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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]