Star Quality

Slice California Caf? Looks to Rock in a Resurgent Holyoke
Star Quality

Chuck Hebler believes in the revitalization of Holyoke, and hopes Slice can be a part of it.

Chuck Hebler toured with some of the biggest names in rock ‘n’ roll. Today, he wants to be part of something big in Holyoke.

“We were one of the first backstage caterers that toured with bands back in the 1980s. We would go from city to city with a band,” said Hebler, who first prepared meals for musicians on the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour in 1989 and followed that with the U.S. tours of the Beastie Boys and Nirvana, among many others.

Hebler left the road in 1997 to settle down in his native Berkshires, opening the successful Napa restaurant in Lenox. But he was eventually drawn to downtown Holyoke — specifically, the growing Open Square development in a row of former mill buildings — where he opened Slice California Café last year, serving and delivering breakfast and lunch, with an eye to expanding to dinner service in the future.

“The goal is to take this from an obscure café in an obscure area and develop it into a Napa,” he said. “I want people to appreciate what I’m doing here and expand it as Holyoke expands.

“I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time,” he added. “Open Square will develop over the next 10 years, and we’re going to be part of that development.”

As part of its annual Restaurant Guide, BusinessWest takes a look at Hebler’s former life on the road and his plans for the future in a city he believes in.

That’s Entertainment

Hebler grew up around show business; his family did prop and wardrobe trailer rentals for ABC Studios in Los Angeles, and he spent a lot of time on TV sets.

“I saw the caterers on set, and I got interested in catering, the backstage side of it,” he told BusinessWest. But after graduating from culinary school, he turned to a different side of entertainment, cultivating opportunities to tour with rock bands as their backstage caterer, beginning with the Stones.

He wasn’t working directly for bands, but for production managers who represented a host of acts — and once that relationship was established, the sky was the limit. Hebler collected plenty of memories during those years, and also an appreciation for the professionalism of the artists who sat at his table.

“Mick Jagger liked steamed whitefish, steamed rice, steamed vegetables,” he said. “Red wine and white wine, but nothing in excess. He was super fit and had a personal trainer” — not surprising for someone who has since fronted a rock band well past middle age. Hebler also praised Jagger’s bandmate Keith Richards as “the nicest performer and most sincere person I worked with. He notices everyone, and he’s one of the truly genuine people.”

But he had similar words for a host of other artists — Billy Joel, Elton John, Kurt Cobain, Jerry Garcia, David Bowie, and Carlos Santana among them — and said most veteran stars are far more human, easygoing, and grateful than their public image might suggest. He recalled staying late after a Fleetwood Mac concert for an after-show dinner, and Christine McVie sent his staff a case of shirts and hats as thanks. “It’s 99% fun stories,” he said.

“Everyone in the industry realizes that, to keep your success and longevity, it humbles you. To hold on to what you have, I believe that humbles you. As soon as you start acting like, ‘hey, I’m a rock star,’ then you’re fading, you’re a one-hit wonder.”

On the contrary, the artists he worked with tended to be down-to-earth, Hebler said, remembering how Neil Diamond — sans toupee, cigar in hand, wearing a robe and Gucci slippers — would come around and ask, “Chuckie, what are we having for dinner tonight?”

When he wasn’t touring, he had plenty of opportunities to cater individual shows in the LA area, as well as for companies like Universal Studios and Western Digital.

But when Hebler’s daughter was ready to start kindergarten, he wanted to shift gears and settle down to a more consistent lifestyle. So in 1997 — following a catering gig at the 30th-anniversary Woodstock festival in New York — he bought a building in Lenox and turned it into Napa.

Taste of California

“We wanted to have some stability,” he said, and he found it — along with success, in the form of steady business at Napa for 12 years (with $1 million annually in sales) and an A rating from Zagat.

Napa was a medium-priced restaurant, with entrees selling between $14 and $26, and characterized by the California cuisine he was taught on the left coast. “It’s things like fresh salsas, avocados, seafood items, Cal-Tex food — which is Mexican-style food with a California twist — and regional foods.”

In fact, the emphasis on local foods that characterizes many restaurants in Western Mass. is a trend that began in California in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Hebler said, and it’s an ethos echoed in the Berkshires, as well as the Pioneer Valley.

“This region is amazing for its resources for local meats and local produce,” he said, adding that he’s in the process of choosing a local family farm with which to partner on vegetables for Slice. When his venture expands to a dinner menu, he hopes to get as much pork, beef, and chicken locally as possible, too. “I really want to be that kind of restaurant.”

But he also wanted to be part of something bigger. And when John Aubin, owner of Open Square, pitched him an open space, he was intrigued by the possibilities.

“He explained the area and what’s going on down here, and it was exciting. It seemed like something that was really starting to take off,” Hebler said, citing developments like the coming high-performance computing center and other ongoing efforts to breathe new life to the nation’s first planned industrial city.

“John has a vision, and we’re part of that vision,” Hebler said. “We’re trying to live the Open Square dream, so to speak.”

And he believes that small steps can make a big difference in a city, citing the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, whose redevelopment was a catalyst to bring the whole downtown to life. He sees similar potential in the ongoing restoration of Holyoke’s Victory Theatre.

“When that happens,” he said, “you’ll see a nice flow of customers from outside Holyoke, and I think that’s going to be beneficial to this whole area, and more restaurants will start popping up — maybe even restaurants that are tired of paying huge leases in Northampton, and want come be a part of what’s emerging here.”

He doesn’t think Holyoke will ever replace what Northampton brings to the region culturally and culinarily, but he believes its story might mirror what happened in the Paradise City, which was lined with empty storefronts only a generation ago.

“This would be such a complement to Northampton,” he said, “and everything in between is some of the best real estate in Massachusetts, and a great lifestyle.”

And Hebler is feeding those taking part in that rebirth, offering soups, sandwiches, burgers, salads, quesadillas, and daily specials ranging from pot roast to baby-back ribs — all marked by that emphasis on fresh ingredients he learned long ago in California.

Rocker at Heart

Hebler hasn’t sworn off the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle forever. Since settling in Massachusetts, he’s catered one-off shows for the likes of Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Springsteen — not to mention the Pope during his visit to Giants Stadium — and was offered a gig on the last Red Hot Chili Peppers tour.

He turned that down, choosing instead to continue focusing on cooking locally. But, having maintained connections with tour managers in New York and Boston, he doesn’t rule out future possibilities.

“You never know,” he said. “I could become a delinquent again. My midlife crisis.”

For the time being, “I want to develop this into something nice,” he said of Slice. “We have our great little breakfasts, lunches, and lattes, but that’s just the beginning. We need to keep on our game.”

Sales were adequate to sustain the endeavor over the first year, and as the customer base grows through word of mouth, Hebler is cautiously looking to the future — not just of Slice, but of Open Square and the vitality it could lend to this city.

“We have a seed in the ground, and we’re expecting it to grow,” he said. “No one knows what will happen next, but it’s been a pleasant surprise so far.”

For those invested in Holyoke’s future — both literally and figuratively — that’s a slice of good news indeed.

Joseph Bednar can be reached

at[email protected]

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