, said Sullivan and Dimaio.

Other important ingredients include an eclectic menu, great service, and, above all else, consistency, they said, with one voice, adding that this is what Cima strives to deliver.

“That consistency is very important,” she noted, adding that it is a key factor in generating both return business and positive word-of-mouth advertising, which have been other factors in Cima’s solid first year in business.

Along with consistency, there is variety, said Dimaio, adding that several specials are offered every evening (prime rib is a common addition), as well as a number of seafood, veal, chicken, pasta, and salad options.

While Cima has become a destination for dinner, it is also “finding its way,” as Sullivan put it, when it comes to private functions such as memorial receptions, showers, birthdays, and others. On the day BusinessWest stopped by, the staff was cleaning up the restaurant after a first Communion gathering.

“The biggest challenge is keeping your product interesting to the public, and consistency is key,” she said in summation. “And we’re definitely keeping things interesting.”

Meat and Greet

While the new name over the door at 2200 Boston Road has been a conversation starter, the diverse menu, thick chops and steaks, and that consistency mentioned earlier are keeping the conversation going.

They’re also helping to continue the site’s long history as a dining destination.

The name means hilltop, and for the establishment’s owners, it means taking things to new heights — in all sorts of ways.

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

Restaurants Sections

Pop On Over


Judie’s has expanded its space multiple times over the years to meet growing demand.

David Williams worked in architecture, not food service, when he was inspired, 40 years ago, to open a restaurant. His inspiration was a young woman named Judie Teraspulsky.

“We had an office in Boston, in Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and one here in Amherst,” he said over lunch one recent afternoon at a brightly sunlit table overlooking the stretch of North Pleasant Street that passes by Judie’s restaurant. “We used to take clients to the Lord Jeffery Inn, where Judie was the baker and a lunch waitperson, and we’d always sit in her section.”

Those lunches became well-known and well-liked by clients. “They would come to my office and say, ‘can we cut this meeting short, and go to the Lord Jeffery and sit in Judie’s section?’”

He had an idea.

“One day, I mentioned to her that I recently designed three restaurants in food courts in shopping centers. I said, ‘we should start a restaurant together.’” She found the possibility appealing.

The location they chose had recently housed a natural-foods restaurant that didn’t last long, so Williams bought the property and all the equipment, procured financing, and brought Teraspulsky on as an equal investor. Judie’s opened in May 1977 — 40 years ago this month — and quickly became, and has remained, one of the Valley’s most celebrated culinary success stories.

SEE: List of Restaurants in Western Mass.

“The first day we opened, Judie came to me and said, ‘can I be the manager?’” Williams recalled. “I said, ‘Judie, you own 50% of the business. It’s named Judie’s.’”

He said that particular idea wasn’t hers — she would rather have kept her name off the façade. But he also knew that her reputation at the nearby inn would help bring in patrons in those early days.

The target audience, at first, was professional women, who Williams and Teraspulsky felt were underserved by the town’s culinary choices in the late ’70s. “It was all pizza and hot dogs; there wasn’t a lot of ‘adult food’ in town,” he said. “She targeted women realtors, attorneys, insurance agents — and it took off like a shot.”

David Williams

David Williams says he and Judie Teraspulsky saw a need for more eclectic fare in downtown Amherst in the late ’70s.

The idea was that women were more open to experimental food — “and they tip better,” Williams said with a laugh — and, indeed, Teraspulsky’s eclectic menu, rife with fresh ingredients and interesting combinations, proved an immediate hit.

Even with that early success, what the restaurant needed, they felt, was a signature item. They certainly found one.

Enter the Popover

The fateful inspiration was the Proud Popover, a Boston-based restaurant and tavern affiliated with the Magic Pan. After trying that eatery’s namesake starch, Teraspulsky wanted to create something similar in Amherst — but bigger, and more impressive, than the smaller version she enjoyed.

“She came back here and experimented and managed to come up with the Judie’s popover, and it’s been the staple ever since. Nobody else went that big,” Williams said, adding that they’ve never made public how they’re baked. “There’s a very special way you make them in terms of heat and periods of time. It’s a closely guarded secret.”

A popover slathered with apple butter may be the Judie’s classic, but over the years, she’s turned them into sandwiches, incorporated them in stews and salads, filled them with everything from basil pesto chicken to a spicy gumbo, and even used leftover batter to make popover crepes. The Souper, a soup served alongside a popover and salad, has long been a best-selling item.

“I wanted people to have a ‘wow’ experience,” Teraspulsky told BusinessWest several years ago, “so when we put the trays down, the first thing out of their mouth is ‘wow.’”

The popover isn’t the only well-regarded Judie’s original, though. Williams said she’s been ladling out her popular seafood bisque since day one, among other early creations. And her variety of meal-size Caesar salads are another mainstay.

The experimentation that has made Judie’s menu a hit — and with a much wider audience than professional women — reflects a wave of culinary inspiration that has settled across downtown Amherst in the ensuing decades. Visitors can still get pizza or a hot dog, but Judie’s and the Lord Jeffery Inn are now joined by institutions like Johnny’s, Chez Albert, and Oriental Flavor. Of the latter, Williams noted, “a good friend of mine from Taiwan said that’s the best Chinese food you can eat outside of China.”

He doesn’t think it odd to talk up these offerings while simultaneously competing with them for business, noting that the restaurant scene is part of a downtown renaissance that benefits everyone.

“I’m never scared of competition,” he told BusinessWest. “It means there’s going to be more people coming here, and we’ll always get our percentage because we have a unique menu. Judie has crafted a unique destination in terms of the menu, and, having been a waitperson, she is crazy about the service — it’s got to be perfect.”

Art of the Meal

The years have seen plenty of changes and innovations at Judie’s, many of them related to the restaurant’s consistent growth and need for more space. The partners built out the front of the structure early on, and in 2007, they turned an adjoining bar into still more seating, along with an expanded kitchen and new restrooms; the renovation shut the restaurant down for only five days.

Donna Estabrooks’ wildly colorful tabletops have become a hallmark of Judie’s.

Donna Estabrooks’ wildly colorful tabletops have become a hallmark of Judie’s.

A third partner, Katie Day, took on that role in 2000, after coming to work at Judie’s in the 1980s; her sister was the general manager in the restaurant’s early days, and she learned the business from the ground up.

Judie’s has also become known for its striking, colorful paintings that adorn the walls and tabletops, all created by Florence artist Donna Estabrooks, which has effectively turned the restaurant into a gallery. Patrons are welcome to buy the paintings — and, yes, even tabletops — and Estabrooks changes out the offerings on a regular basis.

“Judie has always been fond of artists,” Williams said, noting that she gave additional vent to this passion a few years ago by opening Judie’s Art Bar, an art classroom tucked behind the restaurant where people come and learn how to unlock their own muse — and leave with their own painted creations.

But Judie’s remains best known for its culinary creations, with head chef Michael Babb firing up everything from sea scallops with tomato tart tatin to lamb shank served with a crisp, shredded potato pancake stuffed with grilled tomatoes, caramelized onions, and mascarpone whipped potatoes.

One might assume a restaurant with a four-decade arc would have passed its peak days, but Williams said business continues to increase an average of 4% every year.

“Of course, the area keeps growing,” he was quick to add, pointing out the window at the main artery through downtown Amherst. “Look at this traffic. In 1970, you could lie down in the middle of the street and never get run over, but now, it’s super busy.”

As Judie’s celebrates its 40th anniversary, Teraspulsky, Williams, and Day continue to welcome patrons eager for a hot, fresh popover or any number of other tempting offerings, in an atmosphere drenched in sunlight and dappled by Estabrooks’ artistic visions.

“When Judie realized she was not the manager, but the owner,” Williams recalled, “she really threw her body, mind, and spirit into this place. She knew what she had here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Restaurants Sections

Taking a Simple Approach

By Kathleen Mellen

The view is just part of the package at the Alvah Stone.

The view is just part of the package at the Alvah Stone.

Tucked away in the tiny Franklin County town of Montague (population 8,437), is the Alvah Stone, a small-burg restaurant with a big-world sensibility — one that it comes by honestly.

Owner Howard Wein has been a major player in the hospitality business for many a year. Since receiving an MBA in hotel and restaurant administration from Cornell University in 1999, he’s built an impressive résumé, launching the W hotel chain and opening big restaurants, like Buddakan and Iron Chef Morimoto, both in New York City, as well as others across the country.

Most recently, Wein, 45, founder and president of Howard Wein Hospitality, created 10 restaurants and bars in eight months for the Diplomat Beach Resort. He finished that job in late April, when he launched establishment number 10 — Monkitail, an izakaya-style Japanese restaurant.

It’s been very exciting (and exhausting), Wein says, but all that corporate work has been for other people. He wanted to create a home where his heart is — in Montague, with his wife, Jennifer, their 8-year-old daughter, Lyla, 7-month-old son, Simon, and, for the past three years, his other baby, the Alvah Stone.

“I love this part of the world,” said Wein, who graduated in 1995 from Hampshire College, where he met Jennifer. “We wanted to come back, but, professionally, I was doing such amazing things. It was impossible to figure out how to ride the career wave from here. Finally we said, ‘we’re not going to figure it out. We’re just going to do it.’”

SEE: List of Restaurants in Western Mass.

So they moved to Montague, and Wein set up an office next door to the Night Kitchen, a restaurant at 440 Greenfield Road. When that establishment closed in 2013, he decided it was time to create a restaurant of his own. So, in 2014, he signed a lease and opened the Alvah Stone.

“This is the only restaurant I’ve ever done that’s really, truly a reflection of me,” Wein told BusinessWest. “I’m everywhere. I did the design. I hired all the people. Doing this keeps me fresh, keeps me focused on the things that really drive success in this business, which is keeping an eye on quality and building a really strong culture of excellence.”

Owner Howard Wein

Owner Howard Wein says patrons come for the local food items, creative cocktails, and spectacular view.

Wein shares the building with the Montague Bookmill, a popular bookstore whose tongue-in-cheek motto is “books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.” And though the restaurant, like the bookstore, is decidedly out of the way, customers have increasingly beaten a path to its door, in search of its signature, all-local food offerings; creative, crafted cocktails; and spectacular view (the restaurant is perched high above the rushing Sawmill River).

They also find old-school hospitality.

“We have a simple approach,” Wein said. “The best thing you can do to build your business is to make sure that every single plate that goes out is great, and that every interaction is satisfying.”

The restaurant, which seats 65 inside and 40 on an a deck, weather permitting, is open seven days a week, from noon to 10 p.m., for lunch and dinner, and brunch on Sundays, year-round.

“In a destination like this,” Wein said, “you don’t want people wondering if you’re open. If you change the hours all the time, you’re going to lose people.”

Reservations are accepted, but the restaurant is never fully booked in advance, leaving room for those who stop by unannounced. “If you fully book, that’s the same as being closed to someone who just drove all the way here.”

Historical Perspective

The Alvah Stone is named for the first owner of the mill, which was constructed in 1834. It’s a name that firmly cements the restaurant in the building’s history, Wein says. “I didn’t want a trendy or hokey name —  that’s not who we are. The Alvah Stone has strength. It’s unique to the place and to the story of where we are.”

That attention to detail extends to naming cocktails, too. Each is inspired by the history of the building, the geographic location, or a literary reference. Take the Seldom Heard, for example, which features bison grass vodka, maurin quina (a French aperitif), cashew, coconut, lime, and cardamom.

“We were working with this rye vodka from Poland, infused with bison grass, so we went for a theme based on lyrics to the song “Home on the Range” (“Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam …’),” explained bar manager Lincoln Allen, one of 25 employees.

Wein says it’s important that his employees, like Allen, share in the restaurant’s creativity. “We have fun going back and forth about the cocktail names,” Wein said. “If there’s no creative process, then creative people don’t stay. And if we lose creative people, then we don’t have the product we want here.”

Wein calls his food “authentic American,” and says he puts the emphasis on quality and comfort. “We want to be known as one of the best restaurants in the Valley, but definitely not one of the most pretentious. Or serious.”

The menu, which is driven by chef Dave Schrier’s creative juices, features snacks and smaller items, like the li’l pork belly sandwich on a brioche roll with Alabama white sauce, iceberg lettuce, and a pickle; and beets with pickled shiitake mushrooms, toasted seeds, crispy wheat berry, and crème fraîche. Entrées on the menu that changes daily might include an Alvah Stone burger on an English muffin with onion marmalade, mayo, cheddar, and a pickle; and seed-crusted cod, served with a ramp condiment, coconut milk, and sorrel. Desserts and cocktails, wine, and “really local” beers are always available, too.

“The idea of the menu and the pricing is flexibility,” Wein said. “If you want to have a beer and a warm, soft pretzel, you can spend $15. Or you can eat traditionally, where you have a couple of snacks, and everyone gets their own entrée.”


Menu items are also determined by what’s fresh. Most vegetables come from the Kitchen Garden in Sunderland and other local farms, and there are also a number of foragers who pop in — including one who arrived on a recent afternoon carrying a tray piled high with pungent ramps.

“We don’t have a green salad with cucumbers and tomatoes unless it’s August or September,” Wein said. “You won’t get a bad tomato on a burger, ever, and we won’t give you mesclun mix from California.”

Just Desserts

The biggest challenge to owning a restaurant is reacting to things you can’t control, Wein says, like rising wages and health-insurance costs for employees. “We’re in favor of always trying to improve the quality of life for workers, at any and all levels, but it’s really difficult when you have a small business.”

And then, there’s the weather. “The deck is an incredible setting, but if it rains every Saturday, it cuts the traffic down, and you’re talking about a dramatic impact on our year.”

But there are plenty of pluses as well, he added.

Before he opened, Wein composed a list of goals: to be a place where people want to work, to be the best restaurant in the Valley, and to have an incredible commitment to hospitality.

And he thinks he’s achieved all three.

Cover Story Restaurants Sections

Plenty to Chew On

This Year’s Restaurant Guide Reflects a Diverse Dining Scene

RestaurantGuideSecDPBy all accounts, restaurant are flourishing across Western Mass., a region that offers nearly endless choices when it comes to cuisine, atmosphere, price range … you name it. For this special section, the 2016 Restaurant Guide, we venture to three establishments — with calling cards ranging from solar-brewed beer to classic French cuisine to singing servers — that clearly reflect that variety. Bon appetit!

Restaurants Sections

Star Power

Andrew Mankin

Andrew Mankin, owner and brewer, says a ‘green’ operating philosophy has helped Barrington Brewery & Restaurant create a strong brand.

Andrew Mankin recalls that when he and business partner Gary Happ were crunching the numbers regarding their planned use of solar-heated water for their brew-pub establishment in Great Barrington, what they saw gave them reason to pause.

But not for very long.

“We decided that at some point you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is and do something,” he recalled, as he talked about the system they were contemplating — one that would coincide with, and be a key element in, the construction of a banquet facility that would complement their already well-established brewery and restaurant on busy Route 7. “When you’re putting up a new building, you’re spending a lot of money on all kinds of things, so we thought, ‘why not something that’s environmentally friendly?’”

That ‘something’ has turned out to be an investment that has paid off in a number of ways — from dramatically reducing natural-gas bills to giving Barrington Brewery & Restaurant a branding identity — ‘solar-brewed beer’ — that is not only earth-friendly, but helps generate business as well.

“People will come in, point to those words, and say, ‘what does this mean?’ said Mankin, who, as the company’s owner/brewer, is not only willing but well-equipped to explain it all. (Usually, the dissertation includes handing the individual one of the informative placemats the company uses that not only detail the solar hot-water use but explains the brewing process in five easy-to-follow steps.)

Co-owner Gary Happ with his daughter, Chelsea

Co-owner Gary Happ with his daughter, Chelsea, who is managing the operation’s banquet facility.

