Holding Up the Fort
New Owners Change the Face of a LandmarkAndy Yee remembers hearing his phone ring, recognizing the number as Peter Picknelly’s … and then grabbing a chair.
That’s because he had a pretty good idea why the chairman and CEO of Peter Pan Bus Lines was calling, and therefore he also knew that this was unlikely to be a short conversation.
He was right.
By the time it was over, the two business executives and serial entrepreneurs hadn’t actually finalized a deal to become partners in a plan to reopen and revitalize the Student Prince restaurant (a/k/a the Fort) in downtown Springfield, whose owners, the Scherff family, had announced their intention to close and hopefully sell the establishment. But they were well on their way.
It would take only a few more meetings to seal a deal that would eventually involve some other players as well, said Yee, a principal with the Bean Group, which operates three establishments in the area, most notably the Hu Ke Lau in Chicopee. And this was because all those involved recognized the importance — to them personally, but also to the region — of bringing back a restaurant that they described not with that noun, but instead with a host of others, including landmark, institution, icon, and ‘home.’
“The Fort is just a part of Springfield’s DNA,” said Picknelly, finding yet another phrase to describe the property at 8 Fort St. “I’ve been going there since I could walk, and now I bring my kids, and I want them to be able to continue going there.”
He now owns 50% of the business, with the other half split between Yee and Kevin and Michael Vann, the father-and-son principals of the business consulting group the Vann Group, who became involved early on in the process of sizing up if and how the Fort’s fortunes could be reversed — and by whom.
In interviews with the media just after it was announced that he would lead a team to acquire the Student Prince and reopen it, Picknelly used the word “tweak” early and often to describe what needed to be done with regard to everything from the décor to the menu.
But as Yee and Picknelly looked more closely at matters, they decided that tweaking wasn’t going to be nearly enough.
The partners are planning a major overhaul, but one they insist will not change the character of the establishment, but merely make it more appealing to a wider and deeper audience, especially the younger generations.
“We’re enhancing the charm of the Fort,” he said, adding that the beer-stein collection will remain — and be expanded — while other qualities of the landmark, such as the carolers during the holiday season, will be preserved. “Our design team says we’re bringing back old Germany, we’re bringing back old Boston, we’re bringing back old New York. The wonderful work that that the Scherff family did for eight decades will only be enhanced and improved upon.”The partners are putting in a new kitchen, tearing down the wall between the two bars that existed previously and installing a new one, and putting in new furniture, among other steps. But mostly, they say they’re opening things up and “connecting people” in ways the old configuration couldn’t.
As they discussed what’s happened since they got started with the project in late summer, both Yee and Picknelly said it’s been a labor of love for them, one that has revealed to all those involved just how revered the Student Prince was and how no one wanted to see talk of it restricted to the past tense.
They told BusinessWest that constituencies ranging from Springfield city officials to beer distributors to individuals they passed in the aisle at the supermarket have praised their efforts and said, in essence, ‘what can we do to help?’
“I was at an event recently, and I got surrounded by people saying, ‘thank you for saving the Student Prince,’” said Yee. “It’s been great hearing those kinds of comments — the message of us saving this brand is huge, not just in Hampden County, but Hampshire County as well.”
Picknelly agreed. “There’s an enormous sense of pride in bringing this iconic restaurant back. As I told my wife, it’s the right thing to do.”
For this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked with those involved with revitalizing the Student Prince about their efforts and the passion that drives them.
Art of the Deal
As he searched for ways to explain the importance of the Student Prince to his family — and the region as a whole, for that matter — Picknelly decided that he could best tackle that assignment by recalling a question — and especially the answer to it — that he put to his father, Peter L. Picknelly, on his 70th birthday, just a few years before he passed away.
“I asked him, ‘what are some of the most memorable things in your life?’” he recalled. “And one of the first things he mentioned was getting off the train after the Korean War and walking down Main Street toward the bus terminal, which was on Bridge Street back then. He came up to Fort Street, looked down, and saw Ruppert [Rupprecht Scherff] standing there. And he said, ‘I knew I was home.’
“I don’t know why he took the train instead of the bus,” he went on with a laugh, adding that he still gets emotional when he tells that story, which he has often over the past five months, since Scherff’s son, Rudy, told him his family — including his brother, Peter, and sister, Barbara Meunier — were looking to sell and asked whether he knew someone who might be interested in taking over.
Scherff made similar calls to others who had been friends and long-time customers, including Steven Roberts — president and CEO of F.L. Roberts and, like all the others involved in this project, a long-time patron of the Fort — who would help set in motion a chain of events that would bring a new ownership team together.
“I always saw the Fort as a symbol of Springfield,” said Roberts, who recalls going to restaurant shows with both Rudy Scherff and his father, Ruppert. “There were businesspeople that I had relationships with who came to Springfield once a year at least, to go the Fort restaurant — they loved it.
“I saw the possible disappearance of the Fort as an arrow in the heart of Springfield and its sex appeal, and I could not imagine that happening,” he went on. “I had to do something to help Rudy out of his dilemma.”
