Community Profile: Lenox
Lenox Boasts More Than Just Seasonal CharmsJohn Bortolotto understands that, from an economic perspective, Lenox is a seasonal destination.
“Predominantly, Lenox revolves around Tanglewood and Shakespeare & Co. and the multiple art venues in town, and as a result, we have a very productive summer. There can be a shortage of rooms in hospitality,” said Bortolotto, who serves on the Lenox Chamber of Commerce board of directors.
“If you talk to many of the local folks, you’ll find out that many have this preconceived idea that Lenox is busy from June through October, and then the town gets really quiet,” he added. “To an extent, that’s true.”
But he’s trying to get people to think about this small community — population just over 5,000 — in different ways, talking up its energy and recent commercial growth, and not just its many downtown inns and its high-profile performance spaces.
“From a chamber perspective, it used to be that, if you weren’t downtown, you kind of didn’t partake in all things Lenox,” he said. “What’s happening right now — what’s been happening for the last five years or so — is that Route 7, which is just outside downtown, connecting Pittsfield to Lee, has experienced growth of a different type. We now have three banks on that little stretch, where before there were only two downtown. We have multiple attorney’s offices, a fitness facility, a printing company, some retail.”
One notable success story has emerged in the Lenox Shops, a cluster of once-underutilized retail space along Route 7.
“It had a few stores, until a gentleman named David Ward bought the place and started revamping,” Bortolotto told BusinessWest. “He added condos out back and brought some non-retail businesses and restaurants to it. It’s going to be huge.”
In addition, Berkshire Health Systems, the largest employer in Berkshire County, will occupy a large portion of the complex, and healthcare services, from primary care to ob/gyn to yoga, will have a strong presence — and a flow of employees to support other businesses in the shops.
“So Route 7 has really come along, with more professional businesses and not just retail,” he added. “And, of course, we have Cranwell Resort, Spa and Golf Club nearby — a beautiful place to be.”
The character of fast-growing Route 7, with its chain hotels and motels, is different than downtown’s Main Street, Church Street, and surrounding roads, which play host to a number of inns, bed and breakfasts, and locally owned shops.
“Downtown is largely retail,” said Bortolotto, who is also branch manager of NBT Bank in town. “You have two banks, some attorney’s offices, a lot of realtors — that’s part of the makeup, some of the more profitable businesses — but the retail, they tend to close for a good part of the year. Church Street gets very quiet. Some restaurants choose to close for the whole winter season because they figure they lose less money by not adding staff and other expenses.”
Laura Shack has bucked that trend for two decades. She opened Roseborough Grill in downtown Lenox in 1993, then transformed it into Firefly, which she calls a “new American bistro,” 10 years later.
“Roseborough Grill had a great run, but that was because there were only 25 restaurants in Berkshire County, and now there are probably 125,” she said. “It got to the point where it was more of a struggle to maintain the antique, country feel, and I didn’t have a big bar. But I love what I do, so I reinvested and gutted the place, changed the name, and started over.”
Firefly features the huge bar she craved, and a décor that’s contemporary and rustic at the same time. “We changed the menu a little bit, did some tapas and light plates — just changing with the times — and it’s been a great run. There were times when the economy was struggling, but this is one of the few restaurants in Lenox that stays open year-round. We’ve created an extremely loyal clientele due to the fact that I cater to the locals tremendously. We went from having 10 people in the winter to 100. People come in, spend money, have drinks — and they come back.”
Shack partly credits a well-received series of daily specials, from a $5 burger to 50-cent chicken wings, a $16 prime rib, and $10 lobster rolls, which locals look forward to. She’s used a similar strategy at her new breakfast-and-lunch eatery, Kitchen on the Commons, located at the transformed Lenox Shops, and is a testimony, Bortolotto says, to the fact that local businesses can succeed year-round in town.
Our challenge as a chamber is to say, ‘look, if you build it, they will come,’” he said. “If you stay open, it won’t happen overnight, but people will come and spend. As they go ski in Great Barrington or Hancock, they may feel inclined to come to Lenox.
“The challenge is to get more people to downtown, yes, but Lenox is sort of changing that,” he added, noting that the chamber is actively trying to lure non-tourism-related business into its fold.
“Some of the professional service people say, ‘look, I’m not going to join the chamber because I really don’t see the benefit; the chamber revolves around the arts. But I work in a professional business, working with attorneys, electricians, and car businesses, and when I joined the chamber, one of my goals was to add value to those businesses. We’re trying to do some of that.”
Taste of Home
A New York City native, Shack said she came to Lenox for the summer 23 years ago and never left. “What I’ve learned is, you have to cater to the locals, and you have to be super warm and friendly and welcoming. I have staff who have been with me for 20 years; I’m known as Mama Shack, and I’ve raised a lot of kids out of there. They started at the age of 13 or 14, and some are still here. They started out busing tables, and I taught them how to cook or bartend.”
One of those, Zee Vassos, left Roseborough for college but decided the food industry was what he loved, Shack said, “so he came back and helped me open Firefly. Then, after being out in Boston for a few years, he came back again, and we just opened Kitchen on the Commons in May. We had a great summer. David Ward, who owns the complex, really turned it around.”
Bortolotto said the chamber has become more open to cooperating with local towns on events and marketing. “It’s one county, not ‘we’re Lenox, and you’re everyone else.’ We’re mixing more, and we’re more open-minded these days than we were 10 or 15 years ago, definitely.”
There’s more to Lenox than its downtown and Route 7, of course, including Lenox Dale, a blue-collar village straddling Lenox and Lee that used to be home to a cluster of paper mills and today still features some manufacturing.
But, overall, Lenox is mainly known as the home to arts destinations like Tanglewood — where the Boston Symphony Orchestra plays — and a knot of rustic inns, while Bortolotto and the chamber continue to raise the profile of the town’s other charms.
Shack certainly finds the town charming, and hated the early days when she closed for part of the time during the off-season. “I find continuity is really important, being open seven days a week, so people don’t ever question, ‘are they open?’
“I love the people. The town is great,” she continued. “Obviously, having Tanglewood around the corner is wonderful. But I’ve really gotten to know the local people, and the clientele makes it really nice. People are grateful I’m here for them, and I’m grateful to have them.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]