Overall, the sun-heated water gives many environmentally conscious individuals and families a reason to turn off Route 7 and into the large converted barns that comprise this operation. Or another reason, to be more precise.

And there must be several, said Happ, now a nearly 40-year veteran of the ultra-challenging hospitality industry, noting that, while the beers brewed at that location — labels that include Black Bear Stout, Hopland Pale Ale, Berkshire Blond, and Ice Glen IPA, along with a host of seasonal offerings — are a huge draw, there are hundreds of microbrews available in this region. In short, the food has to be good, too.

Barrington Brewery & Restaurant has that part of the equation covered with a menu, classified generally as ‘pub fare,’ that includes everything from barbecued ribs to shepherd’s pie to spinach and eggplant casserole.

To say this establishment effectively blends beer and food is not just idle talk, Happ noted. Indeed, those aforementioned brews are included in the recipes for menu items ranging from the chili to the blue cheese dressing to the famous (it’s been profiled in Bon Appetit a few times) chocolate stout cake.

“We try to keep everything simple, and we make everything here,” he explained. “It’s not a fancy, expensive menu, but it’s good, fresh food.”

The interior’s décor

The interior’s décor can be described with one word: beer.

As for that aforementioned banquet facility, named Crissey Farm, it has become a solid addition to the venture, said Mankin, noting that, in a region studded with venues at both the high and low end, this 200-seat room has become an attractive middle-of-the road option.

“We throw a very good wedding for a very fair price,” he explained, adding that the facility is drawing its share of other types of events as well, including corporate outings and meetings. “It’s an attractive alternative for people looking for something in the middle.”

For this issue and its annual Restaurant Guide, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Barrington Brewery and Restaurant, where the bright ideas include, but are certainly not limited to, the water-heating process.

Lager than Life

The sign

The sign that greets patrons says it all.

It doesn’t take much time, or many words, for that matter, to describe the décor and the mood at this establishment. ‘Beer’ will do just fine.

It’s brewed on the site, served on tap at the tavern portion of the eatery, sold in pint bottles (the partners distribute to a few other locations as well), explained on the placemats, and reflected on the walls — all of them.

There are pictures of old breweries, tavern signs from a long time ago — one declares that something called ‘white rose special’ costs 20 cents a bottle — and glasses, coasters, and trays bearing the names of brewers from the present, past, and distant past.

While referencing the huge display of coasters — Mankin has no idea how many there are on display or in storage because there’s no room left to display them — he pointed to a couple of his favorites: Dog & Parrott and Ridley’s Old Bob.

Those were brewed in England, which is where Mankin cut his teeth in this art and science. He was a self-described home brewer some 30 years ago, when he had a chance to learn from the masters at the Vaux Brewery in Sunderland in Northeast England, near the border with Scotland.

Upon returning home, his thoughts turned increasingly toward making beer a career, not a hobby. And when he met Happ, things started to come together.

Happ, then a partner in the hugely successful 20 Railroad Street restaurant in Great Barrington’s downtown, was selling his interest in that entity and eyeing a new entrepreneurial adventure. Mankin was looking for his first.

They decided to blend their resources and talents and opened Barrington Brewery & Restaurant on Route 7 in what’s known as the Jennifer House Complex, which featured antique shops and other forms of retail.

Over the past two decades, this venture has become a key component in a broad revitalization effort that has seen Great Barrington evolve from a sleepy Berkshires town “where the sidewalks were rolled up at 8 o’clock,” said Happ, to a true year-round destination.

The town’s rebirth has included everything from new shops and restaurants to the stunning $9 million renovation of the 111-year-old Mahaiwe (pronounced Muh-hay-we) Theatre. Now known as the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, it presents music, dance, theater, opera, talks, and movie classics (The Graduate is playing on May 21).

With this new vibrancy has come both opportunity and challenge in the form of greater competition, said Happ, adding that Barrington Brewery & Restaurant has thrived by drawing both local residents and the tourists that now come all 12 months of the year, and through creation of a niche with many elements.

Food (moderately priced) and beer are obvious ingredients, both figuratively and literally, he explained, but the ‘green’ factor is also a key part of the equation.

And there’s more to it the solar hot-water system, which, when installed, was the largest such facility in the region. Indeed, the venture buys its power from Pine Island Farm in Sheffield, a partnership dairy operation that boasts what’s known as an anaerobic digester facility, in which the methane from animal waste is converted into electricity and sold to National Grid.

“When we write a check for our energy at the end of the month, we don’t make it out to National Grid, we make it out to Pine Island Farm,” said Happ, with a strong dose of satisfaction and pride in his voice. “From the beginning, we’ve always tried to run a green business as best we could, and we’re continuing down that path.”

The next step, already on the drawing board and well into the development stage, is to create a photovoltaic system on a two-acre parcel the partners recently acquired and generate enough power to operate both the restaurant and Crissey Farm.

Unfortunately, the state has thrown a roadblock of sorts in front of what Happ called the “crown jewel of our greenness.” Apparently, there is a cap on photovoltaic systems of this type, and it has been reached, he went on, making it clear that this was a source of great frustration.

“Here are two guys trying to do the right thing, run a good, green business, and leave a small footprint, and who’s holding us up? The state,” he said with noticeable exasperation. “We’re ready to go.”

Crissey Farm

Crissey Farm, the banquet facility at Barrington Brewery & Restaurant, is making a name for itself.

Whether the state eases restrictions on solar-power systems and allows the partners to proceed remains to be seen, although both men believe this matter involves the question ‘when?’ and not ‘if?’

In the meantime, they will continue making beer with solar-heated water and press on with their efforts to grow the banquet side of the business.

Off to a solid start, 200-seat Crissey Farm, opened just as the Great Recession was starting in the summer of 2008, is creating a niche in its own right, said Mankin.

“We have a wedding booked every weekend right into October,” he explained. “Over the past few years, business has really picked up.

Icing on the Cake

Mankin told BusinessWest that Barrington Brewery isn’t shy about sharing the recipe for its famous chocolate stout cake. It’s already been published in Bon Appetit, he noted, and staff at the restaurant will hand patrons a copy if they ask for one.

This willingness to share trade secrets is somewhat rare in the restaurant business, he acknowledged, but the company isn’t worried about losing business from the practice.

“It’s not easy to make it — there’s a lot that goes into this,” he said, referring to the stout cake.

But those exact words could be used to describe the restaurant industry itself. The Barrington Brewery has succeeded by creating an effective niche — one that involves price, beer, food — and a green philosophy.

All that gives this establishment star power — in all kinds of ways.

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

Restaurants Sections

Gourmand’s Delight

Paul Hathaway

Paul Hathaway takes pride in creating unique dishes that feature produce from local farms.

Chez Albert is no ordinary French restaurant. But then, Paul Hathaway, who opened the award-winning bistro in Amherst after moving to Western Mass. from Boston 11 years ago, is far from an ordinary chef.

The self-taught food connoisseur and culinary artist makes everything in his restaurant from scratch and has carefully cultivated relationships with local farmers who provide him with their freshest seasonal produce. As a result, the menu changes at least six times a year, although seasonal dishes do accompany staples that customers choose repeatedly at the popular eatery nestled downtown on North Pleasant Street.

“We make our own pickles, grind our own beef, cure our own hams, make all of our desserts from scratch, and stay away from fillers and preservatives,” Hathaway told BusinessWest. “A lot of focus is placed on presentation. People eat with their eyes first, so we try to make things appetizing visually and by using flavor. We focus on utilizing local ingredients to the utmost in unique ways and pickle, cure, or preserve them so the colors or flavors pop in different dishes.

“Many people think French food is fancy, but they don’t realize it’s about using basic techniques,” he went on. “It’s a low, slow style of cooking that allows you to get the best flavor out of whatever you cook.”

Although the menu’s offerings rival dishes in restaurants known for fine dining — current seasonal plates include crab and smoked trout galette with spicy rouille, rabbit ragout with a farm cheese pierogi, and entrées such as pork confit with creamy polenta and a sweet glaze — the mood at Chez Albert was designed to be intimate, yet informal.

“We offer a relaxed, elegant atmosphere which is not stuffy; service is delivered with a smile, and we are always looking for ways to make people happy and get them to try new dishes such as rabbit or oxtail,” Hathaway said, adding they also serve sandwiches and burgers for those with less-adventurous palates.

Amy Paul

Amy Paul says Chez Albert will begin offering wine dinners this summer, which will pair fine wines with foods from different cultures that could range from Vietnamese to Thai or North African.

His wife, Amy Paul, who runs the front end of the bistro and is its wine connoisseur, says music played during lunch and dinner ranges from soul to funk to jazz, which helps create a party-like atmosphere, especially on weekends, in the specially designed eatery with soft lighting that emanates from copper fixtures designed by a local artist.

Frequent patrons include professors from area colleges, as well as people from the neighborhood who sometimes have lunch and dinner at the bistro the same day.

The restaurant seats 48, with 20 additional seats on the patio, where lush flowering plants thrive during the summer. Events at Chez Albert range from business dinners to birthdays and rehearsal dinners, and reservations are suggested as the mainstay bistro is a popular spot and has earned accolades; it was feted with Trip Advisor’s 2015 Certificate of Excellence and named Best in the Valley by a Valley Advocate reader’s poll last year.

Honed Talents

Hathaway loved food as a child, enjoyed baking, and looked forward to holiday dinners with family and friends that featured Italian, Polish, Irish, and other ethnic cuisine.

His culinary career began when he got a job at Seaside Restaurant at Faneuil Hall in Boston during his teenage years. But he didn’t become passionate about cooking until he left that eatery and went to work for Davio’s Italian Steakhouse in Cambridge.

At that point, he began to work his way up the ladder and hone his skills in some of the Hub’s best restaurants. “I had a real thirst and drive to learn new techniques and got my chops under some fine Boston chefs,” Hathaway recalled, explaining that he honed his skills under celebrity chef Todd English, James Beard Award-winning chef Jody Adams, and chef-owner Paul O’Connell of Chez Henri in Boston.

Hathaway became a chef at Pomodoro in the city’s North End, then co-owned Washington Square Tavern before he moved to Western Mass. and opened Chez Albert.

“French food has always been farm-to-table, and there are so many local purveyors and farmers here that people sometimes take them for granted. But I was young, ambitious, and excited about the opportunity that exists in Amherst and was inspired to do something in the European style,” he said, adding that he initially opened Chez Albert on 27 South Pleasant St. in a former bank that screamed ‘old French bistro,’ because it had high ceilings, marble floors, and a feeling frequently found in Paris eateries where people count on seeing friends and enjoying good food.

After the bistro became established, Paul was introduced to Hathaway through a friend. She began working for him, and they fell in love, got married, and had a daughter, followed by twin boys.

Paul’s need to focus on the children meant she had to curtail her hours at the bistro, but it continued to flourish, and four years ago when the lease ran out, the couple decided to move Chez Albert to its current location at 178 North Pleasant St.

The new location doubled their space; it took a major renovation to get it the way they wanted, and they often worked late at night. Great attention was paid to detail, and Hathaway hired local artists to design unique copper light fixtures, paint a mural on the bar, and create custom woodwork and cushioned seats throughout much of the interior.

However, his food has always been the biggest draw, and bar manager Michelle Kacich says patrons appreciate the fact that the menu offers French dishes that can be difficult to find locally, such as the popular appetizer pate de foie and the equally popular entrée pork confit. Although the menu does change with the seasons, some items are served throughout the year, such as escargot and Chez salad, made from local field greens, French green beans, dried cherries, shaved red onions, and crispy duck comfit tossed in a champagne vinaigrette and topped with shaved, hard-boiled eggs and croutons.

Hathaway keeps his focus on farm-to-table cooking, but it can be difficult during the winter, so he makes exceptions. But robust soups and other dishes that include a variety of root vegetables have become mainstays, and with the exception of daily specials, the menu doesn’t undergo much change until early March when spring brings freshly picked arugula, spinach, and radishes to the table.

Some patrons enjoy eating at the bar where they watch soccer and other sports on the flat-screen TV. The cocktail menu features signature drinks created by Kacich, and whenever she gets requests, she makes customized libations to suit palates that prefer sweet, savory, sour, or bitter tastes. Customer favorites include a pear ginger martini and a ‘honey bee,’ which is made from cardamom-infused bourbon, citrus, honey, and bitters.

Changing Tastes

Chez Albert

Chez Albert’s offerings have expanded over the years beyond French cuisine to encompass Asian, Italian, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern influences.

Hathaway believes it’s important for businesses to evolve, and will make changes this summer that may include new artwork.

“We’re not erasing the old, but improving what we have built on,” he noted. “Every business needs to adapt and evolve over time.”

Prix fixe wine dinners that pair wines with foods from different cultures will be offered during the summer, which is a time when business tends to slow down. Since a similar dinner that features five to seven courses is sold out every New Year’s Eve, Paul expects them to be popular.

“My husband has a following, and people get excited when he cooks something other than French,” she told BusinessWest, explaining that, over the years, the menu has grown to include dishes with Asian, Italian, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern influences. The wine list has also expanded; in addition to French, there are Spanish, Italian, and American wines, with more than 10 varieties served by the glass.

Customers appreciate being served by Emmanuel Proust, who comes from France and has worked at Chez Albert since it opened. Paul says many see him as the face of the restaurant, so they had a painting commissioned of him dressed as Napoleon that hangs above a cozy niche of copper-topped tables.

“We’re a playful group of people, and we do our best to make people feel like family,” she noted on a recent evening, as customers began filtering in, the music picked up, and the bistro came to life.

Restaurants Sections

Singing for Your Supper

Tony Serafino, with his business partner, Dawn Doyle

Tony Serafino, with his business partner, Dawn Doyle, says he wanted to create a destination, not just a restaurant.

As a 30-year veteran of the restaurant industry, Tony Serafino wasn’t interested in just another eatery when he considered opening the Grill at the Boulevard.

That’s why diners enjoying a dinner of pasta, steak, or any number of other options on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night are treated to the spectacle of a server — or several — making their way to the front of this cozy establishment on Page Boulevard in Springfield, picking up a microphone, and belting out a few standards.

“When I opened this business, I wanted to try to recreate the Copa on a much smaller scale,” he said, referring to the Copacabana, the famed New York nightclub known through the decades for its array of live entertainment.

“I had visions of waiters like in Goodfellas, leading people through the crowd and sitting them in front while Frankie Valli was singing — not that we have Frankie Valli, but you get the idea. I wanted to give it that extra thing needed to make this location a destination. We weren’t going to survive off neighborhood business alone — the volume just isn’t there. To bring people to us, to become a destination point, we needed something different.”

The Grill’s success since he and his business partner, Dawn Doyle, opened on Super Bowl weekend in February testifies to the appeal of the ‘singing servers,’ as they’re known, but also to a varied lunch and dinner menu made from scratch. “Everyone says the food is the greatest,” said Serafino, who’s also the executive chef. “That’s one thing that’s really helped build us and kept us going.”

Serafino’s previous executive-chef positions included stints at restaurants owned by long-time friend Jim Efantis, who also owns the building that now houses the Grill and an adjoining bar, Rory Fitzgerald’s. The space next to the bar had been vacant for several months, and, truth be told, it needed plenty of work. But he saw some potential.

“I looked at the space and thought it could be a decent lunch, dinner, and breakfast space,” he told BusinessWest, noting that breakfast is currently served on Sundays only, but that could change as CRRC Rail Corp., the Chinese rail-car manufacturer establishing its North American headquarters in Springfield, builds its factory across the street on Page Boulevard, intending to employ several hundred people.

“It’s a neighborhood bar, and the building is the oldest established boarding house in the city of Springfield,” he noted. “I was intrigued by what was going on across the street, and figured we’ll have a few months to get our feet wet.”