Roberts said his primary contribution was suggesting people that Scherff might turn to for assistance, and one of the first names he gave him was Kevin Vann, a consultant to many in the restaurant sector who described himself as a “first responder” in this rescue effort.
“Steve knows us and knows our history with hospitality and restaurants as far as consulting and business advice, and asked if I would take a peek under the hood,” Vann told BusinessWest, adding that he talked at length with Scherff about the situation at the Fort and gained a full appreciation of the financial situation.
Vann didn’t get into any specifics or provide any numbers, but summed things up this way: “Rudy sensed it was time for the Fort to get some help.”
So Vann and others set about getting him some.
With Picknelly ready to step in, the search commenced for a restaurant-sector veteran with whom he could partner to orchestrate the turnaround effort. One of Vann’s first calls was to the Yee family to gauge its interest in expanding its hospitality-sector influence into downtown Springfield.
“The Vanns had been counsel to the Yee family for many, many years,” he noted. “We looked around and wondered who we could bring in that knows how to operate restaurants, plural, successfully, and I thought of them immediately. Before you know it, we were all sitting at the table; it was kind of meant to be.”The Yee family brought more than a half-century of restaurant experience to that table. It was Andy’s father, Johnny, who started the Hu Ke Lau on Memorial Drive in Chicopee in 1965. He would eventually go on to operate several restaurants around the country before selling them off one by one.
Andy Yee and his siblings, Anita, Edison, and Nick, as well as several of their children, now operate three establishments — the Hu Ke Lau, Johnny’s Tavern in Amherst, and Johnny’s Bar & Grill in South Hadley (the latter two named after Johnny Yee, who passed away in 2003).
In all three establishments, the family has learned how to cater to the needs of various audiences, including the younger generations, said Yee, adding that this is a skill set that will be needed at the Fort.
When asked about what he thought happened to the Fort over the past several years, Picknelly chose his words carefully, not wanting to be critical of the family that kept the landmark open all those years.
He said, in essence, that the establishment had not kept up with the times and was not doing all it could to appeal to younger audiences. “They were not as agile as they needed to be,” he explained.
Bringing much more agility — and responsiveness to the wants and needs of younger constituencies — is the unofficial mission for the new leadership team, and Picknelly and Yee said they will carry out that assignment in a number of ways.
Indeed, as they talked about their plans moving forward and a slated reopening on the night before Thanksgiving, Picknelly and Yee noted that there is considerable work to be done at the Student Prince — starting with replacing the hundreds of items that grew legs between the time Rudy Scherff announced his intention to shutter the restaurant and when the doors actually closed.
“People took beer mugs, they took silverware, they took plates — at least a third of their plates are gone; people were putting them in their pocketbooks,” said Picknelly, referring to long-time patrons who wanted to bring a piece (or several pieces) of the Fort home with them when they left for what some felt might be the last time. “They were coming out with plastic utensils toward the end because they had no silverware left.”
Turning serious, the two said the task they’ve undertaken is to maintain the restaurant’s character, or “what made the Fort the Fort,” said Yee, while also modernizing it, creating that aforementioned connectivity, and making the landmark a preferred venue for the younger generations who have not supported it to the extent their parents and grandparents did.
Inside, the partners are giving the Fort a new, more open, more contemporary look, while still maintaining the old-world charm that patrons coveted.
Steps include a new kitchen, the revamped bar area, improved traffic flow for patrons and staff alike, new woodwork and chandeliers, and a much larger ladies room, something Picknelly mentioned as a real priority.
Meanwhile, there will be some changes to the menu as well.
“German food is very heavy,” said Yee, adding that many people, especially the younger generations, prefer lighter fare, and the new Fort will respond accordingly.
The key to long-term success — the partners, and most observers, are expecting a very strong start and holiday season — is getting the younger professionals to make the Fort one of their destinations, said Yee.
“We want to make sure that young professionals are frequent fliers at the Student Prince,” he told BusinessWest. “This has always been a venue for conducting business — personally, I’ve made a number of deals at those tables — and now we want this to be a place where these emerging young professionals can do business.
“We want them to come and see for themselves, and we’re going to be accommodating to their palates,” he went on. “They have certain likes that we’re attuned to and that we’ll provide.”
As they relayed memories of visits to the Fort decades ago, both Yee and Picknelly recalled the restaurant’s legendary glassware known as a boot — because that’s what it was shaped like.
A boot held nearly 30 ounces of beer, said Yee, adding that is now illegal to dispense brew in such quantities.
However, the partners say they will likely introduce a smaller, street-legal version of the glass, something that will honor the traditions and the charm of the landmark, but also work in this different era.
In a way, that’s what’s happening with every aspect of this turnaround effort, from the design of the bar to the items on the menu.
If it all meshes as Yee, Picknelly, and the other partners believe, then this critical part of Springfield’s DNA will have a chance to write much more history and create many more memories.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]