Beau Sturm, 46, has worked in restaurants since he was 15, except for an ill-fated detour into the legal profession.
“I made a feeble attempt when I moved to Boston to work for a legal consulting firm and to go to law school. It didn’t even come close to getting off the ground,” he says.
Instead, he bartended and managed restaurants including the East Coast Grill, Highland Kitchen, and Silvertone. Now he co-owns Starlite Management Company, the comfort-food mavens that brought you Newburyport’s Paddle Inn, Somerville’s Trina’s Starlite Lounge and Parlor Sports, and Boston’s Audubon. His team will open The Sunset Club, a Southern California-inspired cantina, in mid-July on Plum Island.
Tell me about the new space.
It’s a great site. It’s almost an acre big, with 50-plus parking spaces and 164 seats; 85 percent of it is outside. We have a converted barn that we made into a bar and prep kitchen; a storage container is being built in Colorado for our kitchen.
We’re going with a Southern California cantina and taqueria kind of idea. It will be a little high and a little low. We’ll have tacos and stuff for kids, but then we’ll also, at sunset, try to do oysters. We’ll sell those until they sell out, with great ceviche. It’s a small but pretty fun menu. We’ll have nice champagne to go along with frozen margaritas.
Why choose Plum Island? Are city restaurateurs fleeing for the suburbs?
For us, it was completely accidental. The school district is really good. I had lived in Revere for almost 18 years and moved up here when the kids got to be school-age. I fell in love with the space that’s The Paddle Inn, walking by it every day. Things perpetuated from there. I got to be friends from the guys who own The Cottage, a surf shop on Plum Island. They own a bunch of real estate and were looking for someone to develop the idea. This was not a tactical move.
What was the hardest part of the pandemic for you?
All of it. I’m sure you get this with everyone: It was the most challenging year of my career. The mental aspect of it was really difficult, and every restaurant that we have had different challenges. Say Audubon in Boston: The vast majority of our business comes from BU, the Red Sox, and the hospitals. That is the brunt of the business at Audubon, and all three at the same time were completely shuttered.
You would think that with Eastern Standard and Kendall Square closing up that it would thrive. It was exactly the opposite, and Kenmore was empty and sad. There was nothing there. We tried really hard. We did everything we could to stay open, to pare it down to Taco Tuesdays, and that was pretty strong. We wanted to maintain our employees and retain key people, and it was super challenging and heart-wrenching, almost. That place has been there almost 30 years.
Starlite, in Somerville, was functioning on a completely different timeline for COVID. That was challenging in and of itself, just having to run with what Somerville’s regulations were, and it was a much different mental place for people. [Partner] Josh [Childs] came up with Starlite Snack Shack, which was well-received. We went from a full-service restaurant to a pickup window — physically changing the space over, with no money at all. Investing in a $30,000 soft-serve ice cream machine was a gamble, but it paid off.
In Newburyport, we were in a different place. Newburyport residents were much less fearful of the pandemic than people in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. For those of us who bounced back and forth, it was challenging to shift gears. [Chef] Suzi [Maitland] was doing cooking classes online, which carried us for the entire winter.
What was the biggest lesson from the pandemic?
I hate to say we did it right, but I feel like we did it right. Moving forward, there are a lot of lessons to learn; what’s important and what’s not. I think the priorities have changed for me: Now, I care much more deeply about the people who work with me at all the locations on a much more personal level. I’m proud of what we did at Starlite. This is a touchy subject, but people who were undocumented were completely supported. We were able to support them through the pandemic when they couldn’t go for government assistance. I will be eternally proud of that. And now, we are much more apt to reach out to one another on a personal level.
How do you think the summer will shake out?
In mid-July, we’ll reopen Parlor Sports, and our [Snack Shack] pop-up will be [closed]. I don’t know what I’m going to do with the ice cream machine. It’s back to business, and we have a patio in our driveway there, with much more seating than we’ve ever had. It’ super exciting. At Audubon, the Red Sox are back, hospitals are back. The numbers have been great.
So many restaurants have closed lately. What restaurant will you miss the most?
I have to say Eastern Standard. I’m sure everyone answers this. It’s a completely boring answer, but that place is fundamental for me. I was one of the first customers there, and I will miss it.
What needs to change going forward to keep restaurants alive?
The city bureaucracy needs to change. City councils and mayors were forced to do some things outside of their comfort zone to accommodate restaurants during the pandemic, like patios and grocery stores and to-go cocktails, and that was all done on the fly to try to keep people afloat and keep people alive. It was incredible. But now, it’s right back to the same old, same old.
That mentality needs to change; small businesses need to feel as supported as they did during the pandemic. It’s getting back to the same old political game.
Where do you go when you’re not working?
Home! I have two little kids. I do sneak out whenever I can to the Rusty Can in Byfield. It’s the best barbecue I have ever had. Sully, the owner, is the best guy ever. It’s a great neighborhood place. And in Somerville, if I’m not at the restaurant, I love Viale in Central Square. The fresh pasta is incredible.