Vintage Sounds

The walls of the Grill are adorned with striking, hand-drawn portraits of mid-century musical icons, from Frank Sinatra to Patsy Cline to Louis Armstrong, a visual accompaniment to the music patrons will hear.

“One thing I’ve always wanted to do in my career was to create a small, Copacabana-type atmosphere, with singing waiters,” Serafino said. “And it’s really starting to come to fruition. The customers are having a ball. We try to keep it to the ’30s and ’40s musical theme, but if the crowd wants to hear something from Grease so they can all sing, we can do that too.”

So far, the concept has been a winner, he added. “People keep coming back, and we’re always seeing new faces, too.”

He said the development of the rail-car facility could usher in a weekday breakfast menu, but he wants to keep changes to a minimum at first. “I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years, and you can’t have rabbit ears when people say, ‘do this’ or ‘do that.’ You have to stick to your business model and get it working before you start adding on.”

The walls of the Grill at the Boulevard

The walls of the Grill at the Boulevard are decorated with drawings of some of the musicians patrons might hear covered by the ‘singing servers.’

That lunch and dinner menu, which he characterizes as ‘upscale American bistro’ food, features pasta selections like tortellini alfredo and buffalo mac and cheese, beef dishes like New England pot roast and short ribs, and other options ranging from chicken francaise and chicken marsala to pork milanese — and, of course, daily specials.

“We are a scratch kitchen; everything from the bread on up is made right here,” Serafino told BusinessWest, adding that the menu, which features about 20 entrees and a dozen appetizers, is complemented by at least three specials a night.

“At any given time, it could be blackened New York strip, blackened Delmonico with gorgonzola fondue … the risotto here — and I’m going to toot my own horn, because I can — is the best you’ve ever had, and my customers will tell you that.

“We’re also very big on plate presentation,” he went on. “A lot of these kids [servers], they’re young and had to be trained in these little things that the customers appreciate. But we’re all about having fun with good food and good friends at a blue-collar price.”

The three nights a week when the servers sing are the most popular, he admitted. When the small house is packed and the music is playing, Serafino noted, the festive atmosphere gets contagious. “All these people have no idea who each other are, but as they’re walking out, they’re shaking hands like they’re best friends. They all get into it, and they have a ball.”

Next Steps

Those images are gratifying to Serafino, who believes his goal of establishing a destination restaurant on Page Boulevard — and maybe other regional locations — is a viable one.

“It’s doing well. I think we’re going to outgrow the place,” he said, adding that one expansion option in the future would be to keep the ‘Grill at’ name with each new establishment, as in Grill at Main Street or Grill at Forest Park, or wherever he might move the concept.

He admits some people are still getting accustomed to that concept, and his vision for the bistro menu. One woman became upset — and left — when the sides for her steak dinner didn’t include a baked potato, insisting that the Grill is a steakhouse, and steakhouses serve baked potatoes.

Fortunately, most patrons are happy that Serafino is following his own muse.

“Some people will try to label you as a specific kind of restaurant,” he said. “All I know is, a lot of people really enjoy it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Restaurants Sections
Center Square Grill’s Partners Celebrate an Eventful First Year

Michael Sakey, left, and Bill Collins

Michael Sakey, left, and Bill Collins say the lively tap room turns regulars into friends.

Michael Sakey said restaurants often conduct a soft open with family and friends to work the kinks out before opening the doors to the public.

In the case of Center Square Grill, the East Longmeadow eatery he and business partner Bill Collins launched last spring, the soft opening got a little out of hand. Of the 600 or so people they invited, only 250 said they would come — but 450 showed up.

“By 8 o’clock, we were out of vegetables; then we ran out of proteins,” Sakey said.

Yet, they were enthused by the response to the food that was served — and they’re still excited a year later.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” Collins said. “It’s been a great ride. We’re psyched with our numbers, and the reviews have been great — four and a half stars on Yelp.”

The pair partially credits their success to their chemistry in the kitchen and business, forged over a 15-year friendship, during which they worked for Claudio Guerra, the serial restaurateur behind Spoleto and a broad array of other establishments.

“Not only have we been great friends for a decade, but in business, we both bring different things to the table,” Collins said, recalling how a chance conversation over glasses of wine about 18 months ago turned into a plan to launch their own enterprise. “When we started talking about doing this, it just snowballed.”

Their success in getting off the ground startled them, but also gave them confidence, he added. “We raised the money to buy the place in two and a half weeks. Once we got a ‘yes’ from one investor, we were more comfortable in the next meeting, and the next. By the last meeting, we were like, ‘are you kidding me? Why wouldn’t you invest in our business?”

Opening the doors was a leap into the unknown, but entrepreneurship has suited them so far.

“When we were first talking about a concept we liked,” Collins said, “we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we opened this place, and it didn’t go out of business? That would be really cool. Then, once we got a little more secure, we started to think we’d actually make it. It’s been a ride, going from being salaried employees, getting a paycheck every week, to making sure everyone else gets their paycheck every week.”

For its annual Restaurant Guide, BusinessWest sat down with Sakey and Collins to talk about wine, local produce, restaurant reviews, and the mentor they both credit with giving them the confidence to succeed on their own.

Career Moves

“I always joke that I was an accidental restaurateur,” said Sakey, adding that he studied theater in college. 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 Guerra, who was opening Spoleto Express at the time.

“I went in thinking, ‘it’s just going to be for now, until I figure out what’s next.’ Over the next 12 years, it spiraled into spearheading the catering division, helping open many restaurants for Claudio, and becoming really good friends with Bill.”

He was also starting to sense a connection between food and his other passion. “Restaurants can be theatrical,” he said. “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.”

Collins knew at a younger age where his career was headed. “I’m an un-accidental restaurateur,” he said. “I joke that I wish being a doctor ran in my family, but, no, my family owned restaurants and hotels in New York.”

He started working in those businesses from a young age and rose through the ranks. “I was the youngest restaurant manager ever hired by Applebee’s,” he told BusinessWest. “The head of HR met with me, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, ‘please don’t tell anyone you’re under 21; I might lose my job.’”

Local art

Local art — fitting for the fare served up at Center Square Grill — livens up the restaurant’s interior.

Collins met Guerra in 1999, when he was 19. While holding down his managerial job at Applebee’s, he worked as a waiter at Spoleto, just to get his foot in the door in a company he had long admired. He eventually became director of operations. “I wound up opening six concepts with him — and we closed some concepts, too. I got to see the good, the bad, and the ugly. He’s been my mentor in the business.”

Sakey recalls how one location Guerra owned morphed from a fine-dining restaurant to something with a pub feel, then to what is now his flagship Spoleto location. “To have three different concepts in one location and still come out on top … it really does take a unique individual to weather the storms of this industry and know when to change and admit to himself that, even though he liked a concept, it wasn’t working as a business.”

As for Center Square Grill, the partners have broken away from the Italian fare Guerra specializes in. “We call ourselves a creative American grill, but we pull from South America, classic French cooking, New Orleans, Jamaica — we even had some Asian dishes,” Sakey said. “We try to do many things well.”

Collins noted that there are about a dozen Italian restaurants in a 10-mile radius, and families tend to go to their favorite. So he and Sakey wanted to bring more variety to the table.

“My favorite thing about the menu is, if you want to come in and get a cheeseburger and an IPA, you can do that,” Sakey said. “If you want to take your wife out and have oysters and a filet topped with crab Oscar, you can do that, too. The menu runs the gamut, and the atmosphere does, too.”

Indeed, 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. “The tap room is where we meet the regulars; they’re actually friends now,” Sakey said, recalling how one regular and her mother were sitting at the bar, talking about making homemade ravioli, and he joked that they should bring him a couple. “The next day, they brought in two platters — one for each of us — and said, ‘dinner’s on us tonight.’”

Guerra himself has visited the restaurant on several occasions, and the partners said he has been supportive of their new venture. “He taught me the culinary side,” Sakey said. “I made my first roux working with him — ‘no, you’re browning it too much, you want that nutty smell’ — but he also taught me front of house. For a guy in chef whites to be just as good in front, that’s incredible.”

Collins agreed. “The guy doesn’t miss a detail in front of house. He burned a lot of that into us.”

The employees have picked up on that sense of pride, Sakey added. “I can’t speak more highly about the staff. Front of the house, back of the house — they take such ownership of what they’re doing. It’s unique and amazing.”

On the Menu

Collins said that Center Square Grill has stayed true to its original core of steak, seafood, and pasta, but the menu offers many iterations on dishes in those categories, and others.

“We’ve tried to change the menu seasonally,” he added. “Most restaurants, out of the gate, don’t change the menu often, but we wanted to change with the season, and use local produce when it’s available, local meat when it’s available. We bought a whole lamb from a farm recently and used every single piece of it.”

Changing the menu also keeps people coming back to try new things, he added. But the regulars do have their favorites, including a crispy duck confit with house-made tomato jam, butternut squash risotto, and seasonal vegetables; seared Maine diver scallops over asparagus risotto and finished with a lemon thyme beurre blanc; Jamaican jerk chicken thighs marinated in a Caribbean rub and served over dirty rice with black bean corn salsa and chiptle aioli; and a slow-braised lamb shank with creamy polenta and seasonal veggies, finished with a twice-reduced port wine demi-glace.

Collins has been on a mission to create lamb converts with the latter dish, arguing that people who say they don’t like lamb are thinking of their grandmother’s gamy-tasting lamb topped with mint jelly. So he created a lamb-based amuse-bouche to give reluctant diners a taste. “I’ve converted every single one of them. I have people who said ‘I don’t like lamb’ ordering the lamb shank.”

Sakey takes particular pride in the restaurant’s impressive — and affordable — array of wine, beer, and cocktails.

“I think our wine program is one of the things that makes us unique. Bill and I know what wine costs, and when we go out and see a bottle of wine being sold for five times the cost, it’s hard to take the leap,” he told BusinessWest, noting that some restaurants mark up the price three or four times what he does. “We want people to be able to try more than the house wine and not worry about getting taken.”

Added Collins, “it’s a matter of inventory — do I want to sell wine, or do I really want to sell wine? It’s no benefit for me to sit on one case of wine for years.”

the restaurant’s outdoor patio

Warmer weather means ideal conditions to enjoy a meal or drinks on the restaurant’s outdoor patio.

To make sure the food keeps bringing people back, the restaurant recent hired Andrew Brow as head chef. “He was chef at a French bistro in North Carolina, but had moved up here to be closer to his family,” Collins said.

Brow took a job as director of operations for Rachael’s Smoked Fish, a division of J. Polep in Chicopee. But his passion for the chef’s life eventually took over. “We wanted him to come in one or two nights, to keep his hand in it, and eventually he left Rachael’s and came here full-time. We’re fortunate — he’s been in the food business all his life.”

Collins characterized himself and Sakey as foodies, noting that they visit other restaurants regularly, keeping abreast of what’s happening in their industry. That passion for food, however, is balanced by what they call a refreshing lack of ego. “It’s collaborative; if Mike has the better idea for a dish, it goes on the menu. If I have a better idea, or if Andrew has a better idea, that goes on the menu.

“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little ego, but it’s ego about getting the best product on the menu,” he went on. “It’s a full-on collaboration. It’s a great process, and it keeps us all energetic about finding new ideas. You don’t want to be the one guy at the table without an idea.”

Star Struck

It has been, by any measure, a strong first year at Center Square Grill. “I don’t think we’re just lucky,” Collins said. “It’s taken a lot of hard work. But we’re fortunate in the way the outcome has turned out.”

As for that four-and-a-half-star Yelp rating, Sakey likes it just where it is, noting that it’s a reminder that he, Collins, and Brow can always aim just a bit higher. “Nothing’s ever perfect,” he said, “but we can be really good.”

Collins disagrees, saying he wants that extra half-star.

“The drive for five fuels my passion for food,” he said, saying it’s a constant obsession. One day, he was telling a friend about a conversation he had with his fiancée, Julia, while lying in bed, telling her about an idea for a new dish.

“Someone overheard me talking about that, and they said, ‘that’s your pillow talk?’ But I’m always thinking about what I’m going to do next, what’s going to be on the table the next day.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Restaurants Sections
The Alvah Stone Creates Cuisine for Every Palate

Howard Wein

Howard Wein says attention to detail has led to the success of the Alvah Stone.

Howard Wein is sitting at a copper-topped table positioned directly above the Saw Mill River in the Alvah Stone restaurant in Montague. The view of the waterfall rushing over a rocky surface below is mesmerizing, and the blues music that echoes softly throughout the historic, carefully apportioned structure was carefully chosen by him to enhance the atmosphere.

“We want this to become known as a community-based neighborhood restaurant that is also the best restaurant in the Valley,” said Wein, who opened his eatery a year ago. “But it’s not a special-occasion place. It’s very casual and very comfortable, and we are providing a service and resource to the community that didn’t exist. We are focused on appealing to different people for different reasons at different times of the week, which is why we have such a flexible menu.”

The restaurant is only one of Wein’s undertakings (more about that later). But it brings together everything he has learned in his career, which includes extensive experience in some of the most competitive markets in the restaurant and hospitality arenas.

“I’ve always wanted a brick-and-mortar business in the community, and this is my dream space,” he said. “You could put this restaurant anywhere in the world, and people would find the setting absolutely spectacular. It’s the most unique location within an hour in any direction.”

Preserving the Past

Wein conducted an in-depth study of the building’s history before renovating the interior, as he felt it was important to retain its character. It is one of several establishments in the historic Montague Mill, including the Montague Bookmill and the Sawmill River Arts Gallery.

“Many different things happened in this building,” Wein told BusinessWest. “In addition to being a grist mill, the logo for Louisville Slugger bats used to be stamped on them here, and it was once home to Martin Machine Shop. But the mill was built in 1834 by Alvah Stone, so I took his name for my restaurant.”

He also kept original machinery related to the gristmill’s operation, some of which is still embedded in the floor, and added a few other historic pieces. But he also injected a modern flair into the space, which can be seen in details such as the citron color of the drink menu, which was created to match the hue of the overhead light fixtures.

Wein also built a bar that serves fine wines and draft beer, including Alvah Stone Ale, made for the restaurant by Lefty’s Brewery in Greenfield, as well as a full stock of liquor.

The Alvah Stone was designed to appeal to a wide audience, and its menus include the best meat and produce that can be found in the region, Wein said. “We are very focused on using local ingredients that are produced close to us. Sustainable agriculture is very important to me,” he noted, adding that he doesn’t limit his business to farms labeled ‘organic’ because he knows the certification process is costly and there are many “very small, talented local growers in the area.”

The Alvah Stone’s outdoor patio

The Alvah Stone’s outdoor patio is set above the scenic Saw Mill River.

However, he takes great care with the menu, grouping the selections into several categories. People can stop in at the bar and get a homemade pretzel and a beer or hot dog on a brioche bun, share a few items with friends, or order a full meal prepared with ingredients grown in the area.

For example, the restaurant serves Wagyu sirloin, which is the American version of the renowned Japanese Kobe beef known throughout the world for its quality. “We get it from Royalton Farms in Vermont. They are the only producer east of the Mississippi that breeds this beef. It’s very, very rare,” said Executive Chef Dave Schrier, adding that the farm also raises highly sought-after Berkshire and Mangalitsa pork.

Schrier loves all types of food, and although the menu is strongly influenced by Southern and American dishes, there are also items with a bold Asian influence, such as soba noodles and bok choy. “We don’t label ourselves farm to table, but 95% of what we use comes from local farms,” he said, adding that the menu changes frequently.

Wein said local ingredients, including fresh juices, are used in many of the cocktails, and herbs such as sumac and pepper are infused into vodka and other spirits.

