The On the Street series looks at the past, present, and future of neighborhoods in Greater Boston.
At the outset of his hospitality career, Nelson Fernandes would get up each morning, walk across the street to the commuter rail station, and hop on the 7:20 a.m. train from Brockton to Boston. Arriving at work by 8 a.m., he’d spend the day in the kitchens of some of the city’s poshest hotels. But after commuting back to Brockton, there was nowhere for him to grab a great meal downtown.
“When I got home there was nothing for me to do," he said. “I would just eat dinner at my parents' house.”
Eventually, Fernandes and his father, Justino “JJ” Fernandes, a Cape Verdean immigrant who worked his way from dishwasher to executive chef at the Park Plaza Hotel, decided to bring their experience home. In 2013, they opened JJ’s Caffe, a breakfast joint in North Brockton that Yelp ranks as one of the top 100 places to eat in the United States. On Mother’s Day, customers queue up to three hours for a table.
But getting to the point where they could start serving brioche french toast and farmer’s market omelettes was a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario, Fernandes said.
“Something like that didn’t really exist in Brockton,” he said. “It was more of a diner-style city for the most part.” Too often, the city’s food entrepreneurs feared that if a local concept didn’t already exist, it couldn’t possibly succeed, he said.
It’s a challenge many Brockton restaurateurs say they’re still trying to overcome. When Sandra Martin opened Elvera’s Cafe on Main Street six years ago, she had customers looking at her sideways for serving homemade bagels and nitro cold brew coffee.
“Around here people literally run on Dunkin’,” she said. “I have people asking me for combos and home fries. They’re not used to an upscale coffee shop or making their own coffee.”
And when a group of local soccer dads recently decided to turn their passion for beermaking into Brockton Beer Co., their bank didn’t come through with their loan, telling them that the city couldn’t sustain a brewery — it was more of a Bud Light town.
“The sense that I got was that they didn’t think they were ready for craft beers,” said Eval Silvera, the company’s co-founder and community liaison.
Shifting the mindset that Brockton has working-class tastes has been a major goal for Rob May, Brockton’s director of planning and economic development. Several years ago, he recognized that the city’s palate was changing, but needed evidence that more urbane dining options could work downtown. He found it in Prova, a pop-up beer garden featuring local brewers and restaurants that the city began hosting on a vacant lot. Over the past two years, the series has drawn crowds from a cross-section of the city’s immigrant communities and provided something even more substantial, May said: “Prova is the Cape Verdean word for proof.”
City officials are now planning a more permanent outdoor venue for such events, and have created a $1.5 million restaurant development fund to help operators open their doors. They’re also matching state funds to improve signage for existing storefronts, and established outdoor dining ordinances earlier this year, which local businesses have been able to take advantage of during the pandemic, May said.
Prova also offered the five-person team at Brockton Beer Co. proof that their brewery could find an audience. The founders are Haitian, Jamaican, Filipino, and Canadian, and represent the city’s multicultural makeup, said Silvera, and the crowds at Prova also reflected that diversity. So instead of getting a loan, the brewers raised funds from their community and hit their goal of $107,000 earlier this month. They’re also tapping into the city’s restaurant development fund, and are now planning to open a 2,700-square-foot brewery in a new development at 121 Main Street.
Silvera said he’s been watching young professionals moving into the city from Boston, as well as natives raised in Brockton returning back home — and they’re helping shape the expectations for dining in the city. So while his bank “didn’t think they were ready for craft beers,” he said, "the last two years of watching Prova showcases that we’re more than ready.”
Fernandes, of JJ’s Caffe, said that while he’s been temporarily closed during the pandemic, he’s hoping the downtime will allow him, and the city, to strategize about growth. He said he too is looking to expand to downtown Brockton when the time is right.
“I’m 37, and for most of my entire life Brockton’s downtown has looked the way it’s looked. If you don’t have a vision, it’s very hard to see it as something that it’s never been in your lifetime,” Fernandes said. “But we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Lowell has been able to do a huge 180. You’re starting to see a lot of development in Worcester, Springfield, and Fall River. We can generate that same buzz.”
May is hoping that the arrival of new market-rate housing with first-floor retail will bring the kind of street life the city’s been craving.
“We’re rapidly becoming an 18-hour downtown, which is critically important to us,” he said. He points to the new additions like an ice cream shop, and a growing arts community downtown that includes the Enso gallery and the upcoming arrival of the Milton Art Museum.
“By God, we’re going to be a real city,” he said half-serious, half in jest. "It’s becoming a place that people want to live.”
Read more about Brockton and explore the full On the Street series.