High Steaks Venture
350 Grill Has Become a Choice Venue
The original plan was for something much different a simple luncheon facility catering mostly to the business crowd. But those plans changed, considerably, and what has emerged with the 350 Grill is an intriguing addition to the downtown Springfield restaurant and entertainment scene, one that appeals to many different audiences.
Sherri Via says that, although the original business plan for the 350 Grill wasnt actually written in pencil, it might as well have been.
Thats how much things changed since the initial concept was first put on the drawing board close to two years ago.
Indeed, what was originally conceived as a venue to provide a significant upgrade to lunch offerings for the neighboring Mardi Gras gentlemens club has instead become one of the more intriguing and successful additions to the downtown Springfield restaurant and entertainment scene.
Instead of the burgers-and-hot-dogs menu originally contemplated by Via a long-time employee and, in many respects, business partner of Jim Santinello, who owns the Mardi Gras and other venues 350 Grill features a wide array of steaks, a Kansas City veal chop, and lobster ravioli. Its a mix, and a venue, that is drawing constituencies from downtown businesspeople to some of the bikers who invade the city on Thursday nights during the warmer months.
Things just kept evolving, said Via, who used that word early and often as she talked about this entrepreneurial venture in progress, which will soon celebrate its first year in business with high hopes and expectations for the future. One thing just led to another and, well, here we are.
While all that evolution has created a successful addition to Springfields entertainment sector, it has led to some growing pains as well, said Via, who brings roughly 30 years of experience in the hospitality sector to her role as proprietor of the Grill.
The kitchen, for example, is much too small and in other ways inadequate for the menu being featured. It has only eight burners, and thats clearly not enough, Via said, noting that this situation led to some early problems and even a few apologies from management concerning service.
But there are plans being readied to rectify that situation, she continued, adding that there are other remedial steps being taken or in discussion. First and foremost, the building to the other side of the restaurant, an eyesore for decades, will be razed this fall, providing space for additional parking, she said.
Meanwhile, the Grills menu continues to change, providing a degree of freshness that Via demands, and new wrinkles continue to be added. In other words, the evolution is ongoing.
The Pasta Is Prologue
Via acknowledged that some people might naturally have had doubts about whether last December was the time, and downtown Springfield the place, to be launching a new restaurant.
But she had no such doubts.
Although 350 Grill was a work in progress right up until the day it opened and even after the ribbon was cut she believed in the concept, and also in Springfield and its downtown.
I think Springfield can and will come back, and I believe were a part of that process, she said. What the city needs is some positive thinking about what has happened, and what will happen down the road.
Overall, the more businesses restaurants you have downtown, the better it is for everyone, she continued, clearly espousing the grow the pie theory of the hospitality sector that embraces competition. When that happens, you create vibrancy, and sooner or later, people will come to your establishment.
Via said her decision to press on and create the restaurant that patrons see today was based more on gut instinct than any real market research into whether such a venue was wanted or needed. And thus far, her instincts appear to be good.
Flashing back to early 2007, Via said the 350 Grill the original version of the eatery was born of need, specifically a desire to vastly improve the quality and quantity of lunch offerings for Mardi Gras patrons. Needless to say although she did say it in several ways the plans changed.
As renovations to what was a long-time dance club started to take shape, Via said she sensed an opportunity to go well beyond the original vision and create something far more upscale that would attract a larger and significantly more diverse clientele. Such an opportunity dovetailed nicely with her own career ambition to operate a fine-dining establishment.
What eventually emerged is called a steakhouse by some because there are several different cuts on the menu but it is much more than that, said Via.
There are a number of seafood options from sea bass to swordfish to shrimp florentine as well pasta dishes, chicken, lamb, and more. Meanwhile, the menu of appetizers, or tapas, is diverse and includes everything from artichoke francaise to veal meatballs.
The lunch menu, which has proven to be popular among the business crowd, has some usual suspects a signature burger, a Reuben, and a turkey melt, for example but also a grilled swordfish sandwich and a blue plate special.
Vias sister, Doreen, presides over the cramped kitchen as executive chef, and she changes up the various menus every four months, said Sherri, to keep the overall product fresh.
The need to continually alter and add to the menu is just one of many lessons Via says she learned over more than three decades in the hospitality business that she is now applying to 350 Grill. Others include everything from the need for a constant focus on value in whatever ways it can be achieved to keeping the bathrooms clean.
Ive been a waitress, a bartender, a hostess, a manager … you name it, Ive done it, she said. And Im glad Ive done all those things because I have insight into those jobs and every aspect of this business.
You learn a few things when youve been in this business as long as I have, she continued. The key is to successfully apply what youve learned.
Meanwhile, Via is tapping into her contacts within the business and cultural communities (shes on the board of directors of CityStage and Symphony Hall and is heavily involved with the local chapter of the American Cancer Society) to tap into those constituencies and thus grow her customer base through what is always the best marketing tool in this business word of mouth.
And while the first year or so in operation has generally exceeded most expectations, Via knows that the restaurant business is more challenging than most not in it would think. Consumers are fickle, she explained, and economic conditions can change the scene in a heartbeat.
Thats why shes focused on applying those aforementioned lessons, listening to customers, and responding with continuous changes and improvements.
A Job Well-done
Indeed, as she talked with Business-West, Via was getting ready for the lunch crowd and also a meeting with an architect to discuss options for expanding the grills kitchen.
Its not a question of whether that will happen, but how, she said, adding that, in many respects, the evolutionary process continues at this venue, which didnt take the shape of those original plans.
And no ones complaining.
George OBrien can be reached at[email protected]