“We give everything we do here a lot of thought. The Alvah Stone is not about me; it’s about the experience people have here and the team who serves guests from the moment they enter,” he said. “It’s also about the colors we use, the music we play, and the way tea is served. Every single detail, including every word on the menu, matters.”

To that end, even the menus are in distinct colors: black and white for the food and citron for the cocktail selection. New drinks are created frequently with names that reference the area’s history, such as the Machine, Scotch Shagger, Old to Alvah, and Gristmill Grog.

Fusion of Knowledge

Wein’s illustrious career has come full circle at the Alvah Stone. He chose to leave a high-profile position in New York City four years ago to move his family to Leverett, which is a six-minute drive from where he established Howard Wein Hospitality LLC in 2011.

Everything on the menu at the Alvah Stone is made at the restaurant

Everything on the menu at the Alvah Stone is made at the restaurant, including the sausages, hot dogs, breads, hot pretzels, and pastries.

He met his wife, Jennifer, in 1993 when they were both students at Hampshire College, and after Wein graduated with a degree in culinary arts and business, he stayed in the area while she finished her studies. “I was cooking at Sienna Restaurant in South Deerfield and was also the executive director for food and beverage at Jacob’s Pillow,” he told BusinessWest.

But he wanted to own his own business, so he returned to school and earned an MBA from the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, which launched him on an ambitious career path. “I took a job at the corporate office of Starwood Hotels and Resorts in White Plains, New York, and was responsible for 400 hotels doing $2 million of revenue in food and beverages alone,” he said.

His next stint was chief operating officer of Starr Restaurants in Philadelphia, where he grew the company from a $40 million operation with eight locations in the City of Brotherly Love to a $120 million business with 16 locations in three cities. “It was amazing, but it was also exhausting. I was working seven days and at least 120 hours every week,” he recalled.

Four years later, Wein took a job as senior vice president of restaurants, bars, and entertainment for the Morgan Hotel Group in New York City. He commuted back and forth from Philadelphia each day and traveled frequently, as the group has hotels in London, Las Vegas, New York, Miami, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

But after his daughter was born, he and Jennifer decided it was time to move back to Western Mass., where they wanted to bring her up, so they left and bought a home in Leverett.

“My wife and I grow all of our produce and like being surrounded by an agricultural community,” Wein said. “This is a very liberal, intellectually-minded area, and people here are content with what they do and what they have.”

Shortly after, he opened Howard Wein Hospitality LLC, in the Montague Mill. He said the business has been very successful, with clients including Iron Chefs Geoffrey Zakarian and Scott Conant, who both regularly appear on the Food Network show Chopped.

But when the restaurant space next door became available, Wein was finally able to realize his dream of owning a restaurant business he cares deeply about.

Broad Audience

Wein is active in the community and serves on the Hampshire College board of directors. The institution was one of his clients before he became a board member, however, and he worked to connect the college’s food service with local farms.

As it has grown in popularity, the Alvah Stone expanded from a six- to seven-day operation. “This area is my home, and the restaurant is a big part of that. It’s an amazing place to work at every day, and we have built an amazing team and an amazing brand,” he said.

His statement is backed by positive reviews from both critics and patrons.

“This is a phenomenal place. It’s very calming and conducive to a fine dining experience,” said Nina Pollard from Hadley as she sat outside on a recent weekend and looked at the river rushing by.

Her dining companion agreed. “It’s a real retreat. The sights and sounds make it a moving oasis and work together to create a special ambience,” said Ann Kenny from Merrimack, N.H.

Wein is glad that people are enjoying his eatery and hopes it will grow and became a significant fixture in the Montague Mill’s history.

“We are trying to build something that will still be here in 50 years,” he said. “We are really committed to this, and everything we do is with a long-term vision in mind.”

Restaurants Sections
Hofbrauhaus Continues Traditions, Creates Some New Ones

Joe and Liz Stevens

Joe and Liz Stevens are now in their 20th year as owners of the Hofbrauhaus, which opened its doors eight decades ago.

It’s called “Sapelli lobster.”

It was given that name because Gene Sapelli, a regular customer at the Hofbrauhaus, liked his crustacean prepared a certain way, said Joe Stevens, the establishment’s long-time owner and chef.

“This is a two-and-a-half-pounder … we take all the meat out and then put it back in the shell, so all you need is a knife and fork,” he said. “We’ve been doing it this way since the ’70s.”

You won’t find Sapelli lobster on the printed dinner menu at this West Springfield landmark, but it’s always there, and the regulars know to ask for it. It’s more than a specialty, it’s a traditiom — and there are many of them here.

And there should be, considering that this is the establishment’s 80th year in business, and Stevens and his wife, Liz, are in their 20th year as owners.

There are also the many holiday buffets at the Hofbrauhaus. The place was packed for Easter, and Stevens is expecting the same for Mother’s Day, although he’s anticipating some late reservations because Mother’s Day (May 11) is coming hard after Easter, which was late this year, and “it might sneak up on people.” Meanwhile, Thanksgiving is a different kind of tradition. Indeed, while many eat at the restaurant, a number of regulars will give Stevens and his staff their order for a full dinner, and they’ll pick it up at a pre-arranged time at the back door (more on that later).

There’s also the annual game dinner each winter, the German outfits on the staff, the dozens of steins on the walls, and other culinary mainstays, such as a huge veal shank, which, like the lobster, isn’t on the menu, but regulars with a healthy appetite know all about it.

But this is a different and far more challenging time for restaurant owners than the landscape that existed in 1935, when the Hofbrauhaus opened, or when Joe and Liz Stevens took over in 1995. By his estimation, Joe said, 85 or 90 restaurants have opened in West Springfield alone since he assumed ownership — but who’s counting? And the list keeps growing; yet another burger restaurant is opening on Route 20 in a former Friendly’s location.

Meanwhile, the economy, while improved, remains sluggish, and discretionary spending is still undertaken with caution. And then, there was the tornado of 2011, which passed right over the restaurant and deposited new furniture acquired for the outdoor dining area, the so-called beer garden, into the Connecticut river.

The juxtaposition of all these challenges has necessitated the creation of some new concepts and programs, some of which are on their way to becoming traditions, said the couple. These include the ‘beer-of-the-month dinner,’ at which attendees can get a large stein of beer and dinner for $15. The featured libation at the May 7 event is something called Workers Comp Saison from Rhode Island-based Two Roads Brewery, and slow-roasted beef brisket and pan-blackened cod are on the menu for the buffet dinner.

The Stein Zimmer

The Stein Zimmer, used for small groups and special functions, is one of the many unique aspects of the Hofbrauhaus.

There’s also Fraulein Fun Night, which, as the name suggests, is a regular gathering of women (the first or second Thursday of every month) for food, beverages, networking, and a chance to become informed. Liz Stevens, who created this series, schedules a speaker for each get-together; the May 8 event features an intriguing program tiled “Where Chocolates and Vitamins Meet.”

“I try to feature someone fun, interesting, and who doesn’t cost them anything,” she said of the lineup of speakers. “We’ve had massage therapists, nutritionists, a life coach … it runs the gamut. It’s a fun night out, and the women look forward to it.”

The couple has even gone so far as to change, or amend, the name of the establishment, to make it clear that it serves much more than traditional German food. While ‘Hofbrahaus’ remains over the door, ‘Hofbrau Joe’s German Steakhouse’ has been added to the menu and most marketing materials.

This mix of and new and old, traditional, and different is enabling this landmark to add some new chapters to its rich history, said Joe Stevens, adding quickly that creating such blends is the challenge facing all restaurants today, and especially those that have been part of the landscape for decades and need to attract the younger generations.

High-steaks Venture

Stevens said there’s a beer cooler in the basement with walls that are a foot and a half thick.

That’s where he ordered everyone to go late in the afternoon on June 1, 2011, when it became clear that there was a tornado moving southeast through West Springfield, and the Hofbrauhaus was apparently in harm’s way.

“We had everyone wait in that refrigerator,” he recalled, adding that the twister apparently “bounced” across the property, touching down in the parking lot, damaging the beer garden, roof, and other parts of the building, while also taking down a house behind the landmark.

“It did not discriminate,” he said while reciting the damage and putting an estimate at $400,000. “It picked up some of the tables and chairs from the beer garden, deposited them in the river, and then went over the [Memorial] Bridge. We saw them floating there for a couple of days before they got carried away in the current.”

Using some humor to help get across his frustration, he said the insurance company “could not get me that money fast enough.” In reality, the last check came just a few weeks ago, after the matter went to court.

Looking back, Stevens said the tornado has been one of many challenges the institution has had to weather the past several years, including a recession that seemed without end, especially for a sector that feels downturns perhaps more than any other, and a crush of new competition along the I-91 corridor he serves.

“We’ve taken a few lefts and rights recently, but we’ve bounced back,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve recarpeted, redecorated, and taken some steps to bring more people to our door. And business has been good.”

Taking lefts and rights is certainly part of being in the ultra-competitive restaurant business, said Stevens, who should know — he’s been doing this for more than 30 years now as chef and owner.

His first foray was the Glass Lily, located in the Longmeadow Shops, which he owned and operated for eight years — a time he called a great learning experience.

When the Krach family, which assumed ownership of the Hofbrauhaus in the early ’70s, decided to put the landmark on the market a quarter-century later, Stevens took what he considered to be a calculated entrepreneurial risk.

The main dining room

The main dining room reflects the many traditions and rich history at the Hofbrauhaus.

Over the past two decades, the couple has continued those aforementioned long-standing traditions while also employing a number of strategies — from heavy use of social media for branding and event promotion to introduction of new programs that introduce, or re-introduce, people to the restaurant.

The name alteration is part of all that, said Stevens, noting that, with the addition of the words ‘German Steakhouse,’ the institution is generating new business by making the breadth and depth of the menu more apparent to all.

Indeed, while the restaurant serves German favorites such as weiner schnitzel, bratwurst, and beer-battered shrimp, it also offers a variety of steaks (some cooked tableside), Scottish salmon, rack of lamb, and, yes, lobster.

The popular holiday buffets continue to draw several generations of area families, he told BusinessWest, while the Thanksgiving tradition of cooking whole dinners for pick-up, which goes back to his days at the Glass Lily, represents a higher level of customer service.

“People order a whole turkey with me, I cook it, they get stuffing, vegetables, potatoes, whatever they want for sides, and off they go,” he said, adding that the nearby Dante Club makes its ovens available so Stevens can meet 60 or more orders a year. “People know the drill — they come in the back door, their times are set every year. We work through the night, but have a great time doing it.”

Meanwhile, some of the new initiatives are expanding the customer base, he went on.

The beer-of-the-month dinner is helping to make a traditionally slower night, Wednesday, less so, he told BusinessWest, while the Fraulein Fun Nights are attracting crowds averaging about 40 women.

Many of them are business professionals, said Liz Stevens, adding that she has regular groups from Baystate Health and MassMutual, but also new faces every month.

But beyond the new initiatives, new carpeting, and a larger, lighted parking lot, the basic ingredients in the recipe for success haven’t changed, Joe said. “It’s still all about offering good, consistent service and good food. It’s as simple as that.”

Art of the Matter

Joe Stevens said there’s a lot of history at the Hofbrauhaus, from the old, art-deco neon clock in the kitchen, which dates back to when this was a dinner and dancing hall in the ’30s, to the stained-glass windows in the dining room (used for small groups) called the Stein Zimmer, to the mural depicting scenes from Germany that wraps around the main dining room.

The Krach family uncovered it while cleaning one day — it was buried under decades of accumulated grease, dirt, and tobacco smoke — and spent months restoring it, said Stevens, adding that it is one of many topics of discussion for long-time customers who know the history and can point to the small patch that was left uncleaned to show how dark and deep the filth was.

“We have so many customers that come in and tell us stories about this place from when they were growing up,” he said, “ because it’s been here their whole lives. They talk about how their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers have been there, and all the weddings this place has done.”

The challenging assignment moving forward — one that Joe and Liz Stevens have undertaken with determination and imagination — is simply to write more history.

And they’re doing just that.

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

Restaurants Sections
Tavern on the Hill Owners Are Providing Much More Than Scenery


Lawrence and Amy Guyette

Lawrence and Amy Guyette say they take pride in making not just good food, but strong community connections.

“The view is just gravy.”

That was a line from a Republican review of the Tavern on the Hill restaurant from several years ago. Many other things were written, of course, about this establishment located in the shadow of Mount Tom near the Easthampton-Holyoke line — regarding the food, the service, and the experience.

But that single line has lived on at this landmark, and over the years it has become equal parts unofficial slogan, rallying cry, and mission statement.

That’s because the view is, well, spectacular. It’s a draw, and it’s probably what people will remember most from a visit to this eatery on Route 141. But, while powerful, the scenery is generally not enough to bring people back, said Lawrence Guyette, a long-time restaurateur who bought the property — operating then as a sandwich and ice-cream shop — with his father-in-law, Jim Cooper, in 2005.

“Growing up in Easthampton, I knew this location was different than anything else in the area, a really cool place for a restaurant. When we found out it was available, we were really excited to purchase it,” said Guyette, who serves as owner-chef. From the beginning, he added, he understood that quality food and service, not the view out the windows or from the parking lot, would generate repeat business.

And because he’s been able to provide those tangibles, the tavern has enjoyed solid success over the past decade, despite a mostly sluggish economy and a host of other challenges.

Cooper died in 2013, but his legacy is carried on each day by his son-in-law and his daughter, Amy Guyette, the restaurant’s general manager. Running the business as a family gives them a great deal of pride, but most rewarding to the Guyettes are the community connections the restaurant has enabled them to make, a reflection of Cooper’s mentality.

“He was always really active with the restaurant,” Amy said of her father. “He loved helping the guests with anything they needed, even parking their cars in the lot. He always wore Hawaiian shirts, so our staff will have a special day coming up where we all wear Hawaiian shirts to work.”

Like most local restaurant owners, the Guyettes have faced challenges over the last few years in competing for customers. With new establishments recently opening in the area and national chain restaurants continuing to benefit from massive marketing campaigns, the competition is exceedingly stiff in the restaurant industry.

“Two years ago was a peak for us, the best we’ve done so far; everything was firing on all cylinders, and business was fantastic,” Lawrence said. “Since then, we’ve seen a dip in the last year. A few new restaurants have opened lately, which makes it a little tougher for everyone in the business. Overall, things seem to be starting to improve again lately, especially for dinner.”

A restaurant-business veteran for nearly 30 years, he understands the importance of constantly adapting and improving to provide guests with a quality experience year after year. Oftentimes, those improvements appear on the menu, especially when special requests are made. Guyette has been experimenting with smoked ribs in recent months, much to the delight of those who’ve tried them, and he also added burgers to the dinner menu a few weeks ago.

“We had so many requests for burgers that we decided to put them on the dinner menu,” he said. “It’s a new addition that has worked out really well for us.”

The Guyettes are also contemplating a weekly steak night, with various selections available to guests. They are still in the process of working out the details, but it’s likely the concept will become reality.

For this issue and BusinessWest’s annual Restaurant Guide, we ventured up Route 141 for the view, but, more importantly, for an in-depth look at an evolving entrepreneurial success story.

Peaking Their Interest

Depending on when they grew up in town, Easthampton residents have differing childhood memories of the property where Tavern on the Hill stands.

Way back in the Roaring Twenties, a small establishment called the Green Candle Inn served as a popular stop for travelers navigating up the mountain. Two decades later, in 1944, The Old Mill became a local favorite for its sandwiches, its pinball machine, and, of course, the panoramic view.

the view from their restaurant

The Guyettes know the view from their restaurant is an initial draw for some, but food and service keep patrons coming back.

Amy has fond memories of the place from her younger days. During her high-school years. she worked at the sandwich and ice-cream shop that operated atop the hill at the time, and now she’s come full circle by returning to the property as the manager of her husband’s restaurant.

“We used to always talk about what it would be like to own the place and have our own restaurant up here,” she said. “Anyone in this area knows about the place and the view, so that’s definitely a big plus.”

Operating on a minimal budget, Cooper and the Guyettes spent two months renovating the building before opening the restaurant to guests.

Over the years, the menu has evolved somewhat, but has focused on what’s known in the business as ‘creative American.’ Dinner options include everything from grilled salmon to pasta jambalaya; blackened beef tips to several burger options, including one named after the mountain next door. Prices range from $11 to $27.

In addition to its lunch and dinner service, the restaurant also regularly hosts private functions, with about 50 such events augmenting business each year. Lawrence said he’s seen a rise in the number of private events booked in recent years, particularly after-funeral functions.

“It’s always helpful when individuals or business owners recommend us to their family and friends. That really helps us secure additional events,” he said.

The view certainly helps with the task of filling the dining room with people and the calendar with events, but the Guyettes stressed repeatedly that much more is needed to succeed in an ultra-competitive marketplace where an ever-more-demanding dining public has myriad options.

Thus, they put the accent on building relationships and earning the trust of customers — as well as repeat business — through consistently reliable service.

“The relationships are definitely the best part of the business,” Amy said. “I love having relationships with our customers and getting to see their kids grow up. Maintaining great relationships with the staff is huge as well; we’re all a family here.”

Indeed, one tenet of this industry is that no establishment can survive for very long without a solid staff. The Guyettes recognize the importance of not only hiring experienced staff members, but keeping them in the Tavern on the Hill family.

One server and almost the entire kitchen staff have remained with the restaurant since 2005, a difficult feat to accomplish in an industry known for frequent turnover. Amy described hiring qualified, dependable staff members as one of the lesser-known challenges in the business, a challenge she prefers to avoid by aiming to keep the staff intact.

“It definitely isn’t easy to find people you can really count on. You want to hang on to those people when you get them,” she said.

Tavern on the Hill boasts a staff of up to 50 people during its busiest summer months, including bartenders to work the indoor bar and the outdoor setup on the deck.

In addition to relationships with customers and staff, the Guyettes also believe in establishing them with the community as well. They believe restaurant owners have a responsibility to be active in civic life, a belief evidenced by their continued commitment to community service.

Tavern on the Hill has served as a sponsor for several area sports teams in the past decade, in addition to donating raffle prizes to the Southampton Athletic Assoc. and Boys and Girls Clubs in Chicopee and Holyoke.

Moreover, as the president of Easthampton Friends of Football — an organization that has been striving to build a new football field for high-school and youth teams — Amy has been committed to working with city leaders to help secure Community Preservation Act funding for the project.

“I feel like it’s an obligation for us to support the community that supports us every day,” she said. “If people come out and spend their money here, then we have an obligation to put money back into their communities.”

As both the owner of the restaurant and a chef who prepares meals there, Lawrence Guyette has been thrilled by the support Tavern on the Hill has received from the community. He sees it every day, from the lunch regulars to a sometimes surprising dinner guest.

“You never know who’s going to come through those doors,” he said. “You always meet different people — firefighters, police officers, the mayor, people who have dinner here with their families or a quick lunch meeting — and it’s pretty special to have a chance to get to know so many members of the community. We really appreciate all of the support we get.”

View to the Future

One can certainly see a long way from the tavern, out over Easthampton and other towns to the west.

One thing you can’t see, obviously, is the future; no one in any business can do that.

What the Guyettes are trying to do is anticipate it, and be ready for the likelihood that it will include an increasingly challenging environment in which to operate and even more choices for the dining public.

Which means they have to work even harder on that unofficial mission statement and make sure the line from that aforementioned restaurant review remains as true as the day it was written.

Simply put, the view must always be just gravy.

Restaurants Sections
Despite Challenges, Local Restaurateurs Have a Positive Outlook for the Holidays

Victor Bruno

Victor Bruno has successfully paired meet-and-greet and food-sampling efforts to bolster his restaurant’s promotional card program.

Victor Bruno has never run from hard work.
As a young boy, he sold cans of soda at the Italian Festival in Springfield’s South End, making a nice profit for pocket change. Fast-forward 30 or so years to 2011, when he used the most basic form of grass-roots marketing — the meet and greet, and food sampling — to brand his barely year-old Worthington Street restaurant, Adolfo’s Ristorante, an homage to his late father.
Bruno and two of his employees spent four weekends in the West Springfield and Enfield Costco locations offering samples of his stuffed mushrooms to promote his new venture through the Costco discount gift-card program.
“I was there from when the store opened until I ran out of mushroom caps each time, and I met thousands, and I mean thousands, of people, and we would talk about the restaurant and downtown Springfield,” Bruno recalled.
He heard it all, and the most pervasive issue was the perception that Springfield isn’t safe anymore. “But I told them, it’s the entertainment district, and we have valet parking and good lighting; you’ll have a great meal — and I’ve seen thousands of those cards come back.”
Bruno knows the restaurant business is one barometer of how willing the public is to indulge in discretionary spending. With the all-important holiday shopping season just beginning, there is some cautious optimism among the restaurateurs that BusinessWest spoke with, although it was tempered with concern about what will be a short holiday shopping season.
“Sadly, this was the latest Thanksgiving possible; we’ve lost a week of shopping time, and that hurts all restaurants,” said Robert Luz, president and CEO of the Mass. Restaurant Association (MRA). “But we continue to extricate ourselves from the Great Recession, and generally speaking, we’re starting to come out of this, and consumers are a little bit more confident about spending dollars.”
Bob Luz

In spite of a shortened selling season due to a late Thanksgiving, Bob Luz says, consumers are more confident to spend.

Luz expects holiday sales to be flat or in the negative, mostly due to that lost week. His organization offers business assistance to restaurant-industry members — most importantly legislative advocacy. According to Luz, as restaurateurs get through this shorter holiday season, they have a potentially disparaging issue looming with a recent bill that just passed the Senate and is headed toward the House that could raise not only the minimum wage for all industries, but also the base of tipped wages for waiters and waitresses in the restaurant industry, increasing their minimum wages by 71% (more on this later).
For the restaurateur, food-price increases are only the beginning; city taxes, property insurance, workers’ comp, and liquor-liability costs are also increasing. “There’s only so much you can get from a stone,” said Bruno. “And all businesses have some of these costs, too. But in the restaurant business, we’re working with a profit margin of nickels and dimes.”
For this issue’s focus on restaurants, BusinessWest talked with some industry veterans about the holiday season ahead, as well as the much bigger picture — the challenging environment in which they’re operating and the prospects for improvement.

Main Menu

As if the Great Recession and recent food-price increases weren’t enough for local restaurateurs, a week before Thanksgiving, Senate President Therese Murray advanced a plan to raise the minimum wage from $8 to $11 per hour over the next three years. The Senate voted for that wage increase, and Luz of the MRA was prepared for that hike, which would certainly affect any business owner.
But in the same session, the Senate also voted to increase the minimum wage for tipped employees to half the minimum wage. With the tipped wage currently at $2.63 per hour, it would now force restaurateurs to pay them $4.50 per hour this year, a 71% increase, which will continue to increase over the next two years.
“It’s been frozen since 1999, because it works,” Luz said. “Over that time period, waiters’ and waitresses’ wages naturally increased because of menu inflation and because we educated our members’ employees to declare all of their tips.”
Technically, Luz said, employers have to meet the current minimum wage for those waiters and waitresses whose declared tips don’t equal current minimum wage, but that is rare because they usually do make solid tips. Waiters and waitresses in Massachusetts, he went on, are already paid the most in the country, as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that they earned an average hourly wage of $13.13 in 2012, when tips are factored in. Should this new increase for tipped employees pass, employers will be footing yet another increase for something that Luz said doesn’t need a separate increase.
The MRA offers its members information sharing, education and training, forums for networking, cost-cutting group-discount opportunities, and, most importantly, legislative advocacy.
“The restaurant business is highly labor-intensive, and when you affect wages like that, it’s dramatic,” Luz said. “We’re the entry-level point for a lot of jobs, but the business has a razor-thin bottom line.”
Luz added that the MRA is working to finalize a formal strategy to fight this matter in the Legislature.  But heading into the holiday season, there are significant issues that already exist for the network of Western Mass. restaurateurs.
For the past 14 years, Chris Brunelle has been the owner of Pinocchio’s Ristorante (formerly in Amherst, now in Three Rivers), and is also general manager of the new Bistro 21 at the Cold Spring Country Club in Belchertown. Through those two businesses, he’s come to the formal conclusion that there may be no bounce back to where things used to be pre-Great Recession.
“This is the new norm; the cost of doing business in the last year to two years for food alone has gone up 6% to 22%, and everybody is paying for the October snowstorm from two years ago because our insurance prices have gone up another 20%,” added Brunelle.  “That’s just the cost of doing business, and you can’t pass that cost down to your customer.”
Judie Teraspulsky, owner for the past 36 years of Judie’s restaurant in the center of the vibrant college town of Amherst, said her professional life revolves around when students are in town; she’s survived the Great Recession by streamlining every area that she can, and running the restaurant, from purchases to staffing shifts, with extreme efficiency.
“We are tight, tight, tight,” said Teraspulsky. “We don’t lay off employees, because they are the most important factor in our business.”
As hard as things get for Brunelle, his philosophy, year-round, is the same as Teraspulsky’s: he’s staying strong due to his allegiance to his employees, many of whom have families, and four specifically who have been with him for the full 14 years.

Gifting Limit
Rudi Scherff, manager of the Student Prince, a landmark eatery in downtown Springfield that just celebrated 78 years in business, is used to the ups and downs of the hospitality business. Scherff, who undoubtedly has one of the strongest and most affluent regular clienteles in the Pioneer Valley, said he’s getting the sense that, while there is apprehension and concern, people are a bit happier with at least the regional economic situation than they were a year ago.
Scherff told BusinessWest that the holidays are “huge” for his restaurant, which does a solid 20% of the year’s business from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, and half of the gift certificates sold are during that same time span.

Rudi Scherff

Rudi Scherff says the holidays are a very busy time, when half of the year’s gift certificates are sold for the Student Prince.

“We’re going to be busy this season, and the eight days before Christmas are as much as we can handle,” Scherff noted, adding that banquets and events, entertaining up to 90, are a big part of that equation.
While Teraspulsky may not be as straight out as Scherff this time of year, she still sees the holiday season as very important to her business.
“Where I shine during the holidays is that you can come in and do just a dessert or a popover, or one of our great cocktails,” she said, adding that her menu, from the beginning, has afforded her customers the ability to have whatever they want, when they want it.
Teraspulsky and her staff of 90 push the gift certificates hard to get that return that will pick up the cash flow once the 50/50 percentage of college students and traditional customers returns.
Bruno is also looking forward to this season, not only to see those Costco cards come back, but to sell more gift certificates in the restaurant, and he’s already booked early corporate parties in his private room upstairs, seating up to 45 people.
“There’s still that caution with spending,” said Bruno, recalling the days in his former restaurant, Caffeine’s, in the same location, where customers used to spend $100 on a bottle of wine.
“Now they’re only spending $25 to $30 on a bottle of wine, but at least they’re spending it here.”

The Garnish

The potential of a downtown Springfield casino complex in the years ahead provides holiday conversation and a giant question mark for many restaurateurs; while they are not sure if it will help or hurt them personally, ultimately, they hope that the pledge of far more people will materialize.
“We’re always optimistic come January, and for the [prospective] casino, during the construction phase — it’s going to be great for downtown,” said Scherff.  “And once it opens, it’s going to help some, hurt others, but hopefully it puts more feet on the street and gets more people down here.”
Bruno agreed, adding, “the perception of downtown is far, far worse than it actually is, but with a casino, there will be people, and people bring safety; my position has always been that we’ll be the safest downtown around.”
Until a decision is made, Bruno is doing everything in his power to overcome the challenges that all restaurateurs are facing this holiday season. His greatest compliments thus far have been from those who tell him that Boston’s North End, renowned for authentic Italian restaurants, has nothing on Adolfo’s.
“They tell me I should consider opening up another restaurant,” Bruno said, laughing as he explained, “because if you can make it in Springfield, you can make it anywhere.”

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Restaurants Sections
Max’s Restaurants Have Always Put the Accent on Giving Back


Max’s Tavern

Rich Rosenthal, center, owner of Max’s Tavern, with John Thomas, managing partner of the restaurant, and AnnMarie Harding, public relations director.

A casually dressed Richard Rosenthal, owner of the Max Restaurant Group, sat in a dining room of Max’s Tavern, his restaurant at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, talking about his company’s philanthropic efforts.
As the lunchtime crowd filled the restaurant on this recent crisp, sunny afternoon, Rosenthal was hesitant to take credit for the millions of dollars the Max Restaurant Group has raised in the Hartford and Springfield areas over the years for charitable organizations and other worthy causes.
“I don’t think about it too much,” said Rosenthal when asked about the legacy he was leaving through his organization’s philanthropic efforts. “We do it because it’s the right thing to do. We don’t pat ourselves on the back. We just feel like we always want to raise more money for these worthy causes.”
Rosenthal believes that successful businesses like his should feel obligated to be involved in charitable giving. His restaurants have been successful, he said, so giving back is the natural thing to do. To Rosenthal, philanthropy is just part of being a responsible member of a community.
“We became involved in charitable giving because people asked,” he explained. “You want to help because the customer really believes in what they’re doing, and you respect that.”
If Rosenthal is reluctant to take credit for his charitable work, other people are happy to shower him with accolades. As he was talking, Jane Albert, vice president of Development fo Baystate Health and executive director of the Baystate Health Foundation, joined Rosenthal and immediately thanked him for his fund-raising efforts.
“We have a wonderful partner in Max’s, and they make a significant contribution to our fund-raising effort,” Albert said. “It says so much about your organization.”
Since Max’s Tavern opened 10 years ago, Rosenthal has been enthusiastically involved in raising money in the Greater Springfield area, especially with Baystate Children’s Hospital, and most recently with the new Baystate Children’s Specialty Center. The annual Max Classic International Golf Tournament, held every fourth Monday in July, the first few years at Crestview Country Club in Agawam and now at Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow, has raised $1.2 million for Baystate since it was launched in 2004.
“The Max Classic is our biggest event,” Rosenthal said. “We usually have approximately 175 or so golfers; we sell sponsorships and hold an auction. We try to guide our funds to Baystate’s Children’s Hospital and its neonatal intensive-care unit.”
The Max Restaurant Group sponsors a similar golf tournament in Connecticut to benefit charities in the Hartford area.
Since 2004, money raised from the tournament in Western Mass. has bought beds and equipment for the neonatal intensive-care unit, as well as funding the Baystate Children’s Hospital asthma program, equipment for the pediatric intensive-care unit, and the pediatric care unit’s family waiting room and sleep room.
Albert said the money raised through the golf tournament has made the work of doctors and nurses at the children’s hospital more effective.
“The money raised by Max’s has saved the lives of babies who would not otherwise survive,” she said. “The money has gone toward resources we would otherwise not be able to afford. We have 720 babies in our neonatal ICU every year. With this funding, doctors and nurses can do a lot more to help these babies. These things would not be possible without Max’s corporate support.”
Max’s raised $150,000 during this year’s tournament, which will be donated to the newly opened Baystate Children’s Specialty Center at 50 Wason Ave. The money will go toward paying for the 34,000-square-foot building’s reception area.
The center will house the hospital’s 15 pediatric outpatient specialty areas, including cardiology, gastroenterology, neurology, endocrinology, weight management, and more.
For this issue and its focus on restaurants, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at how Rosenthal and his restaurants have put the accent on giving back to the community.

Philanthropy on the Menu
Rosenthal’s philanthropic efforts began in the Hartford area. He was an original member of Hartford’s chapter of Share Our Strength, the nationwide culinary organization dedicated to fighting poverty and childhood hunger, an effort he is still involved in.
“The restaurant industry overall should be applauded,” Rosenthal said. “I’d say chefs and restaurant owners give more time and money to charitable causes than any other industry.”
Among the other organizations in the Hartford area that Rosenthal has raised funds for is the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center (CCMC). Working with that facility inspired him to become involved with Baystate Children’s Hospital when he opened Max’s Tavern.
“We found in working with CCMC that they were a terrific organization,” Rosenthal said. “You always felt good about working with them, and it was somewhat personal for me. I had small children at the time. When we opened in Springfield, our goal was to do something local, and Baystate Children’s Hospital was a natural fit. They’ve been equally great to work with as CCMC.”
Besides its major philanthropic endeavors, the Max Restaurant Group has a component called Max Cares, which hosts charitable events, like wine dinners, and gives away gift cards. The Max Cares link from the Max Restaurant Group website features a form to request a donation and the reason for the donation.
“Max Cares was started early in our operations,” Rosenthal said. “It was really a name we gave our donation arm because of the Internet. We get about 100 requests for donations a month company-wide.”
Rosenthal started working in restaurants when he was 16. He grew up in West Hartford and graduated from Hall High School, before attending Bentley University, graduating in 1981. He continued his education at New York Restaurant School in Manhattan, where he trained as a chef before graduating in 1983.
“I knew I wanted to be a restaurant owner, but I also realized I wanted to learn to cook,” he explained. “I worked as a chef for four years after I graduated, three in New York City and one as a chef and manager in Newport.”
Although not the owner, Rosenthal was involved with the opening of a restaurant called the Main Brace in Newport, R.I. He called the endeavor “extremely unsuccessful” because of a number of factors, including the location, lack of funding, and the timing of the opening. “Although the restaurant failed, I learned a lot,” he said.
While out of work in Newport, he decided to move back to Hartford to open a restaurant on familiar turf. “The Hartford area was booming at the time,” he said. “It was a town on the upswing. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the city. I had a base and contacts there.”
On Nov. 14, 1986, Rosenthal opened the first restaurant in what would become the Max Restaurant Group, called Max on Main, later to be renamed Max Downtown after it moved to Hartford’s business district in 1996. He now owns nine restaurants and will open his 10th in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. in March.
When Rosenthal heard that the Basketball Hall of Fame was being built in Springfield, he decided to become involved in the project and opened Max’s Tavern in 2002.
Since expanding into the Springfield area, Rosenthal has become immersed in charitable giving beyond his organization’s efforts on behalf of Baystate Children’s Hospital. Besides sponsoring the Max Classic Golf Tournament, the Max Restaurant Group has raised $63,000 for Ronald McDonald House of Springfield, 14,000 for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Springfield, $11,000 for the Longmeadow Educational Excellence Foundation, and $3,100 for Massachusetts Special Olympics.
Springfield’s Ronald McDonald House has been supported by the Max Restaurant Group for nine years. Enix Zavala, house manager and associate director of planned giving for Ronald McDonald House, said Max’s contributed $15,000 for a room in the 22-room house.
Meanwhile, Max’s Tavern has been involved with fund-raising for Ronald McDonald House of Springfield in a couple of other ways for several years. The restaurant has sponsored fund-raising events like Martini Magic, a martini-tasting event that, up until two years ago, had gone on for seven consecutive years. AnnMarie Harding, Max’s Tavern’s public relations director, is a member of the Ronald McDonald House board of directors.
The current major event sponsored by Max’s Tavern to raise money for Ronald McDonald House is the Teddy Bear Brunch, an event that’s been held for the past four years. The popular event will take place this year on Dec. 8 and has long been sold out.
“All the children who attend the Teddy Bear Brunch bring an unwrapped toy, which is donated to Ronald McDonald House,” Zavala said. “We had 250 toys donated last year, and we expect to exceed that this year.”
The Teddy Bear Brunch is a family event that features a brunch buffet, candy buffet, face painting, crafts, and other activities, and children who attend go home with an 11-inch stuffed Max Teddy Bear. During the brunch, Max’s Tavern also sells 100 loaves of multi-colored Rainbow Bread for $5 each.
“We’re doing what we can to create revenue for this event in new and exciting ways that people can respond to,” Harding said. “All the money from selling the Rainbow Bread goes to Ronald McDonald House.”

Recipe for Success
According to Zavala, children sometimes stay at Ronald McDonald House for up to two years, and often miss celebrating big events like holidays and birthdays at home. She added that many families come from different parts of the U.S. or other countries and are unfamiliar with the area and sometimes have a language barrier. Having a partner like Max’s Tavern to help create a comfortable and welcoming place to stay while children get much-needed medical treatment is invaluable.
“Without the support of Max’s Tavern and other types of community support, we couldn’t be able to continue our efforts to support these families,” Zavala said.
Similar words have been spoken by the directors of several other area nonprofits. Their specific goals and needs vary, but the common denominator is that they’ve benefited in significant ways from a restaurant owner who has made philanthropy a house specialty.

Cover Story Restaurants Sections
Area Landmarks Serve Up History — and Much More

BW0513aCovWhile all restaurants are destinations in many respects, some locations are unique, not just for the food prepared in the kitchen, but because of the rich history of the setting in question. For this special section, the 2013 Restaurant Guide, we venture to three establishments that could truly be called landmarks.

Not Your Typical Haunt

Theodores’ Thrives with Its Blend of Music, Barbecue, and Tradition

All Aboard

Steaming Tender Mixes Hearty Food and Railroad Culture

Center-stage Cuisine

The Whately Inn Has Come a Long Way Since it Hosted Burlesque

Off the Menu

A list of the region’s finest restaurants

Restaurants Sections
Theodores’ Thrives with Its Blend of Music, Barbecue, and Tradition

Keith Makarowski, left, and Keith Weppler

Keith Makarowski, left, and Keith Weppler say Theodores’ has become many things to many different kinds of customers.

The institution on Springfield’s Worthington Street known as Theodores’ is noted for many things — from the blues played on its stage to the barbecue smoked in its kitchen, to the pool hall upstairs where some of that food is enjoyed, said to be the oldest continuously operating billiards establishment in the country.
But lately, it seems the real story is the ghost, or ghosts, that some employees and a few odd patrons say they’ve heard or felt wandering the century-old landmark in the heart of the city’s entertainment district.
There were enough of those stories going around to prompt the producers of the TV show Ghost Hunters to stop by, take a look around, and get some readings back in 2008, roughly a decade after Keith Makarowski and Keith Weppler, who once worked together at Houlihan’s in Connecticut, acquired the place.
“They picked up some noises in the basement and also picked up some heat sensors from what they feel were apparitions,” said Makarowski, referring to the show’s team of experts. “There was some evidence, I guess, of random spiritual bodies.”
While not entirely in the believers’ category when it comes to the purported poltergeists, Makarowski and Weppler can’t dismiss the notion, either. They’ve both heard enough to create doubts.
“We were downstairs counting out the money one time; it was probably 2 or 3 in the morning,” said Weppler as he and his partner talked with BusinessWest at a table in the pool hall. “A few staff members from Theodores’ and the two bartenders from up here came down. We heard someone walking around, and we also heard some stools moved across the floor. We thought the door was unlocked and someone had gotten up there, but when we went to investigate, there was no one, and all the chairs had been set up on the tables for the next day.”
Said Makarowski, “I’ve never seen anything, but I’ve been here when some odd things that just can’t be explained have happened  — like things crashing, and then there’s no mess, and footsteps when there’s no one in the building.”
While the partners will find a few minutes to dwell upon the possible paranormal activity, they acknowledge that it’s somewhat old news. And besides, they’re generally much too busy tending to what is now a multi-faceted business operation.
Indeed, in 2002, the two acquired the pool hall (Smith’s, or Smitty’s, as it’s often called, named after the original owner of the property, Fred Smith), and purchased J.T.’s sports bar on Main Street a year later, giving them a sizable presence in downtown Springfield, where, said Weppler, business owners have to take advantage of every opportunity given to them, and ride out the many challenges.
At Theodores’, the former category involves everything from the business crowd at lunch and after work (which has been steady over the years) to the families that come downtown for Falcons and Armor Games and assorted Disney shows, to the eclectic constituency that gathers in the entertainment district on Thursday ‘bike nights’ in the summer. And then, there are those who want to hear some blues, as offered by the likes of Johnny Winter, Rod Piazza, Luther Allison, and countless others over the years.
Opportunity even came in the form of the freak October snowstorm in 2011, said Makarowski, noting that many cooped-up area residents needed a break from their four walls and found that at Theodores’, as well as working outlets with which to charge their electronic devices.
As for challenges, they include everything from the natural gas explosion last fall, which shut down the club for roughly a day and half during Thanksgiving weekend, one of its busiest of the year, to ongoing, yet unsuccessful to date, efforts to close downtown clubs at 1 p.m.
“It’s all part of doing business,” said Weppler, referring to items in both categories. “We tend to focus on all the great things that downtown can offer and try to key on those positives and build sales from the events that are already happening downtown. You just have to adapt, change, stay focused, and do the best you can to give people a great experience.”
For this, BusinessWest’s annual Restaurant Guide and its focus on landmark institutions, we look at an establishment that certainly isn’t your typical haunt in any way, shape, or form.

The Spirit Moves Them

Built in 1902, the building housing Theodores’

Built in 1902, the building housing Theodores’ has a lot of history — and a number of ghost stories — that only add character to the menu.

As he talked with BusinessWest about the property on Worthington Street, built in 1902, Weppler got up from his seat, went behind the service counter at the pool hall, and reached down for a dust-covered, framed photograph.
“That’s the Smith bowling team,” he said, motioning to a group of a half-dozen men standing and sitting around some bowling pins who practiced their craft on the fourth and fifth floors of the building, where there were alleys for more than a half-century. (Some of those aforementioned ghost stories involve hearing balls rolling down a lane decades after the alleys closed.)
There was no date on the photograph, but further commentary offered some hints.
“This was bowling before electricity,” said Makarowski. “You would bowl, and I would set up the pins and roll the ball back to you, and I’d bowl, and you’d set up up the pins.”
There is quite a bit of history to discuss when it comes to this property — and science (well, sort of), if you count the ghosts — but Makarowski and Weppler are far more interested in talking about the present and future in downtown Springfield, and, more specifically, their future.
They believe they’re well-positioned to take advantage of the positive developments that have taken place downtown and specifically in the entertainment district, and are withholding most comments about whether a casino will change the equation in the central business district if one goes there — and even if one is built in West Springfield or Palmer.
At Theodores’, they’re concentrating on taking full advantage of the establishment’s location, tradition, and ability to serve a host of constituencies.
“Theodores’ wears a lot of different hats for a lot of different people,” said Weppler, taking a phrase generally reserved for individuals and applying it to a restaurant and blues club. “For many business people, it’s a place to come for lunch, or after work, or for celebrations. For families, it’s a place to go before events at the MassMutual Center, and for other people, it’s a place to get great barbeque or listen to music. We’re a lot of things, and that’s what makes us successful.”
It had been this way since the late ’70s when it opened, and Weppler was well aware of all this as he became a consistent customer while working at the former Spaghetti Warehouse, just a few blocks away on Congress Street, in the mid-’90s.
Eventually, Weppler took on some shifts bartending at Theodores’, and as the restaurant’s owner, Teddy Rauh, closed in on retirement, he picked up more managerial assignments. When one attempted sale of the property fell through, the two commenced discussions about Weppler taking it over.
He approached Makarowski about going into business together, and the two acquired the restaurant and the property in 1999.
The blues music served up five nights a week is a huge part of Theodores’ identity and a major contributor to its success — it was named best blues club in the country  by the Memphis-based Blues Foundation in 2004 — but there are many ingredients in this recipe for success, as indicated by the main marketing slogan, ‘booze, blues, & BBQ.’
The menu is broad, with everything from burgers to steaks; jambalaya to chicken and sausage étouffée; sandwiches to salads. But the barbeque dominates the discussion.
And the process for smoking meat — from chicken to brisket, as well as the signature ribs, which come in three varieties — is much more of an art than a science, said Weppler.
“It’s never the same from one day to the next,” he said of the task of smoking a wide array of meats. “From the amount of the wood to the weight of the meat … it’s different every single day.
“Pork and brisket take 12 hours to smoke, and we’re literally putting it in every night and taking it out every day,” he went on. “We only smoke a limited amount of stuff, so when we run out, we run out.”
There is even a warning, of sorts, about these limited quantities right on the menu. “It is likely that on most days we will run out of certain items,” it reads. “Get here early or leave hungry.” Most regulars understand, and heed those instructions.
Meanwhile, the pool hall is now a big part of the mix, said the partners, noting that, while that descriptive phrase still works, the large room is not exactly that anymore.
That’s because there are simply fewer people playing that sport than decades ago, a statistical reality that explains why they have taken several tables out (seven remain, which they say is more than enough) and added such games as darts and foosball, brightened things up a bit, and made the second floor a venue for after-work gatherings, Christmas parties, and other get-togethers.
“When we first purchased it, this was an old-style Color of Money- or The Hustler-like pool hall,” said Makarowski, referring to two billiards-focused Paul Newman movies. “It was dingy, with a lot of classic players. But as those guys got older and pool fell off, we had to change and adapt and give it a fresh look and feel.”
Smith’s now focuses on craft beers — there are a few dozen on tap every day — and providing an atmosphere conducive to that wide array of events. Overall, it has become an important part of the bigger picture, said Weppler.

And on that Note …
As noted earlier, Weppler and Makarowski are not entirely believers when it comes to the many ghost stories concerning their establishment.
But they are firm believers in their landmark’s place not only in Springfield’s history, but in its future, thanks to the many hats it wears and the many constituencies it serves.
“We’ve always focused on just trying to have good food, good service, and good atmosphere,” Weppler said of the operating philosophy at Theodores’. “As long as we take care of the customers, we’ll have customers.”

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

Restaurants Sections
Steaming Tender Mixes Hearty Food and Railroad Culture

Robin Lamothe says the Steaming Tender is a destination.

Robin Lamothe says the Steaming Tender is a destination.

Robin and Blake Lamothe like to dig through history — literally. And 26 years ago, they came across a historical project they couldn’t pass up.
“My husband was a general contractor; he restored historic homes and buildings, and he was also an antique restorer of Model A cars,” Robin Lamothe said. One day, while driving through Palmer, he discovered a Romanesque-style train station, built in 1884 based on a design by renowned architect Henry Hobson Richardson.
In 1987, the run-down station was “a hodgepodge of businesses — a diner, a pool hall, a judo studio, a mechanic shop,” she told BusinessWest. “It didn’t look too pretty, but, being a restorer, he could see the inner beauty of the building and its potential. Then he saw the for-sale sign.”
So they purchased the building, intending to convert it to an antique co-op. “We had done our research, and because this was a historical property, we thought we could get some grant monies,” Lamothe said. “But in the late ’80s and early ’90s, those programs were getting cut, so we were left to do it ourselves. That’s why it took so long.”
She referred to the 17 years it took to restore and reopen the station — not as an antique store, but as the Steaming Tender restaurant, a railroad-themed eatery tucked alongside an active rail line.
“Neither one of us has a restaurant background,” she said. “As I said, my husband is a general contractor, and my background is in the marketing and advertising business; I was an event planner and coordinated events.”
Those backgrounds, however, meshed well for their current endeavor. The restaurant, which opened in 2004, is a mix of hearty American food and rail culture; train-related artifacts and antiques line the walls throughout, from the large bell overhanging the bar to a stack of century-old luggage near the entryway — not to mention the vintage train cars sitting outside.
“We’re consistently trying to reinvent ourselves, so that our customers come in and always find something new,” said Lamothe, who runs the day-to-day operations at the Steaming Tender. “We’re always being creative. If we find antiquities that we feel would fit with the restaurant, we bring them in.”
It’s all part of what the Lamothes hope will be not just a meal for patrons, but an experience. “People travel in from Boston, New York … they make it a trip. We’re a destination restaurant.”

Training Their Sights

The restored 1909 parlor car

The restored 1909 parlor car on the property is used for special events, from company meetings to bridal showers.

It was a destination of sorts for the couple as well, who lived in the Worcester area when they discovered the property in 1987.
“We lived in Spencer at the time, commuting back and forth, and that was getting hard, so we found a house and moved here,” Robin said.
The property they bought was filled with antiques — much of which she characterized as “junk” — but it had potential. So they started selling items out of the old station to help fund the restoration. “It was flashlight shopping, and we had no water line. And it rained in here more than it rained outside.”
As the restoration progressed, including major roof and structural work, they intended to continue the antique sales as a business model. “But it slowly evolved into a restaurant,” Lamothe said. They first planned to lease the property to a restaurateur, “but nobody could envision the dream we had, so we ended up doing it ourselves.”
But the journey to that point was a long, 17-year slog. “We didn’t want the work to interfere with the integrity of the building,” she said, noting that Blake preserved much of the original floors and original brickwork. That’s the kind of pace that might turn frustrating, but Lamothe said they didn’t get discouraged.
“We always had a goal. It was taking a lot longer than we thought, but we never gave up,” she said. “Today, sitting in the dining room, I still can’t believe we’ve done this. It’s amazing. People come in and say they appreciate all the hard work we’ve done. This was a blank canvas for us. We did as much research as we could.”
That research left some gaps. But when their design choices — a style of window used in the interior, a paint color — later turned out to be historically accurate, the Lamothes considered it a sign that they were destined to take on this project.
The first iteration of the restaurant, in 2004, was an outdoor-seating, counter-service-only model, which allowed restoration work to continue uninterrupted inside. “It was a little kitchen with fried seafood, pub-style food,” she said. In the fall of 2005, the Steaming Tender converted to an indoor, sit-down establishment.
Lamothe described the cuisine at the Steaming Tender as “American flair” with a few ethnic styles mixed in, adding that “I’m open to anything that tastes good.” Baked lobster macaroni and cheese is a house favorite, a dual nod to the extensive pasta and seafood sections of the menu. Diners will also find a broad selection of salads, sandwiches, steaks, pork, and poultry, as well as plenty of appetizer and dessert options.
The highlight of the latter is the whiskey bread pudding, a staple from the early days that customers keep coming back for, Lamothe said. “We like watching their expressions: ‘oh my God, this is the best.’ It’s a phenomenal dessert. We sell pans of it around the holidays, and it’s becoming a tradition for some of the families.”
The key to the food quality, she said, is freshness. “We’re open five days a week, and we have seafood delivered three of those days. I’m always bringing in new product, keeping it fresh. I get trucks in every day, so I can keep the meats and produce fresh.”
Cleanliness is important too, she said. “We close on Monday and Tuesday, and those days are for maintainance, rethinking, cleaning, inventory, everything else … I probably work longer hours on Monday and Tuesday than when we’re open.”
And the bathrooms are not only clean, but works of art in their own right; each is adorned with hundreds of antique photos, mounted like a timeless, room-size scrapbook.

Off the Rails
Every aspect of the establishment, however, is dominated by trains. “Everything is railroad-themed,” Lamothe said, from the setting amid active rail lines to the antiques inside, to the overalls and red bandannas worn by the waitstaff.
With about 40 trains passing by each day, the Steaming Tender prints a schedule each morning, and Lamothe said the long, windowed wall parallel to the track is considered choice seating. “People want to know the schedule, so we have it on our website and give it as a handout. The peak time is between 1:30 and 3, when Amtrak passes, and the conductor gets off and does the track switching and maneuvering … it’s good for the rail fan.”
The Lamothes are always looking to buy old locomotives and cars to add to the ambiance outside the station, she added. “We bought a 1915 Porter steam locomotive as a marketing piece, and we bought a 1909 parlor car to hold private events and meetings. We do a lot of company meetings, bridal showers, and wedding rehearsal dinners in there.”
The restaurant’s location isn’t the most visible, at the terminus of the dead-end Depot Street off Route 20. “Many people still don’t know where we are, and we’re always tapping into new customers. That’s where my marketing background comes in. We’re always trying to get our name out there.”
Those efforts include a plethora of special events every month, from comedy shows to educational programs involving working trains. “Last week, we had a meet-the-engineer event. People got up close and touched the engine — we had about 60 people for that event. Another event, coming up on May 7, is a presentation my husband and I do on the history of the station. We have about 100 people signed up for that.”
The Lamothes have landed the occasional high-profile coup, like the day Good Morning America stopped by to film there. Other media outlets have done stories as well over the past decade. But mainly, marketing the Steaming Tender means constantly building buzz and positive word of mouth.
“We’re still getting the word out — about the architecture, the trains, the food,” she said. “There are a lot of positive things going on for us, and we play up all the components and build on that.”
For example, “we do holidays right here. Christmas is huge,” Lamothe said of the extensive decorations the staff puts up. “People have compared us to Disney World; we have music pumping out of the engine, and people feel like they’re coming somewhere special.”
Last year, that atmosphere included hundreds of nutcrackers on the tables and throughout the building, most purchased at Christmas Tree Shops, where store employees must have wondered who these shoppers were clearing out the entire stock, she recalled with a laugh.
This summer will feature a new draw to the old station: the restoration of the park and grotto originally designed by noted 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
“We’re down in an industrial area. This will never be manicured gardens, but we’re almost there,” Lamothe said. “We did some research and found out it was a Frederick Olmsted park buried in gravel. After about 20 years, we finally bought the piece from the railroad, and three years ago, we began excavating and restoring this park. We’ve uncovered the grotto, and we’ve got some granite curbing to shape the park, and we’re in the midst of laying topsoil now so we can get some nice grass.”
It’s a natural progression, she said, from the fact that locals already come out on the weekends to sit along the roadway and watch the trains pass. “Having a park will enhance that whole concept here.”

Rolling Along
Even as she recognizes the Steaming Tender’s somewhat nondescript location, Lamothe said she’s pleased that new customers are continually coming on board.
“Starting from nothing, being on a dead-end road, it’s amazing how much awareness there is out there,” she told BusinessWest. “And once people find us, the next thing you know, three days later, they’re back with a whole group of friends, wanting to show it off to people. People come in and say, ‘I can’t believe I’m in Palmer.’”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Restaurants Sections
The Whately Inn Has Come a Long Way Since It Hosted Burlesque

Chip Kloc

Chip Kloc says the fire in 1984 was disruptive, but it ultimately proved to be an important turning point for the Whately Inn.

Stephen “Chip” Kloc III, chef and owner of the Whately Inn, remembers cooking dinner for his regular Wednesday-evening crowd back on Sept. 13, 1984.
The date is etched into his mind because what happened that night was unforgettable, and what’s happened since has become another important chapter in the long and intriguing history of this landmark establishment and family business.
“I noticed the ceiling — the paint was bubbling,” he recalled. “So I poked it, and a hole formed. I’m looking up, and all of a sudden it sounded like a train going through once the air got to it.”
‘It’ was a small fire that broke out in rafters dried by the intense heat generated by the broiler located below. The blaze went straight up a dormer, ignited the roof, and then proceeded to burn down from the second floor.
“There were probably 30 people in here at the time,” recalled Chip’s father, Steve, who followed his father, Steve Sr., into the restaurant business and eventually inspired the third generation to do the same. “But over the years, about 500 people have said they were at the inn that night.
“No one wanted to leave,” he continued, adding that there was a remarkable sense of calm amid the calamity. “Some people were saying, ‘oh, the fire’s just in the kitchen; it’ll be fine.’”
Several patrons left, but took their plates with them, said Chip, adding with a laugh that most people did, in fact, pay their bill.
With help from several fire departments, the first-floor kitchen, bar, and dining area were saved, but the entire second floor, except for the porch deck, was a loss. A renovation that took more than a year to complete provided a new, 75-seat second-floor banquet room where there had been none.
Though devastating for the Klocs, the fire turned out to be a pivotal turning point for the inn, which today focuses much more on quality cuisine and banquets and weddings — a far cry from its former role as a home for burlesque shows that played out on a stage that is now part of the dining room (more on that later).
These days, the excitement is in the delectable flavor and value of traditional American cuisine with French influences that Chip Kloc has perfected over his three decades learning and working alongside his father.
From the rack of lamb dijonaise to the broiled jumbo shrimp Francoise to the house specials of broiled filet mignon, beurre noisette, and prime rib, fine cuisine now takes center stage.
For this Restaurant Guide’s focus on landmark institutions in the Pioneer Valley, BusinessWest toured the historic inn that markets itself with the slogan ‘eat greatly at the Whately,’ and spoke with this father-and-son team about the establishment’s evolution and the family’s ability to capture and keep a following that is hungry and loyal, no matter the state of the economy.

Back in the Day

The Whately Inn’s historic dining room

The Whately Inn’s historic dining room features a stage area that showcased burlesque dancers in the 1950s and 1960s.

To help him provide a history lesson, Chip Kloc summoned a yellowed print advertisement for the Whately from January 1966. It hyped floor shows, including burlesque entertainment with comedians as emcees, as well as dinner and dancing in the the Rainbow Room. Boiled lobsters were priced at $1.50.
In addition to underscoring the rate of inflation over the past 47 years, the clipping begins to tell the story of how much has changed at this landmark on Chestnut Plain Road.
Popular from the 1860s to the 1940s, burlesque featured bawdy comedy and female striptease in cabarets and clubs, as well as theatres, and the Whately Inn was one of the few in the region to present the spicy form of amusement.
Chip was 6 in the mid-1960s and can remember the crowds.
“I used to sell the girls towels for 25 cents as they were coming off the stage,” he said with a laugh, noting that this stage still stands in the main dining room, next to the historic fireplace. “It sure was a destination back then.”
To explain how it became one, the Klocs went back further in time, to the years just after World War II ended, when Steve Sr. made his foray into the hospitality industry with two restaurants — the Williams House in Williamsburg and the Rainbow Club in Haydenville. The latter, which was destroyed by fire in the mid-’50s, was in many ways an inspiration for the Whately Inn, which the elder Kloc acquired later that decade.
“People used to come in here [to the Whately Inn] and say how much they loved the Rainbow Club,” said Chip, adding that this affection was spawned by the food and the entertainment, both of which were brought to the Whately by his grandfather and father.
Steve Jr. cut his teeth in the business at a popular restaurant and dance hall on the Connecticut River in South Hadley called the River Lodge, later renamed the Riverboat. He would essentially recreate that establishment’s menu at the Whately, which was sold by his father in 1969, beginning more than a decade of sharp decline for the landmark in terms of both its physical state and popularity.
Steve Jr. watched this downward spiral from afar, as co-owner (with his father and others) of other restaurants, including the Captain’s Table in Northampton. “The roof over the stage had collapsed because of snow,” he recalled, adding that, by the mid-’70s, the inn was in terrible condition.
“It was awful,” added Chip, “but the second owners after my grandfather sold it fixed it up a bit and restored it. The bar, the chandelier, and the front door are all handmade from trees in Whately.”
These owners were not able to turn the eatery’s financial fortunes around, however. And when they put the landmark on the market in 1980, Steve Kloc Jr. saw an opportunity to turn back the clock while also focusing on the future.

Holding Steady
While the fire in September 1984 was in most ways a setback, Chip and Steve both described it as a blessing in disguise because it pushed them to make updates to decades-old electrical wiring, put in four larger hotel rooms where there had originally been six, and add a second-floor banquet room.
When it reopened in 1985, the inn was a more flexible and responsive player in the hospitality sector, with fine dining, a banquet facility, and a hotel. And it has taken full advantage of this attractive mix of services.
With most customers coming from within a 50-mile radius, the inn has thrived through its regulars, those who have heard about it though word-of-mouth referrals and want to experience it, and a growing banquet business. The main key to its success is repeat business.
“Many people come at least once a month, and one couple has been coming every Sunday since the fire,” said Chip, noting that, during the recession, when other hospitality-related businesses were suffering or closing, the Whately Inn held steady.
“There was a decline, but nothing that seriously affected us,” Chip explained. “We’ve built this business consistently over the years, and we’ve been growing little by little every year. After the fire, there was maybe a little bit of a rush, but overall it’s been consistent growth.”
Since the recession, however, Steve has seen customers give more attention to the value they are getting with everything they buy.
“Some people look at our menu and say we’re expensive,” he said, “but if you look at what you get, we’re very reasonably priced.”
Specifically, what the Whately Inn is known for, besides its popular French-American traditional-style cuisine, is a five-course, prix fixe dinner, including appetizer or soup of the day, salad, potato, vegetable of the day (usually in season, fresh, and local), gourmet entrée, choice of dessert, and coffee.
Historically, the two most popular dishes have been the 12-ounce filet mignon and the 18- to 24-ounce prime rib for $30.95. Meanwhile, there is one item generally not found anywhere else — frog legs from Bangladesh and Thailand.
“We sell 30 pounds per month,” said Chip. “No one sells them anymore so we have them for the customers that want them.”
“We’ve had the same menu since day one,” Steve added. “We add daily and weekend specials every week, but the old menu has been good for us; it’s what brings the people back.”
The dining room holds 120, and on an average Saturday night, Chip and his staff will serve between 250 to 300 patrons. On holidays, reservations are made months in advance, and a typical Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, or Easter will attract 600 to 700 diners.

Just Desserts
In addition to consistent, quality cuisine, Chip said the Whately Inn’s employees are another key to success. One staffer has been with the Klocs since he was in high school, dating back to the Captain’s Table days in the 1970s. Chip’s mother, Fran, manages the bar, while his wife, Lisa, manages the dining room and schedules the waitstaff and any reservations. Chip’s brother Gary helps out as a waiter, and various other family members have pitched in over the years.
While Steve ‘officially’ retired this past January, when not in Florida, he still can be found helping out in the kitchen.
In his new role as the president of the family business, Chip said the goal is to keep the last three decades of fine dining and value steady, so loyal customers can continue to ‘eat greatly at the Whately.’

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Restaurants Sections
Tucker’s Serves American Cuisine the Old-fashioned Way

The Andersons and Evan Mattson, center

The Andersons and Evan Mattson, center, say that Tucker’s is not just a family-run restaurant, but a legacy of the chef’s professional career.

There are a few jobs that define Michael Anderson’s professional career as a head chef, but one that perhaps has the most significance was as a dishwasher.
Indeed, while scrubbing in the sinks at Storrowton Tavern & Carriage House in West Springfield, Anderson said he gained what he called the “building blocks” for a long legacy on the other side of the kitchen.
“I felt such a sense of camaraderie between the cooks and the waitstaff,” he told BusinessWest. “There was longevity in that kitchen — people worked there for over 30 years; it wasn’t seen as a stepping stone, where people say, ‘I’m only a waiter until I go on to a different field.’ These people were invested in it, and this was their life.”
But it wasn’t just the culinary bonhomie that attracted Anderson back then. It was the famous owner, William Kavanaugh — or ‘Tucker’ to his close friends and family — who became a mentor to the budding chef. Such was the impression made upon the young man that he said, “I knew way before I ever had a restaurant that his nickname would be its name one day.”
That day would not be in the immediate future, although Anderson said that, from the time he first put together a résumé as a chef, he knew that owning and operating was his goal. After learning the ropes on the line at Storrowton, ultimately becoming executive chef there, he catered for a few years until the call came that Yankee Candle wanted to open its own restaurant at the flagship store in South Deerfield, and the company wanted him to run the kitchen.
Opening Chandler’s Tavern in 1995, he said, was a good dry run for an aspiring restaurateur. “That was a real eye-opener,” he remembered, chuckling. “None of us quite knew what to expect. And when we first opened, we got blasted; we were doing 700 lunches a day.”
The 45-minute commute wasn’t very appetizing to Anderson, however, especially with a growing family. “It was right around the time our first daughter was born,” his wife and co-owner, Karen, said. “He came home one day and said, ‘I quit my job.’”
The man who always wanted to own his own spot wasn’t hanging up his pots to dry, though: right down the road from their home in Westfield, Anderson had spotted a derelict building for sale on College Highway in Southwick. “It took me only a couple of days to know that this was the place for my restaurant,” he said.
Today, Tucker’s sits across the street from that spot, in a building created for the husband-and-wife restaurateurs. Sitting down with BusinessWest, the Andersons were joined by Karen’s uncle, Evan Mattson, who is retired from his job owning an insurance agency. These days, he does the restaurant’s accounting, is the host, and rolls up his sleeves to tend bar on occasion.
The walls are cluttered with framed paintings by the couple’s children, Paige and Payton, making this truly a family affair.
But, of course, people come for the food, and there’s good reason for that. Anderson’s skills on the stove were honed over a lifetime of cooking, but they also hold the legacy of those mentors he had from his earliest days in a professional kitchen. ‘Tucker’ himself helped out in the earlier restaurant across the street, as proud as he could be, Mattson remembered.
And while the man who helped shape Anderson’s career isn’t around any longer to see his namesake thriving, he’s not far away: his portrait holds pride of place just inside the front door.

Dish Network
“I feel like I’m getting old when I say that I do things ‘old school,’ but you have to spend a lot of time to understand how the business works,” Anderson said.
“At Storrowton, I was with these guys every night on the line — you can’t learn these skills overnight,” he continued. “It takes years. And I still do things the same way now as they did then. They stuck to what they knew, and they were successful.”
While a student at Holyoke Community College studying culinary arts, Anderson said that one of his teachers was also his boss cooking at Storrowton. These lessons gave him the understanding of cooking solid fare from scratch. “Seasonally or otherwise, everything is made from your own recipes,” he said of his style. “Just like the way things used to be done.”
This level of integrity attracted the attention of the powers at Yankee Candle when they tapped him to run the kitchen at their new restaurant, and today, Anderson credits that experience as a firsthand look on how to market one’s culinary creations.
“They never stopped marketing at all,” he remembered. “Every week, there was some sort of event — not just dinner with Santa, there were Teddy Bear Teas, specials of every kind. It was fully gung-ho.”

William Kavanaugh

William Kavanaugh remains an inspiration for Michael Anderson, keeping watch from a wall at Tucker’s today.

But his only reservation was that he wanted his own kitchen, and when he saw the spot in Southwick, he said it “just clicked.”
“We didn’t have a big game plan, but we got the financing together,” he continued. “Karen was still working at MassMutual, which was a good comfort, because making a lot of money wasn’t my primary concern; I wanted to cook good food and do what I love.”
Today, Karen — who met Michael when she was busing tables at Storrowton — serves as the events manager, front-of-house scheduler, and occasional bartender; on this day, she also pulled a shift waiting tables at lunch. She said it was easy for a few years in the first Tucker’s location to pull down both jobs, but she agreed with her husband that it wasn’t the final destination for their restaurant.
After six years in the original location, the pair invested in some developable property across the street. “We always knew that we wanted to have banquet facilities,” she said, “something that was only possible at the other spot when we weren’t open for regular dining.”

Spicing It Up
Mattson joked that his wife sees him less often now than when he was running his insurance agency. But helping to run this family restaurant gives him an equal measure of pride.
“I look at all the comments that come in,” he said, “and I can honestly tell you that, on a scale of one to five, very, very seldom are they less than 4.8, which to me means that people recognize that this is quality food, they appreciate our service, and they like the value that they’re getting.”
Added to that dining experience is what the husband and wife hoped to create from the beginning of their dream — a space for events in Southwick. Two banquet rooms seat up to 150 people, and Karen mentioned that they see all manner of parties, from weddings and rehearsal dinners to showers and retirements.
Taking a cue from her husband’s years at Chandler’s, she said that Tucker’s has garnished its lunch and dinner menus with a regular series of special events. A wine dinner — five courses paired with different vintages — is staged four times per year (the next is expected in September), a comedy night held at similar intervals, and an increasingly popular beer dinner, with different brews paired with food. The recently opened Westfield River Brewing Co. is going to be on tap at Tucker’s — one of only a handful of eateries to feature the brand — and Karen said the next beer dinner should have these local suds served up with the specials.
But in a tough economy, all agreed that customers are seeking value, even though the menu at Tucker’s, running the scale from burgers to filet mignon, offers dinners at all price points. Responding to that, she said that the restaurant has offered special deals through Groupon, and in the last year has been offering customers the chance to redeem Big Y’s gold and silver coins as a coupon good for half off one of two dinners or lunches, respectively.
“Think about it,” she said. “Gas stations redeem them for 20 cents off a gallon of gas, but what is that, around two dollars?”
The emphasis, however, is and always will be on the food — Michael’s passion, and the main ingredient for Tucker’s success. There will be one additional foray into commerce outside the dining room, however — to bottle and market the spices he uses in his famous butternut squash recipe.

Natural Selection
The lessons learned in the kitchen at Storrowton are evident on the pages of Tucker’s menu, as he still likes to cook traditional, American-style dishes from scratch: Yankee pot roast, chicken pot pie, crab cakes, baked cod, sirloin au poivre, chicken cordon bleu, and many more. It’s honest fare served in a no-nonsense way, he said. “If I’m cooking fish, as one example, it has to be natural, some light seasoning —  just a good, fresh product. Not too much stuff on it. Keep it simple.”
And that philosophy carries over to all aspects of the business, from a family who understands that there can be a lot of heat in the kitchen if you don’t do things the right way.
“I love to cook, but to be able to sleep at night, I want to make sure that people get what they order,” Michael said. “When regulars call me to order food, they don’t ask the price, because they know I’m not going to jab them. There’s a sense out there, maybe, that restaurants put the screws to you, but that’s not a lot of restaurateurs. There are a lot of those people who are honest businesspeople making good food.”
And across the room, the portrait of ‘Tucker’ smiled over the conversation — a lasting legacy carried on by the protégé who adopted his ideas and made them his own. In Kavanaugh’s lifetime, he was proud to see what his former dishwasher had become.

Restaurants Sections
Mama Iguana’s Was Designed to Create Memorable Experiences

Bill Collins gives Claudio Guerra

Bill Collins gives Claudio Guerra a ride to his car on the restaurant’s free pedicab.

Talk about fun.
In fact, that’s exactly what Claudio Guerra did as he described how and why he created Mama Iguana’s in Springfield just north of the Basketball Hall of Fame. The Mexican restaurant, which opened last June, is a much larger version of the Northampton eatery with the same name and has been so successful, there was standing room only on the patio all last summer.
Hand-painted pieces of original Mexican artwork in vivid colors surround a large, gleaming rectangular bar in the semi-enclosed outdoor spot that seats 100 and has an adjacent dining area where the mood is lively, thanks in part to lights in a rainbow of bright hues.
The fun-filled atmosphere that Guerra created continues inside the three-story restaurant, which was designed to embody the spirit that is at the heart and soul of the six other eateries he owns. “We really try. It doesn’t happen by accident — it’s a labor of love,” Guerra said as he talked to BusinessWest about a lifetime spent in the restaurant business, which began when he was about 10 years old and worked as a coat checker in his father’s Long Island eatery.
Over the course of several hours, Guerra unveiled the secrets of his past and present success. The journey hasn’t always been easy, and when the recession hit in 2008, he had to reinvent the way he did business. But laughter and openness are givens for him, as he enjoys life, truly loves fun, and is always on the hunt for a new spot to open another restaurant.
In addition to owning and operating Mama Iguana’s in Springfield and Northampton, Guerra owns Spoleto’s in Northampton and East Longmeadow and the Paradise City Tavern, Pizzeria Paradiso, and Spoleto’s Express, all in Northampton.
Although they encompass different moods, Mama Iguana’s was designed “to be super-casual for super fun. It has the right price and environment for today’s economic reality and is a place where people can feel comfortable and relax,” Guerra said.
It boasts the largest selection of tequila brands in the Northeast, and more than 200 bottles of high-quality, 100% blue agave sit behind the bar. Many come from small microbreweries Guerra discovered in Mexico, and people can join a Tequila Club, which allows them to keep track of the varieties they have tried; attend sessions of the resaurant’s Tequila University, which features owners or speakers from the breweries; and/or make reservations for tequila dinners, with a menu of foods matched with appropriate tequilas.
Guerra did a major renovation of the the interior and exterior of the former home of Onyx Fusion Bar and Restaurant (the old Basketball Hall of Fame). He felt it lacked warmth, so he spent countless hours and a significant amount of money changing the lighting to make the space more intimate; it now includes enormous, wrought-iron candelabras. He also brought artists in from Mexico and California to create original works that include panels, papier-mâché sculptures, and paintings to insure it had an authentic atmosphere.
Oversized imitation skeleton heads also abound. They reflect the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration held to honor deceased relatives, and include two skeleton figures seated on a full-size motorcyles across from the stairwell between the first and second floors.
Guerra also did away with the TV screens behind the bar (although major sporting events are still broadcast on a large pull-down screen) and replaced it with “fun artwork.” Many pieces were purchased on shopping expeditions in Mexico, including the head of an angel, which weighs about 150 pounds and is almost six feet in height.
Guerra points out a large wall mural painted by an artist he brought in from San Francisco. It’s a replica of a carving from Mayan ruins, and has four gods seated in a canoe with a day and night paddler, meant to represent the cycle of life.
“When people walk in, they know this is not a chain,” he said, adding that the three floors of the building often accommodate entirely different types of parties.
“We can have a bachelorette party on one floor, a doctor’s convention on another, and a sporting event on the main floor,” said Bill Collins, director of Operations. “We turned this into a place that is beautiful and festive and took advantage of its great infrastructure.”

Dedicated Commitment
However, it takes far more than lively décor to make an eatery a success, and Guerra has a recipe with many ingredients.
The most critical — along with exceptional food and atmosphere — is the way the customer is treated. “I haven’t met a person who hasn’t had the experience of walking into a restaurant and being seated at a less-than-desirable table when other tables were available,” Guerra said.
It’s something he won’t stand for, and says he does not believe in seating people so the wait staff have the opportunity to serve approximately the same number of clients. Instead, he rotates their shifts between the most popular tables, and says it is up to them to ask co-workers for help if it’s needed. “My philosophy is all about accomodating the customer, and they should always be seated at the best possible table,” he said. “We understand the art of pleasing people.”
Since he believes the philosophy and resulting behavior in any business must come from the top, he plays an active role in demonstating the principle. Recently a little girl seated with her family of six asked him if she could order a glass of Orangina. He told her they didn’t have it, but asked her to “hold on” for a few minutes. “I ran to the nearest store and bought a bottle. I enjoy doing fun things for people.”
Although he acknowledges it’s not possible to accommodate every request, “on any given night at Spoleto’s we are cooking dishes we haven’t had on the menu for 20 years because a customer asked for them,” he said.
Everyone who works for Guerra is schooled in the belief that it is their job to make the customer feel welcome. He says the difference between a memorable experience and one that leaves a person unsatisfied occurs the moment they are greeted at the door.
“When a person walks in and looks at the waitperson, the experience is won or lost in a millisecond according to whether the person looks miserable or cheerful,” he said. “I have spent my life studying the way a person approaches a table. It’s part of the social structure of a good restaurant, and although anyone can learn to serve food, not everyone has the ability to make people feel welcome.”
Guerra says he has wait staff who have worked for him for 10 years and never had a complaint. “It’s not because they didn’t make mistakes, which is especially true for a high-pressure hosting position,” he said. “You can tell the customer there is a 45-minute wait in a way that will make them laugh. But it’s an art. The science is at the back of the house.”
That’s where the food is prepared, and every night the Mexican moles, salsa, and other sauces at Mama Iguana’s are tasted by the chef, cook, manager, and Collins when he is on site before they are served. Guerra says the word ‘mole’ means to chop, and every village in Mexico has their own version of the sauce.
“Our moles are the heart of our kitchen and have incredibly complex flavors with at least 25 ingredients, which can includes seeds, nuts, and dried peppers,” he said. They are used in a variety of ways, and a dish called Holy Mole with pulled chicken, pork, and sautéed vegetables is topped with three mole sauces. The menu is Tex-Mex, and prices average between $10 and $14 for an entrée.

Business Lesson
Guerra was born in Germany and immigrated to the U.S at age 3 with his family. His father found work as a waiter in New York City before opening a French eatery on Long Island. A short time later, his mother opened a German restaurant, and then his parents opened an Italian restaurant together.
Guerra was always in the restaurants, and graduated from checking coats to busing tables to dishwashing and eventually cooking. After graduating from high school, he served as an apprentice to a cook in an elite French restaurant in Europe. When he returned, his father opened the Mill on the River restaurant in South Windsor, Conn., and one day when they were driving around, “we stumbled onto Northampton. Before I even got out of the car, I looked around and knew, ‘this was it,’” Guerra said.
He opened Spoleto’s there 25 years ago and said it was a success from the start. “My formula has always been simple. Treat your customers and employees the way you would want to be treated.”
Guerra continued to open new eateries, including the upscale French restauarant, Del Raye, which he turned into a pub in 2008, and they all did well until the recession hit. He had opened another Spoleto’s in East Longmeadow as well as the Northampton Mama Iguana’s in 2007, and the downturn in the economy affected business across the board. “It was extremely tough. We were struggling to survive,” he said.
During that time, a consulting company contacted him and offered to conduct a free, in-depth analysis of his restaurants. Although Guerra didn’t hire the firm to make changes, the exercise did point out a number of areas that needed improvement. “So we rolled up our sleeves and concentrated on the nuts and bolts of our predicament,” he said.
And although the Springfield Mama Iguana’s did well, the restaurant group as a whole continued to struggle to turn the numbers around until the beginning of this year, “when the lights went on and we opened our eyes.”
Guerra said he finally realized he had too much invested in liquor and food. He reduced the inventory at his restaurants by 35% and began holding weekly meetings with all of his managers. In addition, every chef and manager was given a budget and had to do a weekly cost analysis.
“I never had to think about these things before. It was very painful, but now that the systems are in place, there have been some wonderful surprises; the managers are working harder, and the employees are energized. We have given them the tools and knowledge of how to do their jobs better,” he explained, comparing the way they operated in the past to a football team with great players but without a game plan. Now, everyone is informed about the plan, and all is going well.
Guerra said he’s happy he opened Mama Iguana’s in Springfield. “It’s a great market with high visibility. People want to be able to go out to a fun environment and not spend a lot, and Mexican cuisine allows you to do that.”

Recipe for Success
Many families and businesses hold parties and meetings at Mama Iguana’s. The third floor has pull-down screens that can be used for business presentations and is a quiet spot for those who seek that atmosphere, while the other floors are more lively.
And when guests leave, they don’t have to worry about how far away they parked because a cyclist sits outside, waiting to give them a ride to their vehicle in the restaurant’s pedicab.
It’s all part of the fun, and Guerra continues to do all he can to ensure that people will have positive experiences when they visit. To him, business is about making sure the customer has — what else? — fun, along with positive memories and, in this case, a great Mexican adventure in his Mama Iguana style.